With the changes to the NFL kickoff rules, former New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles went from regularly racking up more than 1,000 yards each season in return yards to barely making a blip. Sproles averaged 1259.6 kick return yards from 2005 to 2011, but only 369 per year after the new rule.
On offense, however, Sproles was still a dangerous weapon for quarterback Drew Brees to utilize.
Sproles carried the football 53 times in 2013. With those rushing attempts, he accumulated 220 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns. He also caught 71 passes for 604 yards and two scores through the air.
The undersized Sproles was one of the more valuable weapons in the league when return yards were easier to come by. Those gains on special teams, combined with the versatility he provided on offense, made Sproles a huge asset.
Without the return yards, and because New Orleans had a plethora of options at running back, the Saints were able to trade Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason. Brees told Tom Pelissero of USA Today first-round draft pick Brandin Cooks would help people forget about Sproles.
Even though Darren Sproles played the running back position, we were creative with him. 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.
Cooks, without a doubt, has great speed. At 4.33 seconds, he ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any wide receiver at the scouting combine this year, according to the official results provided by the league. He’s also an explosive find; Brees is telling the truth.
Not only did Cooks lead the nation with 133.1 receiving yards per game for the Beavers, he was second in college football with 16 catches that went for 30 yards or more.
You had better believe that head coach Sean Payton plans to unleash that speed in 2014. Cooks will be able to take the top off defenses, and Brees will have no trouble connecting with his new deep threat. But that’s not the only area where Cooks will shine with the Saints.
Expect at least twice a game for NO Saints to push the ball long vertically w/ @brandincooks, but where he excels early/ short -medium area.— Michael Detillier (@MikeDetillier) June 19, 2014
Cooks greatly enhanced his normal route running at Oregon State by excelling at catching screen passes. According to SecondRoundStats.com, Cooks averaged 13.44 yards per catch on screen passes in 2013. If a receiver can use his speed and athleticism, not to mention acceleration, to make tacklers miss, and do so at any depth of the field on a reception, he’ll be a difficult option for defenses to game-plan for.
That might be the definition next to Cooks’ name: Can burn a defense on a 9-route and also make you look silly after catching a dump pass or bubble screen. Watch out.
But replacing Sproles after he was such a valued piece of this offense; is that possible?
Cooks won’t rush the football, so forget about those 53 carries Sproles provided. But the Saints still have Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson to tote the rock, and they’ll happily divvy up Sproles’ rushing attempts.
Can the rookie provide 71 catches?
Only six receivers in the history of the NFL have caught at least 71 passes in their rookie season. Keenan Allen, who caught 71 balls last season for the San Diego Chargers, was the most recent. Eddie Royal caught 91 passes in 2008 for the Denver Broncos.
|Terry Glenn||1996||New England||90||1,132|
|Michael Clayton||2004||Tampa Bay||80||1,193|
|Keenan Allen||2013||San Diego||71||1,046|
Pro Football Reference
But the odds are against Cooks just because of the sheer number of receivers who enter the league and the small number who have pulled off the feat.
Don’t count out Cooks, however. With his explosive style of play, combined with Payton’s sheer offensive genius and Brees’ elite ability, the 71-plus-catch rookie receiver club might have a seventh member after the 2014 season.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.