Preparing to Be a Pat: Brandin Cooks Determined Not to Waste Shot at Greatness

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistAugust 16, 2017


He gets off the jam and gets deep, tracking the football and taking it away from new teammate Stephon Gilmore for a big play. 

He shakes a defensive back who is all over him at the top of a stem and dives toward the sideline, tapping both toes in bounds before his body hits the ground.

He takes advantage of a coverage lapse and makes a near-impossible one-handed catch at the back of the end zone.

Brandin Cooks, dang.

His talent is so promising. They called him the Flash and the Torch. He was the second-fastest player at the 2014 combine with a 4.33 40-yard dash and then was the 20th player selected in the draft that year. And he is only 23 years old.

The production is so promising. He won the Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver in college football as a junior. He exceeded 1,100 receiving yards in each of the past two seasons.

And now, after changing teams in one of the offseason's most intriguing trades, the opportunity is so promising too. It's not like he was in a bad spot before, catching passes for the Saints from Drew Brees—but now Tom Brady is throwing to him, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman are drawing defenders away from him, Josh McDaniels is calling plays for him and Bill Belichick is leading him.

Anyone who plays fantasy football, and anyone who plays defensive back in the National Football League, needs to be aware of the new guy on the Patriots offense.

Cooks had the seventh-most receiving yards in the NFL last season. Brent Brennan thinks he can be in the top five this season.

The prediction traces back to the spring of 2012 following Cooks' freshman season at Oregon State. Cooks had 391 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman, but he knew he wasn't good enough. He told Brennan, Oregon State's receivers coach at the time and now the head coach at San Jose State, that he needed to learn defenses so he could see the field like Brennan did.

Brennan told Cooks his only free time was at 7 a.m. And so for the next 18 months, he found Cooks waiting for him in his office at 7 a.m. Cooks never missed a day and was never late.

He broke out with 1,151 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore, but he didn't stop working. Brennan recalls a Saturday afternoon the following summer when Cooks was heading into his junior year. Campus was very quiet except for a wedding in Reser Stadium. Brennan parked his car and walked across the street to the stadium entrance. There, on the sand volleyball court, was one young man, sweating and darting and leaping.

Coach Brennan @coachbrennan

@BCooks4 at 2 pm on a Saturday. Greatness waits for no man! And some just chase it with more focus and passion... http://t.co/v6n0uCfvIL

"No one does that on a Saturday on their own in July," says Brennan. "Nobody works like Brandin. He is the most uniquely motivated, focused person I've ever been around. He is the absolute gold standard for work ethic, and he will be for the rest of my life."

He is obsessive about finding ways to improve.

The payoff for all that work? Cooks exploded for 1,730 yards and 16 TDs as a junior.

So can he go from seventh in the league last year to top-five this year? Sure.

"I could see him exploding into one of those really elite, elite players," Brennan says.

In practices with the Patriots, when Brady throws to another receiver, Cooks pretends to catch the ball. He looks it in, clenches his hands and makes a move.

"You aren't going to get all the balls in practice, but I think about it this way: If I run 50 routes, I like to think I catch 50 balls," Cooks says. And then after the route, he sprints back to the huddle. "The game becomes easier that way."

When the rest of the NFL was on vacation in July, Cooks was in search of greatness in suburban Portland, Oregon. His routine began at 6:50 a.m.: bodywork from therapist Ryan Baugus, then movement prep, then linear speed work and then power training with Baugus and trainer Erik Jernstrom. After six hours, he would take a break. By late afternoon, Cooks was back on a football field running routes and working on his hands. Later, he often spent time in the infrared sauna in his basement and then soaked in a cold tub. A massage therapist came by some days.

Weighing 185, Cooks squatted 500 pounds. And then he moved to box jumps with no rest. In between sets, he often bounced two tennis balls off the ground or wall in various patterns to enhance hand-eye coordination.

Cooks doesn't hang at the clubs. He doesn't watch sports on TV. He reads, hikes with his fiancee, Briannon Lepman, and plays with his dogs—Scott, a golden retriever, and Archer, a mini goldendoodle. The large majority of his time is devoted to being a better football player.

Steven Senne/Associated Press

"He's OCD about being great," former Saints teammate Luke McCown says. "All the little things you want a guy to do, he does. There is no walkthrough speed. Everything he does is full speed, full focus."

The challenge for Cooks is to avoid becoming too single-minded. "He doesn't just eat, breathe and sleep it—he lives it to the point I get concerned he needs to rest a little more," says Myke Lewis-Tyson, his mentor and speed coach.

Cooks tries to turn out the lights by 9. But that doesn't mean he's sleeping. As he lies in bed, his mind runs cone drills, thinking about the next day, the next move, the next workout, the next practice, the next meeting, the next catch.

Worth Cooks Jr. is Brandin's older brother by nine years. Better than most, he understands what Brandin is capable of, and he can envision Brandin's leading the league in receiving yards and playing in the Pro Bowl this season.

Worth long has recognized Brandin has a purpose.

"He hung around with a group of kids that are probably incarcerated or not doing well at all today," Worth says. "They went to party; he went to play catch. They went to play video games; he'd go out on the field. He separated himself. We never had to tell him."

Their father, Worth Sr., was a bounty hunter and former Marine who ran barefoot races with his sons. He never missed one of their games. When Brandin was six, Dad died of a heart attack. He was 48.

"I would give anything to have him back," Brandin says. "But now I say it's a blessing because it's a part of who I am. It gave me so much drive to be the best I can for my family."

Without Dad to provide, Cooks' mother, Andrea, was forced to take two jobs—one in the receiving department of a hat warehouse, the other as an after-school program coordinator. She seemed to be working morning and night just to keep the lights on.

If she has to work that hard, young Brandin thought, why shouldn't I?

Brandin was the youngest of four boys. Worth, Fred and Andre always let Brandin knew where he stood in the family pecking order. "Crybaby" and "momma's boy," they called him.

"I'd like to thank them for picking on me because that's where a lot of my toughness comes from," Brandin says.

It also may be where his speed comes from. Brandin had to use his feet to stay away from his brothers' fists, and he believes that's how he became so fast.

When he was six, Brandin squared off against a friend in a street race and lost. Brandin remembers it still. "I don't think he ever got over it," Lewis-Tyson says.

So Brandin began setting goals. When he was 11, according to childhood friend Romon Bridges, his text messages would auto-sign with "First Round NFL Draft Pick." When he was 15, he told people he wanted to be the fastest receiver in the NFL.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 08:  Brandin Cooks of the Oregon State Beavers poses with a jersey after he was picked #20 overall by the New Orleans Saints during the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on May 8, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo
Elsa/Getty Images

Cooks became just that, a first-round draft pick and arguably the fastest receiver in the NFL. He bought his mother a $100,000 white Mercedes Benz and a new house. But neither one of them became complacent. Andrea still works in the receiving department of a hat warehouse, and Brandin keeps aiming higher.

For three years, McCown and Cooks dissected defenses together and waged pingpong wars against one another. The quarterback believes Cooks is capable of more in his fourth season than he has done previously.

"I think of Antonio Brown," says McCown, who now is with the Cowboys. "His first three years in the league, he was fast, a good receiver. But when he hit that middle ground—that fourth, fifth year, when he knew how to use his speed to his advantage and married it with an understanding of how to run routes and set defenders up—that's when he really took off. Hopefully that's what you are going to see from Brandin Cooks coming up."

Three years in the Saints offense helped prepare Cooks for the next step. He is accustomed to working with a quarterback who strives for—and sometimes achieves—perfection.

Shortly after joining the Saints, Cooks moved to San Diego because Drew Brees lived there and he wanted to be around him in the offseason. Cooks and Brees became close enough to form a lifelong bond.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 13:  Drew Brees #9 congratulates Brandin Cooks #10 of the New Orleans Saints after catching a touchdown pass during a game against the Denver Broncos at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 13, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Th
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Cooks came up with the idea of looking imaginary passes into his hands in practice while watching Brees. After Brees throws a pass in practice, he goes through the rest of his progressions as if he never let go of the ball.

His affinity for Brees aside, Cooks became dissatisfied with how the Saints used him. Most wide receivers want more glory. He wanted more grit. He let his feelings be known on social media, in interviews and in behind-the-scenes conversations.

"I work to be more than just a deep threat," he says. "When I voiced my opinion on that, it wasn't coming from a selfish standpoint; it was coming from a want-to-be-great standpoint. You probably can count on one hand the receivers who were considered great or went to the Hall of Fame who only took the top off. I felt I was so young that I want to continue to grow. I voiced my opinion about it, whether I was right or wrong. I felt I deserved the opportunity to do more and be considered more than a speed guy."

Belichick had been impressed with Cooks when he did his draft prep in 2014. He became more impressed watching him practice for the Saints in joint training camp sessions with the Patriots in 2015 and 2016.

After the final practice last summer, Cooks approached Belichick to show his respect.

"Hi, Coach. Thanks for having us at your facility," Cooks remembers telling him. "I was impressed with how organized your practices are and how there is no wasted time."

Belichick nodded and made a mental note.

"Good seeing you," Cooks said as they shook hands.

In the offseason, the Saints knew Cooks had trade value, so they listened. The Titans, Eagles and Rams made pitches, but Belichick was willing to give more than the others.

Cooks sees similarities between Belichick and Saints coach Sean Payton—probably, he surmises, because both worked for Bill Parcells.

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

"Both are great coaches," he says. "I have a ton of respect for Coach Payton. He went to bat for me to draft me, and I could never forget that. He gave me the opportunity and helped me grow as a player. There is no bad blood whatsoever. If I see him now, I'm going to give him a hug. And Coach Belichick is awesome. He's someone you want to play your tail off for. I'm so thankful for the opportunity to play for him."

Cooks made this opportunity happen. Just like he made all the other opportunities happen.

Former Saints quarterback and WWL radio host Bobby Hebert watched Cooks practice and play for three years. He understands why the Saints used Cooks the way they did, and he believes Cooks' production in New England will be similar to his production in New Orleans.

"To me, Brandin Cooks can start on any team and be a No. 2 receiver," Hebert says. "But I don't see him as a No. 1 receiver because of his [5'10"] size. Brandin Cooks is a little-bitty guy. He can take the top off a defense, but I never saw him in a Saints uniform break tackles on a screen and take it to the house. It might be a five- or six-yard gain. He never made something out of nothing."

Cooks' mission is to change that perception. More than anything, he wants to be a complete receiver. That's the goal he committed to after meeting former Patriots receiver Randy Moss a little over a year ago.

"The biggest thing I took from him was to work at being a route-runner and not just focusing on speed," Cooks says. "He talked to me about really learning how to run routes so you are not just stuck to one thing and corners can't predict what you are doing. Learn the route tree and expand your game."

Another player who's had a big impact on Cooks is Steve Smith. He's trained with and studied the former Panther and Raven, who was a lion of a football player at 5'9".

"His yards after the catch were unbelievable, he was a great blocker and his tenacity until the whistle blows was probably second to none," Cooks says. "That intensity he brought to the game, you see why people didn't want to go against him. I'd like to have his tenacity and his ability to get yards after the catch.

"I don't want to be just a guy who blows the top off. I want to be able to catch a hitch or slant and take it the distance."

Whatever he's achieved, the eye is always on what can be achieved next.

When Moss came to the Patriots, he made their offense nearly impossible to defend.

A decade later, Moss says Cooks gives the Patriots their first truly explosive receiver since himself—but even so, he doesn't foresee Cooks having the same type of season, if only because of the difference in who else is on the team.

When Moss had his best season in New England, he was targeted frequently downfield in part because the team's other options—Jabar Gaffney, Donte' Stallworth, Wes Welker, Ben Watson and Kevin Faulk—had limitations. The current Patriots have a much more gifted group of skill position players to complement Cooks in Gronkowski, Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Mike Gillislee, James White and Dion Lewis.

"With all those players playing at a high level, I don't think [a 1,500-yard season] is reachable for any player in that Patriots system," says Moss, now an analyst for ESPN. He thinks Cooks will end up with closer to 1,000 receiving yards.

The challenge for McDaniels is to develop a role for Cooks and find ways to blend his talents with the talents of the others.

"I think within the Patriots offense, they are going to use him short, intermediate and deep," Moss says. "If he's able to make teams honor his intermediate and his short game, the deep stuff will come, and it will come very easy for him. But the thing he can't do is focus and concentrate on the deep stuff, and then when it comes time for the short and intermediate stuff, catch the ball, fall down.

"He has to take the short and intermediate and the deep ball and work on all three of those. In that Patriots offense, if he's able to do that, man, the sky's the limit for him, the sky's the limit for that offense. With all the weapons they have, you just pick where to throw the ball. Tom will find the open man."

Cooks has studied tape of Moss with the Patriots, knowing he is likely to be running many of the same routes Moss ran. "Whether it's catching a deep ball or catching a short route and taking it the distance, he was special," Cooks says.

Shortly after the Patriots traded first- and third-round picks for Cooks and a fourth-round pick in March, Cooks texted Brady, Gronkowski, Edelman, Jimmy Garoppolo and several others with unique messages. He didn't know any of them, and he wanted to let them know how excited he was to be teammates.

The New England mystique fascinated him.

Steven Senne/Associated Press

"When I got off the plane the first time and started hearing about the history of the Patriots, and also the Celtics, Bruins, Red Sox, wow," Cooks says. "This is Boston. They have been champions so many times over the years. I thought I'm going to do whatever I can to help keep that going. Greatness is there, and it's what I hope to be a part of."

He immersed himself in the area like he immerses himself in training. That meant wandering around downtown, taking in a Celtics game with Edelman, visiting the Paul Revere House and the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, and eating at the spots known for wicked chowdah.

Cooks, as unrelenting as a January nor'easter, is in his element now. This is where his hopes and dreams are.

Cooks has numbers in his head, numbers he believes he can achieve in the offense he is so amped to be a part of. Those numbers will remain in his head.

He has no doubt he is capable of much more than he has achieved.

"The way I've been growing and becoming a smarter player and person, I see the potential to do great things as long as I stay focused and take it day by day," he says.

It is safe to assume he expects to be filling the Foxborough skies with imaginary arrows from now until late January.

On a wall in the foyer of Cooks' Oregon home, just off the entranceway, are three arrows. He calls himself The Archer. His big-play celebration—pretending to shoot an arrow—is a tribute to Psalm 144:6: Send forth lightning and scatter the enemy; shoot your arrows and rout them.

"I love that scripture for multiple reasons," Cooks says. "When you go out there, it is almost as if you are going to battle. It's nowhere near like what is done by the men and women who serve our country, but that's the way I like to think about it. It puts me in the mind frame—it's time to go to battle. And it's a way to give God thanks, give him the glory."

Cooks feels obligated to do more—obligated to his father, to his mother and brothers, to Belichick and Brady, to all the good people who have helped him, and to a higher power.

"I think," he says, "I've been given a gift from God."

If Cooks is everything he can be, Patriots fans might be thinking the same thing.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.


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