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Brandin Cooks vs. Darren Sproles: Why One Can't Replace Another

After trading Darren Sproles for a 5th round pick and then trading up for Brandin Cooks in the 1st round, Saints fans are wondering which niche Cooks will fill, with the idea he'll be replacing Sproles becoming more and more popular. However, that isn't how the NFL works. While these two may have similar qualities, using Cooks the same way Sproles was used would be a mistake.

Stacy Revere

Throughout this offseason, pundits and fans alike have discussed the departure of running back Darren Sproles to the Eagles in conjunction with who will fill his shoes.  The most recent trend is to say that first round wide receiver Brandin Cooks will step into the role, and that he will start to be the jack of all trades athlete that the Saints had in Sproles.

What this is, is an intervention.  Would this actually be ideal for the Saints?  As tremendously explosive as Sproles is, he was a vet with years upon years to carve out a niche, first with the Chargers, and then within the Sean Payton offense.  The fact is that Cooks and Sproles aren't the same player.  They may have a few similar tendencies, but there are attributes which set them apart.

This is from Monday Night Week 4, arguably Sproles's best game of 2014.  This was, in practice, very nearly the Saints base offense with Sproles on the field in 2014.  Sproles lines up in the slot of an empty backfield spread formation.  The Dolphins are playing pure man to man on this play, as will become apparent at the snap.

Everyone here likely knows about the Sean Payton love affair with the screen pass, and if everyone here knows it, the Dolphins most certainly did.  On the surface, this looks like a clearout screen to Sproles. Before the snap, the outside receiver was sent in motion outside the numbers, indicated by the blue circle/lines.  The red is Sproles's route.  It's a 3 step out, and the free safety on the play (the man assigned to cover him) makes a beeline to cut off Sproles's route, highlighted in green.

Both players retain their colors to highlight their paths throughout the play.  The moment that the free safety undercuts Sproles's route, Sproles adjusts his to a wheel and sprints downfield.  The safety ends up several steps behind Sproles, and Brees completes the easy pass for 48 yards.

What this gif illustrates is the separation that he creates (note: it's a bit sped up).  The wheel route is based on a defender attempting to undercut a route, and since so many of Sproles's routes are underneath, he's the ideal candidate to run this route.

The next play is the exact reason that the safety bit so hard on the clearout screen.  This occurred later in the very same game, and it is Sproles in his more utilized role: The scat / screen back.  The Saints combat the Dolphins' predator defense with a singleback shotgun in which Sproles is the back.

Immediately at the snap, Sproles takes 3 hops to his left, looking upfield the whole way, as though he's staying in as a blocking back.  This technique causes the pass rushers to ignore him, believing him to be a non-factor at the snap.

And this array is the result of forgetting about the scat back.  Sproles catches the ball 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage with daylight all the way up the field.  After that, it all comes down to vision and burst, as evidenced by the play itself, seen here:

He's patient, he makes the cuts that he has to after he sees the hole, explodes through it, and Sproles ends up with 21 yards and a Saints first down on the play.

Brandin Cooks is supposedly the prodigal son of Sproles.  However, there are some problems with this school of thought.  Cooks and Sproles have dissimilar styles but similar traits.  Where Sproles beats defenders with cuts and reads, Cooks beats them with route-running and pure speed.  Another thing that Saints fans have learned as time has gone on is that if you try to make a player a jack of all trades, they end up spending too much time on the field and getting hurt.  That cannot happen with Cooks.  He has the potential to be far too invaluable to the Sean Payton offense to risk losing him.  Of course, I'm not suggesting don't use him to his full capacity, just don't overstretch him.

Writer's Note: Forgive me for this Cooks section, coaching film for college ball is far more difficult to find as there is no premium service for it.

Oregon State lines up in a singleback set with Cooks as the Z receiver.  Oregon State is running a post play against Cal's man to man coverage.

The corner actually nearly stays with Cooks step for step on his post, but at the break inside Cooks is able to create an inch of separation with pure speed.  The pass is completed down the field, and Cooks blows the top off of the Cal defense.

However, Cooks's specialty isn't just downfield routes.  He can be utilized in a more Sprolesesque capacity (but he's not, and I cannot reiterate this enough, a Sproles replacement).  Oregon State used Cooks in a lot of different ways throughout his career.

OSU comes out in a trips formation with Cooks on the inside.  This is the first OSU play of the game.  Cal is running their base 4-3 defense.  Cooks, who lined up as the Z to start the play, was sent in motion to play on the inside shoulder of the slot receiver.

Upon the reception, Cooks has 3 options for where to attack, indicated by the three arrows.  He can go inside (the quickest route) of the blocking slot, taking his chances 1v1 with the outside linebacker, between the receivers, relying on them to hold their blocks long enough for him to break through, or outside of the new X receiver.  If we make this a quiz, based on position, which would you take?

Cooks ends up taking D: None of the above.  He dekes outside, drawing out the corner (#15) and cuts back in, creating space for himself.  The play ends up going for about 15 yards and a first down.  In order to see the move that he makes, look here:

It's a zig-zag pattern, but it still gets him from point A to point B in a quick manner, allowing him upfield.

The point being illustrated here is that Cooks and Sproles are different players.  Saints fans loved Sproles while he wore the black & gold, and for good reason.  Sproles was dynamic, and he had one of the quickest cuts in the game.  However, just because Cooks is a dynamic wild card potential type player doesn't mean that that's the best fit for him.  Cooks should be moved all over the field because of his talent set, of course, but he should also be protected.  Cooks's best plays at Oregon State were those in which he was isolated on corners, creating space for himself.  He's a fast, talented receiver with big play potential, so to use him as a scat player the way that Sproles was used would be disingenuous.

Another major point being ignored by advocates of this idea is the simplest one: Cooks is a receiver, and Sproles is a running back.  Sure, they can be used in different capacities, but Cooks and Colston splitting out can be a perfect fire & ice combination that the Saints haven't seen in quite some time.  Of course they'll move him inside & outside, but the duties and the priorities of backs and receivers are very different.

The fact is that there are no carbon copy players in the NFL.  No player can "replace" another, and to suggest as much undercuts the point of drafting "new" talent.  If the Saints wanted a replacement for Sproles, they wouldn't have traded him for a 5th round pick before trading up for Cooks.  Despite the fact that he'd lost a step, Sproles was still a valuable part of the Sean Payton offense last season, and there was no reason he couldn't make an impact again.  Either player can be a key cog in the Sean Payton offense, but the gears have different rivets.  That's what makes these players unique.  If carbon copies could be drafted and molded, the league would be a far more boring game, because while players can fill the same roles, they'll still do so in different ways.

**A very special thanks to Clay Wendler for the Saints vs. Dolphins GIFS.  Excellent work as always and appreciated as well.