Underhill: Why Brandin Cooks hasn’t gotten off to the start many expected _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks (10) hauls in a pass against Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam Jones (24) during the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints lost 27-10.

Perhaps the expectations were always unrealistic.

Coming out of training camp, it looked like Brandin Cooks was going to run roughshod over the NFL. After a pair of joint practices with New England, Patriots coach Bill Belichick exclaimed that he’s “glad we don’t have to play him twice a year” and comparisons to Pittsburgh’s 5-foot-10 receiver Antonio Brown were made.

This was going to be Cooks’ season. Except, so far, it hasn’t – at least not in the way prophesized by many observers. The Saints’ 5-foot-10 receiver has caught 20 passes for 215 yards through four games. Brown, meanwhile, recorded 195 yards alone during a Week 2 game and is currently sitting on 34 receptions and 478 yards.

It’s time to set aside those kind of expectations. And, to be fair, it took Brown some time to become the player he is today. It’s possible Cooks could still achieve those heights down the road. But he’s first going to have to fight through some growing pains and figure out how to make his mark in this offense.

That’s probably a disappointing sentiment considering the conversations that were taking place in August, back when it looked like there were no ceilings on what Cooks might accomplish this season. However, the general disappointment surrounding Cooks’ start to the season stems largely from a lack of understanding of what he’s been up against thus far.

Many of the questions I receive via email and Twitter inquire about why Cooks isn’t getting open and if he’s capable of creating separation or getting off jams. He is getting open, he does create separation and while he’s not always successful, he’s doing a much better job of fighting through jams this season than he did as a rookie.

The issue Cooks is coming up against is that when he fights through one of those jams or gets down the field he often runs into a safety over the top, which limits his opportunities to make plays. After digging into the details, it makes sense that his numbers have been more limited than expected.

The simplest way to put it is that, without Jimmy Graham on the roster, Cooks has become the guy that defenses look to take away from the offense now. He’s been seeing the opposition’s best cornerback and more safeties than he likely saw a year ago. He’s the guy defensive coordinators are now looking to take away. That means life is a little more difficult than it was a year ago.

“Every team you can think of a guy, ‘Alright, if we don’t stop this guy it’s going to be a long day,’” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “And regardless if he gets targets or not, you spend so much time trying to take them out that guys that never really have catches end up with 100 yards.”

Any struggles Cooks endured the first two weeks of the season are not hard to understand. Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, who makes a living erasing receivers from game plans, blanketed the receiver during the first week of the season. Drew Brees was injured against the Buccaneers during Week 2 and struggled to make deep throws.

In Week 3, Cooks was matched up against Carolina’s Josh Norman, who is emerging as one of the better corners in the league, but he didn’t blank Cooks. The receiver often beat Norman down the field, but ran into a double team or found a safety shading him over the top on 12 of 38 routes.

It was the same thing during Week 4. Cowboys cornerback Mo Claiborne often matched up with Cooks and he ran into a double team or safety help on 13 of 47 routes.

It’s possible he the defense could have been shading or planning to double him more often in those games, but some plays did not develop long enough to see how the defense would have covered him. Either way, the doubles were frequent enough to suffocate some of Cooks’ opportunities.

“There are things that defenses will try to do to, in essence, double a player,” Brees said. “You try to work around that with certain elements.”

Due to not having many options deep, one of the things the Saints have done to get Cooks involved is to have him move inside at times or run routes over the middle.

He has caught five slats for 41 yards and five screens for 34 yards. Cooks has also caught passes running quick outs (two for 23 yards), in routes (two for 24 yards), curls (three for 25 yards), and crossing routes (two for 24 yards).

On deeper routes, Cooks has caught one pass on a post route for 18 yards and one go route for 30 yards. Of the 11 passes thrown Cooks’ direction that he has not caught, six were go routes. Two of those resulted in interceptions.

Those interceptions could have changed the narrative to Cooks’ season. If they had fallen into his arms instead of falling short where the defense could steal them away, would have inflated his stat line by 91 yards, bringing his total to 306. That would have Cooks sitting 19th in the league in receiving yards, just 1 yard behind the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham and Denver’s Emmanuel Sanders.

In that alternate reality this conversation doesn’t exist. Cooks is on pace for 1,200 yards and everything is fine. We’re talking about how he’s breaking out and on pace for greater things. Instead, he’s a guy on pace for 800 yards and it appears the offense is lacking explosive players.

Eventually, as the offense continues to figure things out, those opportunities are going to start leading to results. The ball will fall where it should and Cooks will start making bigger plays.

It won’t be easy. Cooks might have to fight through a jam or shake through a double team to make it happen, but that’s what life is like when you become the man defenses try to take away.