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A Perfect Fit

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The Saints’ newest weapon, Brandin Cooks, could change the offensive game.

CooksEditWinston Churchill had it right when he said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” The Saints entered the 2013 season with numerous challenges and exited into the 2014 draft having overcome many of them. In three seasons under the guidance of head coach Sean Payton (since the 2009 Super Bowl season), the Saints have won almost 12 games per season. Last year was no different, as they gathered 12 wins and scored an impressive road-playoff win in Philadelphia — the franchise’s first ever.

Throughout the season, the Saints offense was its usual dominant self in scoring — putting up 20 or more points in 11 of the team’s 18 games, and winning 10 of them — but noticeably took all five of its losses in the seven games where it failed to reach that benchmark. For once in Sean Payton’s tenure, defense was not the most immediate area of concern. In the off-season, among other changes, the Saints most noticeably shed running back Darren Sproles and wide receiver Lance Moore — two longtime stalwarts of the high-caliber offense that fans have for so long loved and appreciated.

In the recent May draft, the Saints proceeded to defy all expectations of the pundits who had largely been predicting a choice at cornerback or linebacker — and satisfied in reality their most pressing need — by aggressively seizing, via trade-up, wide receiver Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State. Just 20 years old, Cooks recorded the fastest 40-yard dash (4.33 seconds), and the fastest 20-yard and 40-yard shuttle times, of all players at his position at the NFL Combine. He also set the all-time Combine record for the 60-yard shuttle. In other words, the Saints may have grabbed the fastest man in the draft, and he will be performing with future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees on the fast track of the Superdome floor every Sunday.

In losses last year to the New England Patriots, the New York Jets, the St. Louis Rams, the Carolina Panthers and the Seattle Seahawks, it often seemed that defenses had learned to stultify the effect of Sproles in the backfield, Jimmy Graham in the seam and Marques Colston over the middle — while at the same time neutralizing the remaining wide receivers. However, in 2014, Cooks could assume the traditional deep role previously filled by Kenny Stills and Devery Henderson. His speed should allow him to get behind cornerbacks, causing a ripple effect in opposing secondaries, which will be forced to roll their safeties over to cover — which in turn should allow Stills, Graham and Colston to resume their ability to run free underneath. Stills in particular could take over some of Moore’s old, reliable chain-moving duties. Alternatively, Stills could be the deep threat, and Cooks could undertake much of the underneath work, and be responsible for creating size and speed mismatches in the way that Sproles and Reggie Bush have in the offense in one way or another since 2006.

It is worth remembering that Sproles and Moore accounted for 161 touches for 1,281 yards and six touchdowns last year, and a good bit of that responsibility might be redistributed to Cooks and Stills. En route to winning the Biletnikoff Award for the best collegiate wide receiver with the Oregon State Beavers last year, in 13 games (three fewer than an NFL season), Cooks churned out 128 receptions for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns (following a season in which he had 67 receptions, 1,151 yards and five touchdowns), while also rushing for 217 yards on 32 carries with two more touchdowns — all in addition to leading the team in punt returns. Throughout that season, Cooks showed durability (as he never missed a game); flexibility in game-planning (as he proved able to run deep routes or stay underneath); excellent route-running skills (as he caught balls all over the field) and excellent hands (as he dropped less than 5 percent of catchable passes thrown his way). His explosiveness, burst and knack for attacking the ball in the air to snatch it from defenders has elicited comparisons to T. Y. Hilton and Randall Cobb, but most especially to Steve Smith.

At Oregon State, Cooks was quickly schooled in sophisticated route-trees, conquering the learning curve and reveling in specialized plays — such as the fly sweep, whereby an in-motion receiver surprisingly enters the run game via a direct handoff or pitch-back. Cooks’ college head coach, Mike Riley, was a former assistant head coach to Sean Payton, and like his old chief, he likes to run a variety of offensive packages to keep defenses off-balance. In a way, Cooks has been preparing for his introduction to the Saints for three years, taking quick handoffs, short flare patterns and wheel routes to the house in multiple ways. Think of a return to the Superdome Special circa 2006, or maybe the slant patterns to the post designed for Reggie Bush, or the bubble screens to Sproles that drove linebackers crazy for three years. In Cooks, the Saints may have found a perfect fit — a player who can run all those proven patterns (and endless new patterns that will restore the kind of unpredictability and devastating offensive results upon which this team has thrived and won for eight seasons now). In Brees and Cooks, Saints fans could be witnessing a very special combination, featuring this year’s best rookie receiver clicking with the NFL’s best quarterback on the Superdome’s turf for years to come.