When the New Orleans Saints chose Brandin Cooks in the first round of the NFL draft in May, viewers didn’t imagine that he’d shine exclusively in the passing game under coach Sean Payton. They also figured Cooks could provide a spark that has been absent from the Saints’ punt return game, which hasn’t produced a touchdown since Darren Sproles brought one back 72 yards in the first week of the 2011 season.
That hasn’t been the case as the Saints opened 2014 with two wins and three defeats. Cooks gained a measly 10 yards on five punt returns in those contests, and he waved for fair catches seven other times. Two other New Orleans returners have fielded six more fair catches, meaning the team has averaged a little more than a half-yard on its opponents’ 18 punts.
That phase of the game was among the chief things the Saints coaching staff studied during last week’s open date, Payton said Friday.
“It’s an area we need to be better at, and we feel like we have a guy that can return them,” Payton said. “When I look at it ... I think the returner is ready. I think the other 10 (players on the field) need to be.”
In Payton’s diagnosis, the Saints aren’t lacking effort on punt returns. But the players tasked with paving the way for Cooks have struggled to use proper blocking technique as well as grasp the return scheme, he said.
Mastering both is crucial to winning the field-position battle in the modern NFL, Payton added. Touchbacks have increased dramatically since the league moved kickoffs up from the 30-yard line to the 35, so punts provide better chances at impact returns.
Cooks, for his part, admitted returning punts in the NFL is noticeably different than it was in his final year at Oregon State. Having returned 12 punts for 72 yards with the Beavers, Cooks said Friday that many punts in college were rugby-style, in which the punter rolls out to one side before kicking the ball away. That gives punters extra time to kick and makes it easier to direct the ball to the side they want it to go, though it’s at the risk of being tackled.
Pro teams trust their punters and coverage teams much more than college squads do, and they’re leery of the dangers associated with the rugby-style rollout. So “no one’s rugby punting in the NFL,” said Cooks, who leads Saints receivers with 32 catches for 255 yards and a touchdown.
Nonetheless, despite Payton’s comments that he wasn’t the problem, Cooks was disappointed that he hasn’t done more damage returning punts.
“That just starts with me — being the athlete that I am, I should be able to do that, and I take that responsibility,” said Cooks, whose time of 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash at February’s scouting combine was the fastest among wide receivers. “I just have to be better at that.”
While the Saints are now focused on helping Cooks achieve that, it would be tough for the breakthrough to occur when New Orleans visits Detroit (4-2) at Ford Field on Sunday. The Lions’ Sam Martin is No. 2 in the NFL in punting average (49.1 yards), tied for fifth in net average (43.1) and tied for ninth in fair catches (eight).
“He’s able to punt to ... the spot that he wants it to be for his coverage team,” Cooks said. “He has good hang time on top of that ... and that’s why he’s able to limit people’s return yardage.”