Last night, the Saints took Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks with the 20th pick in the NFL draft, after trading their first and third round picks to the Arizona Cardinals. Cooks is a 5’10", 190 lb receiver that runs a 4.33 40-yard dash. His vertical is a cool 36" and he has an arm length of 31". These two stats are important, as they will ultimately determine Cooks’ catch radius, the most important measurement of how accurate a QB will have to be to throw to that receiver.
What sets Cooks apart is, of course, not his size. It’s his speed and athleticism that makes him a first round prospect. Every single one of his strengths indicates how effective he is in the speed game. College statistics are ultimately meaningless for an NFL prospect, so let’s take a look at a few strengths and weaknesses of Cooks’s game that could translate to the pro level.
Oregon State lines up in a singleback formation against Oregon. Don’t let this look fool you, OSU runs a lot of packages that should help Cooks to ease into the New Orleans offense, but this play is indicative of an important part of Cooks’s game. Cooks is, of course, in the white box at the outset of this play.
The call here is a 3-step curl to Cooks. Simplistic in its nature. However, for a speed guy, deceptiveness is everything. Any big play receiver worth his salt is going to sell that big play nature. Cooks is looking downfield on this play, along with the Oregon corner with him, who is trying to negate the big play.
Situationally, this is very important. The down is second and intermediate, which means that the playbook is wide open. A shot down the field is entirely realistic, which means that Cooks is trying to sell that threat for an intermediate reception before trying to make it into a big play after the catch.
For speed guys, separation is the name of the game. You want these guys in the open field. At the time of release, Cooks has four yards of separation with the Oregon corner, who is now in recovery mode after the throw is made. Almost as importantly, Cooks is in position for the first down, so that even if he’s tackled at first contact (as he is, the slot corner recovers to stop him in the middle), it’s still a fresh set for OSU.
On this play, OSU lines up in a base shotgun set. Cooks is lined up at the bottom of the screen circled in red. The playcall is a straight fade to Cooks. There are no bells & whistles, no real fakes or anything on this play, just a straight Go route to the bottomside receiver.
What this play showcases is Cooks’s explosiveness at the snap. He wheels outside. The slot corner literally hasn’t even moved to this point in this play. The slot receiver is almost as slow. Furthermore, the outside corner (the one on Cooks) is now reacting to the receiver, rather than reading the route. He is trying to play press on a speed receiver, which leads to him staying on his inside hip at the outset of the play. This plays directly into a burner like Cooks’s hands.
These two stills are within a fraction of a second of each other. The top still is the corner attempting to read the route and impede Cooks’s progress underneath. The bottom still is, of course, the result of that effort. Cooks uses the corner’s attempt to turn his momentum against him and create more separation. Furthermore, this is a 10 yard fade. What that means is run 10 yards and look up. This play also showcases how Cooks can "track" the ball. He doesn’t let the corner’s attempt to throw him off the route shake his focus on the ball and continues running his route.
This is what I call a very "safe" catch. The ball is slightly underthrown, so Cooks feels the safety coming high and turns his body to catch the ball. This allows him to brace for the backside impact while still keeping a read on the ball. We’ve seen this a lot as Saints fans, as Brees oftentimes underthrows his deep throws in an attempt to let his receivers come back to it and not leave them high & dry. This is exactly why.
If you want to know why we drafted this kid, however, look no further than this play right here. Again, it’s a base shotgun formation. Cooks is lined up on the bottom of the screen in the white square.
As per usual on his screens, Cooks jabs downfield before cutting back for his screen. This freezes the corner long enough for the right tackle to come out & pick him up and creates space for Cooks.
Now Cooks is free to do what he does best: work in the open field. He is one on one with a safety in the middle on this play. Other Oregon players (at this point) are either taken out of the play or too far away.
Rather than turning upfield, Cooks goes laterally, knowing that the safety is going to attempt to guess his direction. When he sees Cooks open his hips towards the opposite hashmarks, the safety makes a diving attempt that Cooks simply outruns.
After that evasion, he immediately finds himself face to face with the free safety. Cooks breaks down in front of him, recognizing his space in all directions.
After his breakdown, Cooks reverses back to the middle of the field, leaving the FS straggling behind. This play would get OSU a first down on one of the simplest concepts in football: Give it to the fast guy and watch him run.
However, for all of his perks, Cooks is not without his flaws. Size has been a big flag for him since day 1, but that’s not all that it comes down to. His hands aren’t small, they’re 9 ¾ inches, but he does drop his share. Furthermore, he sometimes struggles with attacking the ball rather than letting it come to him, as many other receivers with a smaller catch radius do.
This play towards the end of the Oregon game is a prime example of both of these phenomena. OSU is in a shotgun trips set, with Cooks lining up topside.
The concept of this play is simple, and I understand that it is blurry. It’s a 20 yard post to Cooks to try to get Oregon in position to get themselves into field goal ranges. It’s a one read 5 step drop to Cooks. The ball has just been thrown off of Cooks’s break, and he has created a yard or two of separation from the corner.
Now, no one is going to sit and say that this is an easy catch. It isn’t. However, if you’re a number one receiver on a one read route, you have to make this play. His head is on the ball, it’s in his hands, the corner is draped on him, but he isn’t playing the ball. Situation is also important. There are 12 seconds left in the game, your team is down by one with 2 timeouts, and you have an opportunity to put yourself on the opponent’s 40 yard line. There is no reason to not catch this ball. The other thing he does wrong on this play is that he plays it passively. He posts himself up and waits to time his jump. A receiver needs to come back and attack it for the catch. For a guy like Cooks, this also creates opportunities after the catch, which of course is where he thrives.
Cooks’s speed and agility should play right into Coach Sean Payton’s screen-happy offense. The kid is an absolute magician out there, and he’ll really be able to complement an offense that was entirely too dependent on the running backs in the screen game. Cooks should instill the fear of god in defenses that think that they know where Brees is going to go with the football, whether it’s in third and intermediate or second and long situations, Payton’s two favorite times to go underneath.
All in all, Cooks is a tremendous draft pick. His strengths are in his route running, his pure speed, his agility, and his deceptive nature (read: the constant big play threat). His weaknesses lie in his size, his reduced catch radius, and a more passive nature when it comes to catching the ball that what would be considered ideal. The latter is teachable, and the Saints have done their homework on the former. Besides, when Drew Brees is your quarterback, it’s a bit easier to take chances on smaller receivers. Cooks has the potential to come into the NFL and make an immediate impact. And for a Saints offense that seemed to sputter at times last season, there is no one else that they could have picked that could do what he can for the Saints’ offense.
Useful Saints Draft Links
Saints 2014 Draft Picks
20th Overall (Round 1) - Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon St.
58th Overall (Round 2)
126th Overall (Round 4)
167th Overall (Round 5)
169th Overall (Round 5)
202nd Overall (Round 6)
Top Remaining Positions of Need
- Offensive Tackle