The New Orleans Saints have built their window of contention upon one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history. Apart from the Super Bowl-winning 2009 season, Drew Brees' right arm and Sean Payton's offensive innovations have largely carried the Saints. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, only the Patriots have scored more points over the past three seasons than Brees and Co.
However, recent salary cap woes have come to roost. This offseason, the Saints lost a pair of important role players in Lance Moore and Darren Sproles. With Jimmy Graham's uncertain contract situation looming, Brees' supporting cast appeared tenuous this offseason.
Thus, the addition of Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the 2014 NFL draft was invaluable. Cooks is the type of versatile dynamic game-changer who dovetails perfectly with Payton's creative usage of formations and personnel.
It's too early to say whether or not Cooks is the type of foundational offensive star who can pry open the Saints' championship window for a few more seasons. If he is to hit that lofty ceiling, here's a look at a few ways New Orleans could maximize his immense physical gifts.
Success in the Slot
At heart, the Saints passing offense succeeds because of the mismatches they create. Their plethora of offensive formations and shifts force defenses into uncomfortable matchups, and Brees is terrific at identifying and exploiting those vulnerabilities.
While Payton's offense is too complex for exact classification, there are West Coast elements that make slot receivers indispensable to the system. As SBNation.com's Kevin Skiver illustrates, the underneath game is the primary setup for bigger plays:
The Saints run a glorified West Coast offense at this point in time. It has a lot of bells and whistles, but at the end of the day it relies on underneath routes and the running game to draw defenses in before tearing them apart down the field. This is the reason that receivers like Robert Meachem can be effective. He's an above-average run blocking receiver with the ability to blow the top off of a defense, which makes more sense of his re-signing on Friday.
The numbers support that assertion. Looking at the past three years, we can see that Graham, Moore and Marques Colston—the Saints leading perimeter targets—frequently lined up in the slot. New Orleans' egalitarian passing distribution means that they weren't always targeted in the slot, though that is true of every Saints skill position player:
|Year||Player||Slot %||Target %|
via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
While Cooks is a far different type of receiver than most of those names above, there's some potential overlap between his skill set and that of the departed Sproles. Because Sproles often drew coverage from safeties or linebackers, the Saints used his quickness edge to create leverage on route stems. Here, an out-and-up double move baited Dolphins safety Reshad Jones, leading to a huge gain:
Cooks is similarly skilled at creating separation through hesitation moves and head fakes. The ex-Beaver has world class speed and agility—per NFL.com, he had the fastest 40-yard dash, fastest shuttle and 10th-fastest three-cone drill times among wide receivers at the combine. So while he primarily played the X position at Corvallis, Sean Payton has already talked about using him both outside and in the slot:
NFL defenses are trending towards increasingly larger defensive backs; the Saints themselves may have even reached for 6'3" corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste right after selecting Cooks. Thus, it makes more sense to use the diminutive Cooks as either a slot or flanker "Z" receiver, where he can work off the line and have more room for his short-space explosiveness to take over.
And make no mistake, Cooks is deadly when defensive backs take even one false step. He'll be able to make the quick cuts necessary for slants, hitches and other three-step route concepts. Things really get fun when Cooks receives a free release and "two-way-go" (the ability to release either inside or outside):
The play above was incomplete because of an errant throw forced by the pass rush. However, Cooks demonstrated how fluid his hips were, allowing him to explode out of a cut that left the corner flailing. It's paramount that a slot receiver can change direction without "gearing down," and Cooks has that trait mastered.
In addition, Oregon State used Cooks on a variety of bubble screens. New Orleans reaped many rewards through their utilization of Sproles in the screen game. It would be a surprise if they did give Cooks a similar chance to exhibit his open-field speed:
It seems clear that Cooks can replicate most of what Sproles provided in the passing game. Of course, while Sproles was a valuable piece in the Saints offense, first-round picks are typically centerpieces of their units. In order to become that type of difference-maker, Cooks needs to provide more than just the short option.
Deep Threat Outside the Numbers
While most people imagine deep threats as long striders with a huge catch radius (Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss, etc.), Cooks has the wheels to become a DeSean Jackson-like vertical weapon. The Jackson comps aren't new, as the reviews were positive on Cooks' pure speed at rookie minicamp:
Remember the block quote above that established how the Saints use horizontal West Coast concepts as the staple of their passing game? The payoff comes in the vertical change-ups, as Graham and Colston have made a living off deep seam routes. Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, only the Eagles have hit more pass plays of 20 or more yards since 2009.
However, even with those gaudy numbers over that time span, the Saints' deep passing game has been on a steady decline. Part of that stems from the departures and/or diminished roles of deep threats Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem. Nevertheless, Brees' deep passing accuracy has shown a steady decline since 2009:
|Year||Accuracy %||NFL Rank|
via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
Cooks represents the type of target who could rejuvenate those flagging numbers. He is much more than a track star, as the route-running savvy dissected above also applies to his deep routes. Some players are big and gifted enough to simply run a go route without much nuance and still make a leaping catch over the defender. Cooks is not that physical freak, but he still beat defenders deep routinely:
Let's take a closer look at how Cooks won on that sequence against Utah corner Keith McGill, a fourth-round pick of the Raiders this year. Cooks likes to stutter step to set up the corner, especially in close proximity. On "9" routes, receivers typically burst off their back foot to generate forward momentum and build up a head of steam to zoom past the backpedaling corner. Even with his speed advantage, Cooks chooses not to take that route of attack:
McGill is 6'3" and tries to overwhelm the smaller Cooks in press coverage. However, when Cooks comes out of his stutter step to burst forward, he's quick enough that McGill can't get his hands in Cooks' chest. Now, Cooks has the corner bending at the waist with his weight over his ankles, never a good situation:
That forward lean cost McGill valuable steps. By the time he recovers, there is nothing he can do but fruitlessly grab the waist as Cooks speeds past him en route to a huge gain:
This play illustrated the same route-running precision we saw on shorter routes. That Cooks is able to apply those concepts to deep routes illustrates an understanding of his strengths and how to best exploit the bigger corners like McGill he'll see in the NFL. So while he may not be a true outside receiver, Cooks shows a capability to run the full route tree, making him a multifaceted weapon for the Saints.
While it's more fun to talk about Cooks' strengths, maximizing his production also entails avoiding his weaknesses. Thus, it's equally instructive to see where the Saints should avoid deploying the first-rounder.
The most obvious issue for Cooks is his 5'10", 189-pound frame. Though he beat the larger McGill on the play above, it will be difficult for Cooks to win every down against press coverage. As Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen opines, Cooks will face a transition period facing more refined press technicians in the league:
The question that remains, however, is his ability to align outside of the numbers. Can he beat press in a plus-three split (three yards on top of the numbers) to run the 9 (fade) route or use a hard, inside stem to work to the dig, post, etc. versus pro talent?
Cooks didn’t see a ton of press looks at Oregon State, but even if he did, the majority of college defensive backs play with suspect technique when they are asked to jam, slide (or mirror) and transition (open hips and run).
There are other potential drawbacks of his size. Most distressingly, Cooks could simply get injured, as he figures to run plenty of routes over the middle. That's obviously a concern with any player, and it's encouraging that Cooks never missed a game in college. Still, as he demonstrated in avoiding this hit from fellow first-rounder Deone Bucannon, Cooks' hands can be iffy in traffic:
At some point, Cooks will need to remedy that issue. That drop was not an isolated incident, and given that he will likely play the flanker or slot to avoid the press coverage from bigger outside corners, Cooks will face plenty of hits from thumping safeties like Bucannon.
Moreover, for someone with his speed and agility, one would expect Cooks to have more open-field elusiveness. When he gets a clear path, his speed takes over, but his vision is much more limited than one would expect. Draft pundits criticized USC's Marqise Lee for his lack of big-play ability, but Lee had a higher yards per catch average for his career than Cooks, 14.7 to 14.5. Situations like this limited Cooks' impact:
Cooks has already caught the ball, and while several players are closing fast, he should have enough speed to split the corner and linebacker. A safety may very well take him down, but he could at least come close to the first down. Instead, as you can see, his weight is on his back foot, as he plans to try and spin out of the oncoming defenders. The end result is a minimal gain:
Vision is not really a teachable trait, so Cooks is unlikely to turn into a prolific YAC receiver. It does not necessarily prevent Cooks from being a good slot receiver, but it's something that could place a cap on his overall effectiveness.
Even though Cooks will have some irreconcilable issues stemming from his size, the overall picture is still extremely promising. With a combination of world-class speed and a high football IQ, Cooks should fit well into the Saints offense.
The real question is whether or not Cooks is the type of piece who could elevate New Orleans to another Super Bowl. Admittedly, that might be asking too much from his rookie season. Cooks could open the year as low as the fourth option in the passing game, behind Graham, Colston and Kenny Stills.
What level of importance does Brandin Cooks hold to the Saints offense in 2014?
However, as Football Outsider's Scott Kacsmar illustrated, offenses leaguewide are starting to dole out more snaps to younger players. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl last year with the youngest offense based on weighted snap average, though such an extreme example of success is not a yearly occurrence.
But more jarringly, the Saints were the oldest offense based on FO's metrics. The unit will be just fine so long as Brees holds up, but there exists a clear need for a young playmaker to rejuvenate a core that no longer has as much depth as in years past.
Cooks represents the proverbial fountain of youth for Brees. His unique skill set allows the Saints to sustain the versatility that has been integral to their success. Ultimately, Cooks gives New Orleans more ways to stretch and ultimately break opposing defenses, providing Brees an important option as he heads into his twilight years.