New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks (10) is wrapped up by Brandon Browner during the first day of Saints training camp practice at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. Thursday, July 30, 2015. (David Grunfeld, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Brandin Cooks seems almost too humble to proclaim himself as the New Orleans Saints’ No. 1 receiving target heading into 2015. Yet all of the signs point to Cooks becoming Drew Brees’ primary target.
Gone are two of the Saints’ top three leading receivers, with Jimmy Graham shipped to Seattle and Kenny Stills jettisoned to Miami. Marques Colston is the other player among the top Saints receivers from 2014. But Colston’s health and age (32) will probably hamper him from again serving as a No. 1-type wideout in this offense.
That leaves Cooks, the Saints’ first-round pick from 2014, as the most viable candidate to emerge as Brees’ favorite and most prolific target this season.
Brees or Sean Payton likely won’t bestow the No. 1 receiver role upon the former Oregon State standout. And no one would mistake Cooks for far more imposing No. 1 receivers such as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Atlanta’s Julio Jones, Dallas’ Dez Bryant or Denver’s Demaryius Thomas. Or even young studs like Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins or Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans from Cooks’ draft class.
The 5-foot-10, 189-pounder who turns just 22 in September, however, is confident he can churn out the type of numbers like the aforementioned larger pass catchers.
Receivers with small statures such as Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Baltimore’s Steve Smith Sr. have done so. Cooks thinks, so why can’t he?
“No doubt about it,” said Cooks when asked Friday if he could become the Saints’ main weapon. “That’s why I work so hard throughout the offseason. That’s what I focus on, to be able to come in and help my team and ultimately be a dominant player like that.
“I definitely feel like I can do that.”
I agree with Cooks’ line of thinking.
The Saints need Cooks to develop into that role quickly. But how soon can he become “the guy”?
It took the 5-foot-9 Smith three seasons in Carolina to become a top target, and about five seasons to become one of the league’s premier receiving threats. As for Brown, the 5-10 wideout broke out in his fourth season with the Steelers.
A receiver from Cooks’ draft class with similar body type dazzled the NFL in 2014 with one of the more memorable rookie campaigns as former LSU standout Odell Beckham Jr. grabbed the spotlight — literally with one hand.
But Cooks doesn’t feel added pressure to immediately make up for the lost production of Graham and Stills and live up to the performances of his second-year peers.
“There’s no pressure at all,” Cooks said. “The beauty of it is that we have so many guys around the field, whether we can hit you from the running back position or the receiver position or tight end. I don’t think there’s pressure on getting into the end zone. We’ve just got to go out there and play our game.”
Cooks has taken every step he can to transition from rookie hopeful to primary weapon in the Saints’ offense.
Cooks parked himself in San Diego throughout the offseason. He said it was for the perfect weather. But it just so happens a certain Saints quarterback makes his summer residence in that Southern California city as well.
Brees and Cooks spent the entire offseason together, working on routes and timing, and also spent more quality time at the Brees mid-summer academy.
“We trained together in San Diego before coming back out here and that guy was ready to go in February,” Brees said in June. “You had to tell him, ‘Hey, slow down young buck, we still have some time.’ But he has been chomping at the bit.
“Just watching him out here, I see so much progress just from a confidence standpoint, his knowledge of the offense now having been in it for a year and just how explosive he is. He is hard to cover.”
To make up for his diminutive size, Cooks is learning how to maximize his ability. He said improving strength was a primary focus in the offseason. The impetus was his lack of yards after the catch in 2014.
Via Pro Football Focus, Cooks ranked 62nd among receivers playing at least 50 percent of the offensive snaps last year with only 171 yards after the catch. Cook played only 10 games last season because of a broken hand, but his average wasn’t so hot. He ranked 65th with a 3.2-yard average after the catch.
Despite the likely added attention from defenses this season, Cooks feels certain he can make those numbers take a sharp upturn.
“I’m definitely more confident than what I was last year. … I go out there and my confidence level on knowing the plays is just day and night from last year,” Cooks said. “I think that’s one of the areas I improved on the most. Now I just have to go out there and play fast without thinking too much.”
Cooks has the ability and believes he’s capable of becoming the Saints’ No. 1 outside threat. His transition into “the guy” in Year 2 is paramount for the Saints.