Photos: Big-name Saints like Max Unger, Brandin Cooks, C.J. Spiller hit field at OTAs _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks grabs a punt return Thursday during organized team activities at the Saints training facility. Cooks caught 53 passes for 550 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games before breaking his thumb last season.

Brandin Cooks can feel a difference.

Two OTA sessions into his second season with the Saints, Cooks no longer has to think through every play call, mentally check every detail of his assignment and then double-check himself as the play developed.

Now, fully healed from the broken thumb that ended his rookie year prematurely, Cooks finds himself automatically processing all of those details right away, almost like an involuntary reaction, like the way the drive in to work becomes so familiar for most people that they don’t have to consciously think about making this turn or getting into that lane; it just happens.

For Cooks, the offense is starting to feel that familiar.

“Definitely ahead of where I was last year, just mentally in the game, knowing my plays and having that true confidence out there when I’m running around,” Cooks said. “Some of that thinking I was doing last year can really slow you down. When you take that out of it, now you’re just really playing freely.”

At this point last summer, Cooks had barely spent any time in New Orleans. Because of an NFL rule that bars rookies from participating in offseason workouts when their college class is in session and Oregon State’s status as a school that separates its academic calendar into quarters, Cooks couldn’t be on the field in early June last summer. Andrus Peat, the Saints’ first pick this season, has been largely absent from offseason workouts so far because of the same rule.

Cooks still found a way to catch on quickly.

Part of a rookie class of wide receivers who arrived in the NFL and tore up defenses almost from Day 1, Cooks instantly carved out a key role in the New Orleans offense, catching 53 passes for 550 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games, numbers good enough to finish fourth on the team despite the broken hand that cost him the final six games. If Cooks had simply been able to stay on the pace he set during the first half of the year, he’d have finished with 85 catches, 880 yards and five touchdowns, numbers that would have fit right in with the rest of his rookie class.

But Cooks felt like he could have done more. When he sat down and evaluated his rookie season, he saw plenty he could have done better.

“The physical part of the game, and actually coming down to technique now,” Cooks said. “You can’t just run away from everybody like you did in college, you have to have your technique down to a tee.”

The hardest part might have been that Cooks was showing signs he might be ready to take off when the injury hit.

Cooks was mostly a possession weapon in the first six games of the season, averaging just 8.2 yards per catch as he acclimated to the NFL. Then something seemed to click. Sparked by a six-catch, 94-yard performance against Green Bay, Cooks averaged 14.1 yards per catch in the next four games, finally showcasing the blinding speed he’d shown during the draft process.

Breaking his thumb took Cooks out of the lineup right as he was starting to really click with Drew Brees.

“Ending the season with an injury, certainly not the way you want to go out, especially for a guy who is used to being durable and tough and playing through anything,” Brees said. “That was just one of those unfortunate deals, but I know he has been chomping at the bit now for a while now.”

Brees has already noticed a different Cooks on the practice field this offseason.

“The more time on task we have together, the more we can build that relationship,” Brees said. “I know this about him, he already came back better then he was before, and I think just mentally tougher, stronger.”

New Orleans needs Cooks to blossom into a game-breaker in his second season. Now that Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills are gone, Cooks is expected to be the featured player, a weapon Brees and Sean Payton use in a variety of different plays.

Cooks said he feels like he’s ready to assume a bigger role in the offense.

“That’s the thought process, but we have a bunch of weapons, new additions like C.J. (Spiller), and the other receivers we’ve got,” Cooks said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they use me and how they use all of us.”