In what has turned out to be a difficult start to the 2014 season, the New Orleans Saints did manage to find some good news on the injury front over the weekend, as receiver Kenny Stills made his return to action off of a quad injury that dates back to July.
Stills, the 2nd year wideout from Oklahoma who caught 32 passes for 641 yards and 5 touchdowns as a rookie last season, made his 2014 debut in Cleveland as the Saints dropped to 0-2 at the hands of a last gasp field goal from Billy Cundiff. Stills was targeted 4 times by Drew Brees, hauling in 3 receptions for 25 yards, coming up just short of the goal line on one of those catches in Sunday's 26-24 loss.
Stills' return is a plus for the Saints, who now have their best vertical threat back in tow. Stills managed 20 yards-per-catch as a rookie, and teamed with Brees to help give his quarterback the league's best QBR in terms of a passer targeting a certain receiver. Stills appeared to suffer no setbacks as he did in the team's third preseason game last month, where he exited after a brief cameo in Indianapolis. The return of Kenny Stills should not impact the production, or usage of Brandin Cooks.
Stills' new teammate, Brandin Cooks, struggled to make a significant impact, as did the rest of Brees' targets not named Jimmy Graham. The Browns used multiple personnel packages and disguised coverages to fluster New Orleans early and often, throwing the Saints off their script and forcing coach Sean Payton to mix things up earlier than planned. Cooks grabbed 3 passes for just 17 yards on 6 targets, making a more significant impact on the ground where he rushed for 31 yards, including a 28 yard scamper on a designed end around. Last week in Atlanta, the rookie hauled in 7 receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown, while also rushing for 18 yards and handling punt return duties.
Having Stills back greatly benefits the Saints' passing attack, though his return should not affect Cooks from a productivity standpoint. It should be noted that Cooks actually led all Saints receivers in snaps played yesterday, with 55 (Stills played on 29 snaps). The biggest head-scratcher was Marques Colston being held without a catch for the first time in 87 games, as Cleveland looked to use their multiplicity in coverage and scheme to disrupt the Saints' passing game in all ways possible.
Furthermore, whereas Stills will work his way back into the starting lineup opposite Marques Colston, Cooks will remain a key ingredient in the passing game, and will seemingly always have a package of plays to fall back on, as was the case Sunday when he took that end around for a huge gain when the team was in desperate need of a big play.
Stills will continue to operate as the 'X' or 'Z' receiver in two-wide sets opposite Colston, with Cooks often working out of the slot or in various positions across the formation as a satellite threat in the high-upside Darren Sproles or Reggie Bush mold. Where Stills will work in more of a classic role, Cooks will offer weekly value as a threat in the passing, running and return game. The rookie could stand to see extra work on designed runs with the news that running back Mark Ingram will miss up to a month with a hand injury. Drew Brees once again has all of his receivers back to health.
Cooks has established terrific chemistry with Brees, just as Stills was able to do as a rookie, himself, last season. The Oregon State product has drawn rave reviews dating back to minicamps, and while he, like most of his teammates, was kept in check by a swarming Browns defense, much better days lie ahead for the 20-year-old.
The return of Kenny Stills should not impact Brandin Cooks from a real life or fantasy standpoint. Where Stills should remain as a weekly waiver wire option, Cooks needs to be owned in all leagues and formats. The upside is great, and given Payton's know-how of getting the most out of like talents (see Bush, Sproles), coupled with the presence of Brees under center, the future is bright for Brandin Cooks, and the arrow is pointed way up.
Stills, in his own right, should make some noise as Brees has never been one to shy away from hitting the open man, as opposed to locking on to a certain target pre-snap. The deep ball has always been a big part of Payton's offense, and the Saints have thrived off of the big plays and subsequent underneath openings created by the presence of a competent deep threat such as Stills, a younger Robert Meachem, or a Devery Henderson. Joe Morgan, another speedy vertical threat, failed to impress when standing in for Stills week 1, and found himself a healthy scratch yesterday.