Since he became the New Orleans Saints' head coach and offensive mastermind in 2006, Sean Payton has always endeavored to put his skill players in unusual positions to make plays. Reggie Bush, the team's first-round pick in that first season, caught a career-high 88 passes, and brought in 294 for the team over five seasons. Payton's preference for motioning Bush from the backfield to the slot pre-snap caused defenses to alter their coverage paradigms because he presented an unpleasant problem for third linebackers when he became an extra receiver. Defenses started using more nickel against the Saints, subbing out their third 'backers for fifth defensive backs, which of course helped New Orleans' underrated run game. This was especially effective in 2009, the season in which the Saints won their only Super Bowl.
When Bush was replaced with Darren Sproles in 2011, that paradigm continued. Sproles was uniquely talented, and could alternate between so many places in the formation as a runner and receiver. He was Drew Brees' second "satellite back" -- the player who could force defensive uncertainty with his mere presence on the field.
But when the Saints traded Sproles to the Eagles in March, a new weapon was needed. Payton and Brees found the next iteration of their satellite player in a receiver, not a running back: Oregon State's Brandin Cooks. New Orleans took Cooks with the 20th overall pick, and many thought that Cooks would be used as a volume receiver more than anything else. It would make sense -- after all, he led the nation in 2013 with 1,730 receiving yards, catching 128 passes and scoring 16 touchdowns. But when USA Today's Tom Peliserro asked Brees about Cooks' potential in Payton's multiple offenses, a different story was told: Cooks was the next in a line of innovative ideas.
“Even though Darren Sproles played the running back position, we were creative with him,” Brees said. “We did a lot of things with him out of the backfield. We’d split him out. We’d throw him screens. We’d do all kinds of stuff with him. So, that role can be filled by maybe even a receiver.
“Hey, we go out in the draft and get a guy in Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State – an explosive player, great speed, great talent, tremendous young man, loves to learn, loves the game of football. … From all indications, this guy can do a lot of things for us, and he’s eager to fill a role that we need him to on offense.”
A role? More like roles, plural. And as it turns out, the college tape shows that Cooks is uniquely qualified to do just that. The Saints create separation with as diverse a series of schemes as any team in the NFL, and there are similarities between what Brees calls and what Cooks was involved in at Oregon State. This sweep at the start of the Beavers' 38-23 win over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24 was an ideal example of how defenses must alter their approaches to account for Cooks as a potential runner.
What Boise State did not do on this play was to drop one of their safeties down to mirror Cooks in motion. Oregon, for one, had done so earlier in the season and was able to contain Cooks in a relative sense. But the Broncos didn't have anyone who could match Cooks' short-area speed, and with nobody to close in on him at the right time, Cooks got to the second level quickly and with little resistance.
Two plays later, quarterback Sean Mannion hit Cooks for 21 yards on a short-angle comeback -- the kind of quick pass you see from the Saints pretty frequently. It was up to Cooks to make something of this play, and he certainly did.
Another way in which the Saints will surely use Cooks is in twin and stack release concepts. New Orleans uses these quite often in the passing game, and Sproles was frequently involved, especially in the inside slot. In these schemes, receivers are grouped tightly together, either slightly offset or with one on the line of scrimmage and the other about a yard behind. In Oregon State's 44-17 win over Colorado on Sept. 28, Cooks showed how he gets free and upfield using a similar idea. The result was a 36-yard gain.
The replay of this play shows an excellent close-up of how both receivers got free against Colorado's defense. When defensive backs are playing close, especially in man alignments, route diversity is an optimal way to create openings. And again, once Cooks gets a little bit of free space, it's off to the races.
“Oh man, I’ve seen all the highlights, and that gets you excited,” Brees concluded. “I think he can do a lot of things. I think he can play outside receiver. I think he can play inside in the slot. You can hand him reverses. You can throw him screens. He can return punts. He’s a very versatile player, very explosive player that you just want to get the ball in his hands and get it to him in space and good things will happen.”
Of course, there are ways in which Cooks and Sproles are not similar. The point here is not that the Saints are trying to take a 5-foot-10, 189-pound receiver and somehow make him do the same things a 5-6, 181-pound running back will do. Sproles is a red-zone threat as an inside runner who can block well and will run different and shorter routes. Cooks is a route-savvy receiver who has been used in ways similar to everyone from Percy Harvin to Cordarrelle Patterson to Sammy Watkins -- outside, in the slot, with some backfield looks, and definitely as a legitimate running threat. So, when Brees talks about a similarity to Sproles, he might be speaking in a more general fashion. It could be that, as some other NFL teams have done, the Saints are about to take their more traditional offensive notions and add new flavors of multi-positional razzle-dazzle.
What makes that work is the fact that there are so many concepts with which Cooks is already familiar; it's easy to look at Oregon State tape and see a lot of natural fits
"To be honest, it intersects," Cooks said at the 2014 Rookie Premiere when asked how his old and new offenses are similar. "We both have a pro-style system; a West Coast offense and some creativity going on. The terms are different, but other than learning the concepts, it's been pretty easy."
In this case, familiarity could breed even more explosive plays for New Orleans' offense.
NFC South's most impactful rookie
In this clip from SI.com's Audibles podcast, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss the 2014 impact rookies in the NFC South.