To say that Brandin Cooks has generated a ton of hype throughout this long NFL offseason would be the understatement of all understatements.
Since the New Orleans Saints traded up to select him 20th overall on May 8th, the receiver has hardly taken a misstep. The rookie has produced nothing short of sensational reviews from all avenues of the game's analytical neighborhood.
Having appeared in just two preseason games, with his forthcoming NFL debut just over a week away, Cooks has found himself in what seems to be the perfect situation. He is playing for a legitimate Super Bowl contender in a dynamic offense. His head coach, Sean Payton, is one of the game's finest play-callers and offensive alchemists. His quarterback, Drew Brees, is a future Hall-of-Famer who has thrown for over 5,000 yards and no less than 39 touchdowns three seasons running. In other words, the table has been set for the 5-10 189 speedster to thrive. Brandin Cooks makes a catch against the Titans.
Cooks, 20, led the NCAA in receiving as a junior at Oregon State in 2013, catching 128 balls for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns. He garnered All-Conference and All-American awards along the way, while taking home the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's best receiver. The only other Beaver to win that award was none other than Mike Haas, a member of Payton's inaugural 2006 Saints draft class.
Cooks' tape tells the tale. He was ready to make the leap from college to the NFL. He put his skills on display in the Pac-12 conference, torching defenses and leaving many a defensive back in the dust. Following his decision to go pro, Cooks kicked up even more dust at the scouting combine in Idianapolis, posting a 4.31 40-yard dash time with a 36 inch vertical and a 10 foot standing broad jump.
The speed surprised no one. Not only was it evident on Cooks' game film, but just as easy to recognize when considering the California native's Track and Field background. He competed for Oregon State's track team, posting a personal best time of 10.72 seconds in the 100 meter dash.
It was all too easy to get carried away by the speed, but the football skills were just as prevalent. Cooks ran sharp routes with great balance and body control. He displayed a fine, safe pair of hands, tremendous lateral agility to complement that speed, and the ability to use his athleticism to elude defenders in closed spaces as well as the open field. Whether it was a high-percentage route across the middle or a more difficult throw deep into coverage, Cooks was a good bet to make a play. He is, after all, a playmaker.
Following the draft, Cooks hit the ground running in New Orleans. He was an instant hit at the Saints' three-day rookie minicamp in May, and although he was unable to participate in the majority of the team's offseason program due to his school's June graduation date, Cooks went the extra mile, taking glorified "online courses" with Saints' coaches.
His want and intent to learn and absorb as much as possible before the pads came back on in July spoke volumes. The mental strength and positive attitude to match the athletic skill set. When he was able to partake in the team's ultimate round of OTAs near the end of June, Cooks took that knowledge and dazzled his teammates and coaches, alike. It was clear that Payton and Brees made a good choice at the toy store. This young rookie, having yet to play a single down of professional football, may as well have been a collector's edition of a mail-in only G.I. Joe action figure.
But unlike a staunch toy collector, the Saints were keen to rip open the packaging and unleash the rookie as soon as possible. Cooks headed out to San Diego in July to further his rapport with Brees, where the two played catch and discussed the offense as training camp loomed in the near future. When camp did open, at last, the ensuing days and weeks were almost exclusively a Brandin Cooks news blurb machine.
Tweets, vines, articles, and segments across seemingly every sports radio or television station made sure to talk up the rookie from New Orleans. The hype was building. Cooks emerged from every practice with a new fan, a new believer. Every day another head was turned, another jaw dropped. His teammates were the first to notice. CB Keenan Lewis bestowed the nickname "Lightning" upon Cooks.
“A DB might be in his back pocket and the next thing you know he’s 50, 60 yards down the field,” said Lewis, a fellow Oregon State alum. "When you're guarding a guy like that, you've got to make sure that your shoes are very tight, because he will probably leave you out of your shoes."
Lewis has shadowed his fair share of top receivers throughout his time in the league, and Cooks' playmaking abilities were certainly palpable.
Cooks continued to make waves at practices at the team's West Virginia-based training camp. He shined in the Saints' Black and Gold scrimmage. Next came his first live test against another NFL team, the St. Louis Rams in the preseason opener. The first of many? Brandin Cooks gets his first taste of an NFL end zone.
Cooks reeled in 5 targets for 55 yards and a touchdown. He smoked a defender with a quick cut off an out route into the open field on the way to a 25 yard score. Even with Brees sidelined by a minor injury, Cooks made the most of his opportunity and hooked up with backup quarterbacks Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin. If you throw it, he will catch it.
“We’ve been seeing him progress. He’s done some good things,” said Payton after that game. “He’s quick with the ball in his hands... I thought he played hard, he’s smart, he lines up very quickly. We’ll keep bringing him along.”
The Saints put a high volume of information on Cooks' plate upon his return to New Orleans in June. If it was a test to see if the rookie could handle the workload and data, he passed his first exam with flying colors.
Cooks continued to steal the show at camp practices. He made his first appearance in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as the Saints beat the Tennessee Titans 31-24 in their preseason home opener. Cooks caught just one pass that night, but even that one catch brought out the excitment from the home crowd as he plucked a ball out of the air with his fingertips.
He missed the team's dress rehearsal against the Indianapolis Colts last weekend while recovering from the lingering effects of a stomach virus and subsequent fever, missing out on a chance at extended playing time against a good defense on the road with Brees and most of the Saints' first team stars back in action.
Nevertheless, the hype was not damaged. Cooks remains the talk of the town, as most realize the special talent which is set to embark on what the Saints hope will culminate in another Super Bowl triumph.
Cooks has worked almost exclusively as a wide receiver, his natural position, to date in game action. Through 2 games, his aDOT (average depth of target) in the preseason stands at 13.9 yards, with 7 out of his 12 targets coming from the slot, according to Pro Football Focus fantasy director Mike Clay.
However, the Saints plan to use him in more ways than one. Cooks has regularly been lining up all over the formation in practices. Split out wide, in the slot, motioned across the formations, out of the backfield...quite clear that he is viewed as more than just a pass-catcher.
The Saints traded Darren Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles in March, leaving a hole in their 2013 production. With Lance Moore also out the door and now in Pittsburgh, there is an additional hole to fill, and it stands to reason that Payton views Cooks as one of a few viable options to not only replace, but enhance that lost production of 1,281 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns between the two recently departed veterans.
NFL.com's media analyst Bucky Brooks believes just that; the Saints have more in store for Cooks than just receptions.
"The fact that the Saints jumped up to get him shows that Sean Payton has a plan for him," Brooks said after the draft. "I think that plan could include him being the guy that plays all over the field ... He should have a big, big, big season. I'm not a fantasy football player, but I would put a lot of money on Brandin Cooks if he was my guy."
Cooks has taken designed bubble screens to the house in practice like it is a bodily function to do so. He's taken end-arounds and reverses for long gains. Sproles was quite the contributor in Payton's high-powered offense, as were the likes of Reggie Bush and Devery Henderson, who did more than their designated positions would normally dictate. Brandin Cooks reaches for the ball in the Saints' preseason home-opening win over Tennessee.
Bush was Payton's original "satellite" weapon, moving all over formations, splitting out wide, catching swing passes out of the backfield and taking them down the field for game-changing results. Henderson, a former track star and speedster like Cooks, had his number called on several designed end-arounds, while also serving as a secondary-stretching deep threat. Cooks cuts the figure of a player, or a playmaker capable of doing all that and then some.
Payton realizes the talent he has, yet the mental part of the game continues to resonate with the Super Bowl XLIV-winning coach.
“His role and each week, how it unfolds is to be determined but I think he learns well," Payton said. "I think considering he missed some time because of his graduation date at Oregon State, I think he’s picked things up fairly quickly and yet there are a lot of little things with regards to the position. But I would say that from a learning standpoint it’s a plus.”
Teammate Jairus Byrd called Cooks "wise beyond his years." Brees constantly raves about the rookie's hunger and desire to learn more.
"Here's a guy who's obviously extremely talented," Brees said. "But more so than that, very intelligent. You get this feeling that he wants to be great, he loves football, he wants to learn. Every time he comes up to me, it's eyes wide. 'Feed me, feed me information.' He absorbs it very quickly and goes out and applies it."
Brandin Cooks will have a chance to apply that knowledge in earnest when the Saints open the season against their arch rivals, the Atlanta Falcons. He figures to play a key role, providing a vertical and horizontal threat. Playing in a division that features 2 other high profile first-year talents, Cooks will be an early-season favorite for 2014 Rookie of the Year honors. Playing in the Saints' system will only enhance those chances.
Cooks has drawn some initial comparisons to Baltimore Ravens and ex-Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith, long a thorn in the side of many a Saints fan and defensive back. Owner of seven 1,000 yard receiving seasons, Smith was gradually worked into the fray as a rookie, mostly on special teams as a return man. Smith hauled in 10 catches as a rookie in 2001. Cooks may see 10 targets in a game, let alone catches.
With the hype train chugging down the tracks, and the talent, itself, not disappointing on the field, it is still fair to ask, in the bull market that is modern-day football with on-feild and fantasy implications in orbit, is that hype train an engine or it is simply a cute, little caboose?
All too often, stories emerge of "that guy" who turned heads and drops jaws with shorts and a helmet on. The pads come on, the live contact kicks up, and that guy is, well, just a guy.
Brandin Cooks, however, is not just a guy. The hype is a locomotive heading from coast to coast, chocked full of your favorite cargo with steam billowing from the engine. Appropriately, his boilermaker is none other than Drew Brees, the Purdue alum who is poised for another record-shattering run at history. His head coach will do what it takes to get the ball in his hands, as he did with that rookie named Bush eight years ago.
Not just a guy. Not just hype. Truth. Extravagance.
Sell if you must, but this stock is about to run. There is no resistance, just one big uptrend towards greatness. The ball is in Brandin Cooks' court. Chances are, he'll catch it and run away with it, as all buyers in the form of Saints fans, fantasy owners, or those who just like to watch playmakers do their thing rejoice.