Seems like only yesterday that I took a three-day detour off TheMMQB.com Training Camp Tour to hang out and watch the Saints at The Greenbrier in White Sulfer Springs, W.Va., where the Patriots will practice against the Texans next month.
It was there I fell in love with Brandin Cooks, who was the Saints’ first-round pick. He dazzled both fans and teammates alike with his explosive, big-play ability and 4.33 speed. Cooks didn’t look like a rookie, and he was my pre-season Offensive Rookie of the Year choice (Cooks could have been, if an injury didn’t halt his campaign after 10 games).
But that was three years ago. Cooks and I are both in new locales after his trade to the Patriots, but we’ll be in the same place again on Thursday when the team opens up training camp at Gillette.
Will I fall head-over-heels for the 5-foot-10 dynamo again? Or was his departure out of New Orleans about more than just a contract impasse? I dove into Cooks’ 2016 game film to find out where he stands entering his first camp with the Patriots.
[caption id="attachment_337258" align="aligncenter" width="640"] (Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports)[/caption]
The No. 1 reason why the Patriots acquired Cooks -- and this opinion was shared by two observers that know the system intimately -- was to diversify their ability to get chunk plays (runs over 10 yards, passes more than 25). Despite being largely terrific on offense last season, the Patriots ranked “only” 12th with a big-play percentage of 8.05. Most of the Patriots’ chunk plays are either due to yards after the catch, or Rob Gronkowski (when he’s on the field) wreaking havoc. And when the Patriots encountered good-tackling teams without Gronkowski (Texans, Falcons) in the postseason, New England showed some mortality. Certainly Chris Hogan showed some ability to make big plays last season, but he’s not Cooks. His addition gives the Patriots another way to get yards in a hurry.
The first play on this clip is a perfect example of how Cooks can make the Patriots a little bit better.
This “level” pattern, with a deep post by Cooks, an over route by the tight end and then the back into the flat, is a staple of the Patriots passing game, especially when used in combination with hard run action, as the Saints do as well. New England and Tom Brady love this play. They run it all the time. Now, instead of Hogan, Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola running the post, Cooks will be putting the safety into a bind even quicker.
[caption id="attachment_337259" align="aligncenter" width="640"] (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)[/caption]
THINGS TO BE ENCOURAGED ABOUT
- Outstanding route runner: Cooks entered the league as a route-runner ahead of his time, and he’s even better now. There are few players that are able to run up on the toes of even the most talented defensive backs, and then create space. That’s what speed does: it puts a lot of fear into the minds of defenders and makes them slower. Cooks does not round off many routes, which is the sin of many young receivers, a move that allows cornerbacks to recover.
- Improving at the go route: In 2015, Cooks was more miss than hit when aligned on the outside and in one-on-one coverage. Last season, Cooks converted on almost half his opportunities, and more than holds his own for his size. You could see he earned Sean Payton’s trust as the season went along, and became a big weapon for them as a result. Cooks was very comfortable running the out and up.
- Efficient inside and outside: The Patriots like to have the ability to line up each of their receivers at any point on the field, and they expect them to execute. Cooks runs the full route tree regardless of position or pattern, and that will endear him quickly to Josh McDaniels and Brady.
THINGS TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT
- Needs space: Not sure whether this belongs in “encouraged” or “concerned,” because being with the Patriots fixes a lot of things. Despite his speed, Cooks was not very good on screens, which is another big part of the Patriots’ scheme. That may simply be because the Saints didn’t block them very well. The Patriots, with their combination of Dante Scarnecchia’s offensive line and receivers that love to mix it up downfield, are superior at setting up their receivers after the catch. A change in scenery might change everything for Cooks in this realm. But the fact remains he's not very good with the ball in his hands unless he’s in the open field and turns on the jets (this also goes for kick returns). FootballOutsiders.com had Cooks for just four broken tackles (one running, three on passes) in 2016 on 84 touches. That’s abysmal. This is also a reason why the Saints rarely handed him the ball on reverses, which is usually a given for small and speedy receivers. Cooks doesn’t change direction well with the ball in his hand, which is strange because he’s great doing that on pass patterns without it. In the passing game, making yards after the catch is what Patriots receivers do. Will be interesting to see how that goes as the season progresses. Of course, if he’s running by everyone wide open and catching touchdown passes, no one’s going to care what Cooks does in traffic.
- A bit mechanical: The Patriots’ scheme relies on the receivers making split-second decisions after the snap to find openings against coverages. There’s a lot of schemed improvisation between Brady and his best receivers. Cooks is average in this area, and that’s not terrible. He doesn’t like to alter his routes based on coverage, and there are times you will see him run into coverage (Patriots receivers will sit in the void). Expect this to be the biggest area that the Patriots target for improvement when camp opens.
In general, however, provided he stays healthy, expect Cooks to flourish. The Patriots have other players that excel in areas where Cooks is weak, and he doesn’t have to be a complete player in this offense. As long as he helps the team improve at chunk plays, then the team will be happy.
The Patriots were good without Cooks. They’ll be better with him.