When the New Orleans Saints traded up to the No. 20 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft to select Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks, they made one of the league’s most consistently prolific offenses even more bloodcurdling for opposing defenses to deal with.
If the Saints hadn’t moved up to take Cooks—a deal that cost them their third-round pick (No. 91 overall) to climb the board seven spots—they likely would have missed out on him. The Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns all stood as teams sitting between the Saints and the Arizona Cardinals, the team who moved down with New Orleans, as threats to take Cooks.
As will be described below, Cooks has the tools to succeed in any NFL offense. But of all the possible situations he could have landed in, the Saints seemingly present an ideal situation within which he can thrive.
Why Cooks was Worth Trading Up For
Any wide receiver who leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in receiving (1,730 yards in 2013) and then goes on to the NFL Scouting Combine and runs the fastest 40-yard dash (4.33 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (3.81) and 60-yard shuttle (10.72) among all wide receivers is going to be a very high selection in the NFL draft.
Having proven his receiving skill on the field and his athleticism in predraft workouts, Cooks has left little reason to doubt his ability to emerge as a highly productive playmaker in the NFL.
It might be an overused phrase, but Cooks truly is a big-play threat every time the ball comes his way. He proved that in 2013 when he led all players in the FBS with 35 plays of 20 yards or more, according to CFBStats.com.
At times, Cooks can simply use his blistering speed to beat a defender deep for a long downfield reception, such as he did at the 5:06 mark of the following video from Draft Breakdown.
Where Cooks can really create havoc, however, is in his ability to turn short passes and screens into breakaway plays. Even in that capacity, sometimes all the playmaker needs is his speed and his vision, as was the case on a 29-yard touchdown vs. Washington this past season (see 6:12 mark in the following video).
Beyond being fast, Cooks is also very elusive. He can subtly shake a defender with a dance move or press the circle button to spin away from a tackler. And although he measures in at just 5’10” and 189 pounds, he has also shown that he can run through contact and expose sloppy tackling.
When he uses his agility and/or his toughness to break free to the open field, his speed can once again become his magic bullet.
Although the following play versus Washington last season was brought back to a point where he stepped out of bounds, it’s still a prime example of how pernicious Cooks can be with the football in his hands.
Cooks’ big plays were the driving force in his emergence as a top prospect in the 2014 draft, but the Saints can also count on his reliability. He is a sharp intermediate route-runner who consistently secures the ball in his hands. When tracking a pass in the air, he is very good at finding the ball with his eyes and adjusting his positioning when necessary to make the play.
Neither will be his calling card at the next level, but Cooks also brings the ability to contribute on running plays and experience returning punts.
There are some limitations to Cooks’ game. His aforementioned lack of size puts him at a disadvantage in downfield, contested-catch situations with bigger defensive backs. He has some issues separating from jams against press coverage, and he offers very little as a downfield blocker on running plays.
Fortunately for Cooks, the Saints have an offense that should be capable of not only allowing him to play to his strengths, but which can also obscure his weaknesses.
How the Saints Offense is Set Up for Cooks to Thrive
Lining up with Drew Brees and the Saints is a promising opportunity for any offensive playmaker, especially one like Cooks who figures to have a prominent role from day one. Ever since Brees took over as New Orleans’ quarterback in 2006, the Saints have ranked within the NFL’s top six in total offense with at least 5,780 total yards every year.
Perhaps more important to Cooks than the overall success of New Orleans’ offense, however, is his ability to play within it.
Although he regularly lined up outside at Oregon State, he is best-suited, given his smaller stature, to play inside as a slot receiver in the NFL. Against more physically gifted cornerbacks at the next level, Cooks won’t be able to rely solely on his speed to gain deep separation and will face more contested downfield situations that favor his defensive opponents.
In New Orleans, he should have plenty of opportunities to line up in the slot. Although the Saints use a wide variety of offensive packages, they almost always have at least one inside receiver in their formations and regularly have multiple.
Much like the other receivers on the team, Cooks will play both outside and inside as a result of New Orleans’ offensive variety. That’s a good thing. With a weapon as dynamic as Cooks, Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael should be as creative as possible in finding different ways to get the ball in Cooks’ hands and create openings and/or mismatches in defenses.
Saints head coach Sean Payton has described the No. 20 overall pick as “versatile,” according to ESPN.com’s Mike Triplett.
He’s obviously a receiver [first and foremost]. And I think we can line him up in the slot, line him up outside. [He has a] very good skill set with regards to acceleration, speed, catches the ball well. And I like his toughness.
Don’t expect the Saints to waste any time making Cooks a key part of their game plan. While tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Marques Colston should continue to be the team’s primary receiving targets, the team’s decisions to trade running back Darren Sproles and release wide receiver Lance Moore this offseason opened up a necessity for other offensive playmakers to step up.
That’s where Cooks comes in. He’ll likely start out behind Kenny Stills on the Saints’ wide receiver depth chart, but it’s unlikely that Robert Meachem or anyone else on the New Orleans roster will keep him from immediately emerging as the team’s No. 3 wideout.
He’ll be directly replacing Moore, who saw most of his playing time in the slot last season. That said, you can expect Cooks to be a bigger impact player than Moore, who had a disappointing year, catching just 37 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns in 2013.
Despite playing a different position and not being a particularly great runner—he is too hesitant behind the line of scrimmage and needs to be able to consistently attack north and south if he is going to find success in the NFL on running plays—Cooks should be a key for the Saints in replacing Sproles, who had been one of New Orleans’ most useful playmakers over the past three years.
In each of his three seasons with the Saints, Sproles actually had more production as a receiver than he did as a rusher. While New Orleans regularly had him run routes or catch screen passes out of the backfield, the speedy and shifty halfback was also split out to play slot receiver in spread passing formations.
New Orleans probably won’t use Cooks much as a receiver out of the backfield; Pierre Thomas, who caught 77 passes for 513 yards last season, will likely continue to be one of the team’s most regular receivers from the tailback position. What Cooks can give the Saints, however, is even more speed, agility and big-play ability than they were getting from Sproles on screen passes and as a slot receiver.
One way or many, you can count on the Saints to immediately come up with plays that will get the ball in Cooks’ hands and allow him to take advantage of his physical gifts.
Cooks has been at a slight disadvantage in comparison to most rookies thus far, as NFL rules have prevented him from participating in offseason workouts until the end of Oregon State’s school year, according to Andrew Lopez of NOLA.com.
Fortunately for New Orleans, his high-level collegiate production and proven playmaking ability gives him one of the most quickly adaptable skill sets in the 2014 rookie class.
Furthermore, he shouldn’t have a tough time getting on the same page with his quarterback. Having an experienced leader and accurate passer like Brees under center makes it far easier for a rookie wideout, especially after a late arrival, to develop a rapport with the signal-caller quickly.
All of that should lead to a productive first year in the NFL. NFL Media's Marc Sessler actually believes that Cooks, despite the fact that three wide receivers were selected ahead of him, will have the most receiving yards of any rookie wideout in 2014.
If that comes to fruition, it would be considered an upset over Buffalo Bills receiver Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants draft pick Odell Beckham Jr., who each went among the top 12 selections of this year's draft.
Nonetheless, it shouldn't surprise anyone if Cooks immediately becomes one of the NFL's breakout players and perhaps even challenges for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.