Tuesday June 23rd, 2015

After Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks takes off from the line of scrimmage it all becomes a blur. Gliding down the field with strides that more closely resemble those of a gazelle than an NFL player, the New Orleans wideout is proving he’s one of the fastest players in the NFL, and at a mere 21 years old, he's just getting started.

Cooks first broke into the league spotlight at the 2014 NFL Combine, where he posted the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.33), winning the $100,000 offered by Adidas to the Combine's quickest athlete. In humble fashion, Cooks spent that first NFL payday on a new Mercedes-Benz for his mom, and subsequently signed on to be an ambassador for the brand. After the Saints selected Cooks with the 20th pick in the draft, it was time for the wide receiver to prove he was worth the risk. And as training camp progressed, it seemed like Cooks and quarterback Drew Brees had already been playing together for years.

"Man, watching his explosive ability to just navigate blocks and hit a seam," Brees told The MMQB at the time. "He hits the seam, he’s gone. ... [That] early in camp, for that to look like it’s automatic, like we’ve been doing that for five years, that’s great to see,”

But when Cooks finally stepped foot on the field in a Saints uniform, things didn’t go as planned. After nabbing seven touchdowns, and a total of 550 yards on 53 receptions, Cooks had his season cut short when he suffered a broken thumb in Week 11, effectively relegating him to the sidelines to plot on how he could come back stronger, wiser and faster in 2015.

“My type of game is being explosive and fast,” says Cooks, who spent the offseason working on improving his speed while training in San Diego, an exercise akin to adding horsepower to a Ferrari. “From sled pushes to sled pulls, tire flips, box jumps, squatting, anything that has to do with using the full body to explode we hit it [during training].”

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

While most trainers would prescribe similar exercises to improve an athlete’s speed and explosiveness, Cooks holds a few tricks up his sleeve when it comes to training out on the West Coast. “I usually go to the beach just to get a different surface to plant on,” says Cooks. “That’s my little getaway workout that I do a couple of times a week to take impact off the body, but at the same time get a good workout and a good run in.”

Cooks also found time to get his mind off of football while still putting in work, ticking off the names of different trails on his hiking bucket list. “So far I’ve gone to Potato Chip Rock, Double Peak Park, and obviously Torrey Pines—that’s the one everyone has to go to when they come to San Diego,” explains Cooks. “I go on hikes to just get a different view of life and think about the little things that I overlook during the week because my mind’s so focused on football.”

Training with Frank Kaminsky: The big man steps it up for the NBA draft

During the season, however, part of the battle for Cooks will be to stay healthy and available. On Sundays, he takes a break from training, instead focusing his efforts on recovery. Cooks’ favorite part of that process is spending as much time as he can in a hyperbaric chamber, an environment which has higher air pressure than normal, which allows your blood to carry more oxygen for faster recovery. “I usually get in there every night,” says Cooks. “After practice or after a game, I just sleep in there for a couple hours to rejuvenate the body.”

A popular recovery method among pro athletes, the tight chamber, Cooks says, is extremely compact, to the point that even the toughest NFL player can lose his cool. “I remember one time, getting stuck in there for a while, and I started freaking out,” Cooks says with a laugh. “I still get the jitters when I get in there. It’s definitely one of those things that I don’t think you ever get used to.”

Entering his second season in the NFL, Cooks is looking to prove his performance in 2014-15 was merely a fluke and that the initial hype surrounding the 5'10" 189-pound receiver was more than justified. So far, he’s done just that, showing off his trademark speed, improved explosiveness and a sharper football IQ in the first part of training camp, leading to growing expectations that he'll have a breakout season in Year 2.

For his part, all Cooks can do is make sure that he's prepared for the moment—and with two crucial offensive contributors from last season (Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills) now playing elsewhere, along with the strides he’s made since his breakout Combine performance, it looks as if Cooks will have plenty of opportunities to show the world just how fast he can go.

How to improve your speed

Tips provided by Loren Seagrave, Director of Speed & Movement at IMG Academy

Thigh Pop: The first step to improving speed is teaching your mind and body to run using proper mechanics. The first part of that process is the thigh pop. Standing up, try to get your thigh forward as quickly as you can, effectively creating a kicking motion (almost like kicking someone in front of you in the shins). Repeat this for each thigh, popping each thigh forward as you walk. Then, increase the intensity by integrating this motion into marching exercises, and eventually running exercises that you're comfortable with.

Thigh Pop
Jason Lee for Sports Illustrated

​​​​Acceleration Runs: On the track or in the grass, integrate the thigh pop into general acceleration drills. The key in this drill is to ensure you put your foot on the ground as quickly as possible. In speed drills, tenths and hundredths of a second are what you’re trying to cut down on, so every motion counts. Keep your foot low, pop your thigh forward and be aggressive in putting your foot back into the ground. You can also improve by dragging your feet behind you on the turf, which will help keep the foot as low as possible.

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