When the New Orleans Saints take the field tonight for their first preseason contest in St. Louis, there is a good chance that Drew Brees will be relegated to spectator duties, having battled a minor oblique strain over the last week. Eager to err on the side of caution, coach Sean Payton and his brain trust will almost certainly hold Brees, who has not practiced since last Friday, out of tonight's game.
At the same time, St. Louis will withhold their own signal-caller in Sam Bradford, while Jake Long also figures to wait until next week at the earliest to make his preseason debut.
In other words, your typical first preseason game. Playing it smart in regards to injuries. A series or two, at most, from the starters, and an ensuing glorified three-quarter battle for roster spots to round out the action. Business as usual in early August. Brandin Cooks at Saints' camp.
Cooks has been an absolute sensation throughout the offseason, and has carried over his strong performance at OTAs right into training camp. The Oregon State alum did not let his school's late graduation which restricted his availability for the crux of OTAs hinder his development, taking "online courses" with Saints' coaches in an effort to become more well-versed in the team's offense.
In addition, Cooks spent time working out with Drew Brees in San Diego last month ahead of camp, in an attempt to build a rapport with training camp on the horizon. The 20 year-old speedster quickly won his quarterback over with the dynamic skill set that accompanies his desire and willingness to learn.
"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."
As a junior in Corvalis, Cooks led the NCAA with 1,730 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. He recorded a sizzling 4.33 forty-yard dash time at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, and wowed multiple franchises in interviews and workouts leading up to May's draft.
New Orleans fell in love with the native Californian, and struck a deal with the Arizona Cardinals to move up seven spots to grab the playmaker. The Saints are always in search of new weapons to enhance their already potent offense, but Cooks presents them with a more versatile option than the conventional receiver. Having played in the shadows of Pac 12 giants like Oregon, Stanford and USC, Cooks may have not generated the pre-draft hype of a Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans or Odell Beckham, Jr., but the tape never lies, and Cooks' tape could make even the Sahara Desert salivate.
With Lance Moore now in Pittsburgh and Darren Sproles now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans is faced with the task of replacing 108 receptions, 1,061 yards and 4 touchdowns, in addition to the 220 yards and pair of scores racked up by Sproles on the ground.
Players such as Khiry Robinson, Travaris Cadet and Kenny Stills seem poised to make an important step forward and help fill those stats, but Cooks, himself, figures to do a little of everything as a skilled chess piece for offensive alchemist Sean Payton to play with.
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport observed that New Orleans seems ready to "unleash" Cooks with a specific package of plays geared towards showcasing the rookie's dynamic skills. Cooks has been one of the most consistent stars at Saints' camp, often taking routine slant patterns or designed screens all the way to the house, leaving his defensive teammates in awe along the way. Brandin Cooks catches a ball in camp.
"When I watched, Cooks took a quick screen about 60 yards," writes Rapoport. "He blew through the hash marks on a kickoff return, drawing ooohhhhs and ahhhhhhs from the crowd. He torched former first-round draft pick Patrick Robinson on a post-corner route, finishing the play off with a leaping touchdown catch."
If that is not enough, ESPN's John Clayton, another recent observer at Saints' camp, wrote: "The addition of first-round choice Brandin Cooks will drive defensive coordinators crazy. Cooks' game is speed. The wide receiver could be a combination of Darren Sproles and Percy Harvin. Payton could use him in some of the old Sproles roles out of the backfield. Cooks could run fly sweeps like Harvin. In passing situations, Cooks could use his speed to flat-out beat cornerbacks. The Saints' receiving corps had been tied to the group that produced a Super Bowl in 2009. Cooks is fresh and dangerous."
Basically, the Saints can use their young weapon to kill two birds with one diminutive, yet dangerous stone. Cooks has regularly taken designed reverses out of the backfield in practice, lined up in the backfield, in the slot, split out wide, and motioned across the formations.
His routes have been crisp and on point, he is fluid in his ability to use his smallish body and speed to beat his man, and with further development, should be able to handle a jam off the line when faced with press coverage. Local analyst Mike Detillier even went as far as to suggest that Cooks could be a Steve Smith-like weapon for New Orleans.
Payton loves versatility. Sproles' production may have dropped off in 2013, but he still presented a matchup conundrum for many opposing defenses. Going back to Payton's early years in New Orleans, Reggie Bush was the epitome of a "satellite player," lining up everywhere and getting the ball in any and every way possible.
Along with those skills, Cooks' consistency may be the most impressive facet of his young career thus far, and teammates have taken notice.
“I’m glad he’s my teammate. I never want to see him catch a ball, but when he does catch a ball it’s pretty special," said LB Curtis Lofton. "You can’t say enough about that speed. I always say it seems like he gets shot out of rockets when he gets the ball in his hands.”
"A bunch of people were saying, 'I hope I don’t have to cover the guy.' The people who were covering him were saying, 'Bring me a little help.' He’s a great young player, he will do well," LB David Hawthorne added. "When he gets the ball in his hands, he’s dangerous."
Corner Keenan Lewis, who has already dubbed Cooks as "Lightning" off the strength of his impressive offseason, heaped more complements on the rookie, saying after a recent practice, "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."
Jairus Byrd, the Saints' prized free agent acquisition, said Cooks is "wise beyond his years." Those kinds of impressions left upon teammates are just part of the equation. Ask Payton about his new toy, and the Saints' coach is just as effusive with the praise.
“He’s explosive," said Payton, "and a guy that if you can get the ball to him in space, he has a chance to give you some run after the catch. And he did that. You’ve just got to keep working with him on a lot of the nuances and specifics with the passing game. It was good to see him make a few plays.”
As was the case with Bush and Sproles... put a satellite in space, sit back and watch as it orbits...profit. If Brandin Cooks continues to build off his strong summer, plenty of NFL defenses figure to have one heck of a Sputnik to deal with in 2014 and for years to come.
Friday night in St. Louis is only the beginning.