Real Good, Real Fast
WHITE SULFUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The Greenbrier rises out of the rolling hills of Appalachia, a slice of heaven-on-Earth that you’d never expect to find just west of Route 60 in rural West Virginia. The Saints’ company line is that they had come here to escape the unbearable summer heat and humidity of New Orleans. That’s certainly understandable. But after spending three days at their training camp, I can’t help but think there was an ulterior motive: Hide Brandin Cooks from the world for as long as possible.
Sure, Cooks was a first-round pick out of Oregon State (20th overall) in May’s draft. Everyone recognized his talent. But since draft day, Cooks has been overshadowed by Sammy Watkins (Bills) and Mike Evans (Buccaneers), fellow receivers drafted before him, and even Kelvin Benjamin (Panthers) and Jordan Matthews (Eagles), selected after him. Don’t be surprised if Cooks outperforms all of them.
Quarterback Drew Brees is not the most excitable guy. He’s one of the best in the league because he’s as levelheaded as they come. That’s why it was notable that, after hitting Cooks on a 60-yard screen pass, on which Cooks looked like he was shot out of cannon (hello, 4.33 speed), Brees let out an audible, “Wooo!”
“That was awesome,” Brees said. “I knew we had a big play the minute they were bringing pressure from that side and we were able to get it to him. But man, watching his explosive ability to just navigate those blocks and hit a seam—if he hits the seam, he’s gone. I think that just gives you a taste of what we have in him.”
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The NFL is filled with young bucks bursting with the speed to take a screen pass to the house. If only the game were that easy. No, the key to success as a young receiver in the NFL is the little things. Most fail to deliver early because they don’t understand route running, how to find space in the defense and how to navigate coverages.
Even in the opening week of training camp, Cooks showed signs that he is well ahead of the curve. On the same day that he opened eyes on the screen pass, the better indicator of what lies ahead came when he and Brees perfectly executed a back-shoulder pass.
“[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,” Brees said.
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Cooks is even more impressive on plays that don’t catch the eye. For three days I studied his route running, and it was sharp. Cooks rarely rounds off routes, which can lead to defensive backs undercutting them. His routes aren't veteran-level precise yet, but they are advanced for a rookie. And when plays called for Cooks to find space in the defense and sit, he has the feel for where to drift and how long to wait.
Cooks’ total package, the combination of speed and savvy, caused problems for the Saints’ defense during camp.
“A bunch of people were saying, ‘I hope I don’t have to cover the guy.’ The people who were covering him were saying, ‘Bring me a little help,’ ” linebacker David Hawthorne says. “You can’t say enough about that speed. It seems like he gets shot out of rockets when he gets the ball in his hands. I’m just happy to have him as a teammate.”
Another good sign: According to his teammates, Cooks is very measured in his approach. He does things the right way, studies and has a high comprehension level, which is important in a Sean Payton offense that can be dizzying with the number of formations, personnel groupings and plays. Players talk about Cooks’ maturity, which is remarkable considering he’ll have three NFL regular-season games under his belt before his 21st birthday.
“It’s clearly real natural to him… [he] carries himself like a much older player,” says veteran right tackle Zach Strief. “[When] you talk about a guy you’d like to come in and have an immediate impact, you wonder, Is the scene too big? Is it too big to get a pass from Drew Brees? Is it too fast?
“He acts like an eight-year vet. He’s very calm, cool and collected. He’s very Marques Colston-esque, personality wise. He’s very quiet, just comes to work—all the things you want to see. I don’t know where we keep finding these receivers that don’t talk, but he’s another one that just goes out and plays well for us.”
Cooks has been put into a tough spot. Back in March the Saints traded running back Darren Sproles, who accounted for 3,048 yards from scrimmage and 21 touchdowns in three seasons for New Orleans, to the Eagles. Sproles’ role was part running back, part Swiss Army knife in the passing game. At least part of the responsibilities he leaves will fall to Cooks, who will also be asked to provide punch in the return game. It was certainly a gamble for Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, swapping a proven veteran for a rookie with more potential.
From what I saw at The Greenbrier, Cooks is going to pay off handsomely.