I’m not sure what the New England Patriots envisioned when they acquired WR Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints. I saw a player that could be a faster version of Deion Branch, one of the many receivers that formed a supernatural bond with QB Tom Brady.
Most of Branch’s time with the Patriots came before Brady was Brady, but the two were able to connect based on Branch’s ability to make the same read as Brady and generate quick separation- basically the same ability that every receiver that has ever thrived in the Patriots offense has shown.
“It’s hard to really compare anybody to Branch,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said back in August of 2016, coincidentally while the Patriots were holding joint practices with the Saints. “Branch had a rare quickness. I mean, what’d he run, like a three-seven short-shuttle? You just don’t see that. Deion was very, very quick and very smart. I’m not saying there aren’t other smart receivers, but Deion was really a smart receiver and very, very quick.
“We’ve had quick guys like Troy [Brown], and Julian [Edelman], and Wes [Welker], guys like that. But it wasn’t Deion, they didn’t have Deion’s kind of quickness. They may have more size than Deion, they were probably a little better after the catch in terms of bulk, and strength, and breaking tackles and all that, but Deion’s short space quickness was pretty good.
“I don’t think we’ve had a guy with his kind of quickness. I don’t know that too many other teams have. They might have been quick but not with all of the other things, but when you put Deion together with his hands, his instincts – which were very good – his overall intelligence and his short space quickness. He was not the biggest guy, not the strongest guy but he was hard to cover. His quickness was tough to cover. It’d be hard to compare anybody to him because he was pretty unique with the level of quickness that he had.”
Cooks wasn’t given the opportunity to generate many yards after the catch in the short- and intermediate-game with the Saints, playing primarily as a deep threat. The Patriots might hope to capture Cooks’ short-area quickness- Cooks’ 3.81s shuttle rivals Branch’s 3.78s- with a similar usage to that of Branch, in addition to using him on his proven deep-ball ability.
In other words, Cooks could be an upgraded version of Deion Branch. In order to do that, Cooks will have to work on his yards after the catch ability and former Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr. is his model.
"His yards after the catch were unbelievable, he was a great blocker and his tenacity until the whistle blows was probably second to none," Cooks told Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei. "That intensity he brought to the game, you see why people didn't want to go against him. I'd like to have his tenacity and his ability to get yards after the catch. I don't want to be just a guy who blows the top off. I want to be able to catch a hitch or slant and take it the distance."
Smith measured 5’9, 184 pounds, but played like a giant on the field. Pompei reports that Cooks has trained with and learned from Smith to pick his brain. Smith retired this past offseason with the 7th-most receiving yards in NFL history and a reputation for being a fighter on the field.
"Steve’s had a real good career," Belichick said back in 2015. "I think he’s a real good player on all three levels: short, intermediate and deep. He’s got good run-after-catch skills, so he can take a short pass a long way.
"Good route runner and he’s made some big plays on the deep ball with his speed and ball skills and downfield judgment, and obviously with a quarterback who can throw it very well down there. Yeah, he’s a dangerous guy."
Belichick tried to recruit Smith to New England for the 2014 season before the receiver signed with Baltimore. The Patriots want their receivers to be able to attack a defense at all levels because it makes the offense all-the-more difficult to defend. If Cooks can play like Smith, then the Patriots will be happy.
But if you ask a former teammate of Cooks there is another receiver on the radar.
"I think of Antonio Brown," Cooks’ former teammate of three years Luke McCown told Pompei. "His first three years in the league, he was fast, a good receiver. But when he hit that middle ground—that fourth, fifth year, when he knew how to use his speed to his advantage and married it with an understanding of how to run routes and set defenders up—that's when he really took off. Hopefully that's what you are going to see from Brandin Cooks coming up."
After a quiet 167-yard rookie season in a stacked Steelers offense (competing with Mike Wallace, Hines Ward, and Emmanuel Sanders for snaps!) the 5’10 Brown showed flashes of ability over the next two years, averaging 65.3 yards per game. Once Wallace left the Steelers after the 2012 season, Brown stepped into the leading role as the focal target in the offense, averaging 100.2 yards per game and 11 touchdowns per yer over the next four seasons.
Cooks had a better rookie season than Brown, averaging 55.0 yards per game, and stepped up as the best receiver for the Saints in his second and third years, averaging 72.2 receiving yards per game, slightly ahead of Brown’s pace. If Cooks can take a similar fourth- and fifth-year jump as Brown, then the Patriots will have another superstar in the offense.
Of course, Cooks will have a hard time copying Brown’s production because, as Randy Moss explained, the Patriots have too many targets that deserve opportunities. Brown has averaged 11.0 targets per game over the past four seasons, while the #2 target in the offense averages around 7 targets per game and the running back averaged 6 targets.
The Patriots already have Julian Edelman averaging 9.7 targets per game over the past four years and Rob Gronkowski averaging 7.9. Unless Cooks greatly reduces the targets for both Edelman and Gronkowski- or players like the running backs- then there just aren’t 11 targets per game available for Cooks.
That said, if Cooks proves himself to be a Brown-like talent, then perhaps the Patriots would be comfortable feeding him targets at the expense of the other players.
And if Cooks can fall anywhere in the same category as Branch, Smith, or Brown, then the Patriots offense will be all the more dangerous.