Over his first three years in the NFL, Brandin Cooks has grown into one of the most productive young wide receivers in the league. The 2014 first round draft pick has caught 215 passes for the New Orleans Saints, gaining 2,861 yards and scoring 20 touchdowns. Cooks was a trustworthy and reliable target for Drew Brees. In 2017, however, he will no longer catch passes from one of the best quarterbacks of his generation.
Instead, he will catch passes from the best quarterback of his generation (and beyond): Tom Brady. In March, the New England Patriots traded first and third round draft selections for Cooks and a fourth round choice. Last Saturday, during the Patriots' preseason contest against the Houston Texans, the high-priced acquisition first saw the field as a member of the team – finishing with one catch for seven yards.
Let's take a closer look at Cooks' performance (without the benefit of the all-22 film, which only gets released during the regular season and playoffs) to a) see how the Patriots' used him and b) maybe draw conclusions about how this usage might translate into the regular season. Overall, he was on the field for a combined 16 of 16 snaps through two offensive series.
1-10-NE 6 (10:35) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short right to J.Edelman.
Brandin Cooks aligned in the left-side slot in an 11-personnel 2x2 formation and ran the deepest pattern on the field: An in with the wideout making the cut about 10 yards into the route. Tom Brady did not look his way, however, and with his primary targets on the right side was forced to throw the football away due to pressure.
2-10-NE 6 (10:30) T.Brady pass short left to B.Cooks to NE 13 for 7 yards (K.Johnson).
The Patriots' second offensive play of the game saw Cooks catch his first pass for the team. Prior to the snap, he aligned as the single weak-side receiver in a 21-personnel package. The Texans, having seen him in practice during the week leading up to the game, were obviously aware of his ability to stretch the field; they again played off-man cover 2.
After a short five-step drop during which Brady quickly moved his eyes from the right to the left side, the quarterback delivered the pass to his new target. Cooks (#14) ran a quick out with the cut coming about five yards deep for an easy pitch-and-catch completion:
The play gained seven yards but perfectly illustrates what Cooks brings to the table. He has the quickness to easily get open on short routes while defenses simultaneously will have to respect his straight-line speed and skill to attack deep and intermediate areas. This creates numerous possibilities for the Patriots when it comes to route-designs or using Cooks as a decoy to open the underneath zones.
3-3-NE 13 (9:56) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to J.White pushed ob at NE 17 for 4 yards (E.Pleasant).
On the next snap, the Patriots used an 11-personnel package with Cooks again aligning as the single weak-side receiver. New England ran a quick pass to running back James White in the left flat, resulting in a gain of four yards and a new set of downs. And while he did not appear on the stat sheet for the play, Cooks played an integral role in making it happen.
The Oregon State product ran a hitch route from his spot in the formation but quickly initiated contact with the defender in coverage, cornerback Kevin Johnson (#30):
This not only took Johnson out of the play for an extended period of time but also forced Texans strong safety Eddie Pleasant (#35), the player responsible for White (#28), to take some extra steps before reaching the ball carrier. An important aspect when it comes to a play like this – one that lives through its timing and has minimal room for error.
1-10-NE 17 (9:28) R.Burkhead left guard to NE 25 for 8 yards (B.McKinney).
On the first down play that followed, Cooks originally lined up split out wide to the right as the lone wide receiver in a 22-personnel jumbo package. However, prior to the snap he motioned across the formation – a move that would be well suited for a jet sweep – and ultimately served as a downfield blocker on the designated run by Rex Burkhead. Cooks was able to shove cornerback Kareem Jackson out of the way to help the runner make an additional cut for two more yards.
2-2-NE 25 (8:57) R.Burkhead up the middle to NE 23 for -2 yards (J.Watt).
New England also opted to run the ball on the very next play. Cooks aligned as the single left-side wide receiver in the 12-personnel package the Patriots used. He was again designated as a blocker but was unable to have an impact due to the fact that defensive lineman J.J. Watt tackled Burkhead before he even reached the line of scrimmage.
3-4-NE 23 (8:17) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short right to J.Edelman
The Patriots went back to the pass again on the ensuing third down. The Patriots used a 3x2 10-personnel alignment with Cooks once more on the left side (the weak side of the formation), as the Z in a two-man stack. He ran a fade route against the Texans' man coverage but was unable to get open against Kareem Jackson. With pressure around the edges, Brady opted to target Julian Edelman, who failed to make the catch. New England was forced to punt.
1-10-NE 25 (1:13) T.Brady pass deep right intended for C.Hogan INTERCEPTED by A.Hal at NE 46. A.Hal ran ob at NE 46 for no gain. The Replay Official reviewed the pass interception ruling, and the play was REVERSED. T.Brady pass incomplete deep right to C.Hogan (A.Hal).
The Patriots' second drive of the day started with Brandin Cooks again split out wide to the left side of a 12-personnel formation. As the single wide receiver on his half of the field, Cooks ran a deep pattern. The exact nature of the route (go? post? corner? fade?) was impossible to make out given the lack of an all-22 tape.
What was possible to make out, though, was Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson covering Cooks with a seven-yard cushion and help over the top in an attempt to take away the deep ball. Of course, this once again shows the respect Houston had for the 23-year old's abilities in the deep passing game. If other defenses play it similarly, New England could be able to exploit the lighter areas in the short and intermediate areas of the field.
2-10-NE 25 (1:08) (Shotgun) R.Burkhead left guard to NE 27 for 2 yards (B.Cushing). PENALTY on HST-D.Reader, Defensive Holding, 5 yards, enforced at NE 27.
New England used a slot alignment on the left side of its 11-personnel formation on 2nd and 10. Cooks lined up as the outside receiver with Danny Amendola in the slot. Neither of the two ran a route, though, as the Patriots went with a draw run that ultimately gained a couple of yards. At the snap, Cooks went straight ahead but cut inwards after three yards to serve as a blocker.
However, his assignment – once again Jackson – was quick to recognize the play and Cooks was unable to get his hands on him. Then again, it would not have mattered as Rex Burkhead was unable to get to the second level.
1-10-NE 32 (:59) R.Burkhead right guard to NE 35 for 3 yards (D.Reader).
After a holding call against Houston moved the chains, New England went back to the ground game on 1st and 10. Cooks' role was the same as one play earlier: Aligning as the lone receiver on the weak side of the formation, he quickly moved inwards. However, he again did not have any impact on the play as Burkhead ran behind the right side of the line and was stopped after three yards.
2-7-NE 35 (:23) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short right to R.Burkhead pushed ob at HST 49 for 16 yards (B.Cushing)
On the very next play, New England used the pass again. Cooks aligned as the left-side Z – the middle receiver – in the team's 12-personnel 3x1 formation. Houston's defense covered him with a deep cushion, as they did with the boundary receiver, fullback James Develin. While the ultimate routes run on this side were not possible to make out by the television broadcast, the coverage invites to use high-low concepts:
The Patriots did this but Brady went for a quick pass to the opposite flat. Variations of this concept could very much be used in the future, though – especially with teams respecting Cooks' deep game. On a high-low play, one of the receivers on this side of the formation would go deep, with the other running an in- or out-cutting route underneath (Develin, for example, ran a quick curl). Due to the off-man coverage, the underneath player would ideally find himself with plenty of space to work with.
1-10-HST 49 (15:00) T.Brady pass short right to R.Burkhead pushed ob at HST 37 for 12 yards (J.Joseph) [U.Kamalu].
The first play of the second quarter presumably saw Cooks line up as one of two skill position players on the left side of the formation. However, the Texans' broadcast cut back to the game too late and by that time, Cooks was no longer visible as he likely ran a deep pattern.
1-10-HST 37 (14:35) R.Burkhead right guard to HST 33 for 4 yards (B.Dunn).
2-6-HST 33 (14:05) R.Burkhead up the middle to HST 30 for 3 yards (B.Scarlett).
Cooks lined up on the left side on the next two plays – both runs down the middle. On both plays, he moved to the interior following the snap to serve as a blocker; both times he was able to engage the players opposite him. But again, both times his impact was minimal.
3-3-HST 30 (13:37) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short right to D.Amendola pushed ob at HST 24 for 6 yards (A.Hal).
On the ensuing 3rd down, the Patriots employed Cooks on the right slot side of the 3x2 formation. With Amendola in the slot and the Texans playing off-man coverage again, the offense opted to use one of the above-mentioned high-low concepts to create space – in this particular case for Amendola (#80), who was able to pick up a new set of downs on a six-yard reception:
Cooks ran a deep pattern with Amendola running a quick out to the flat. With the newest Patriots receiver running off the coverage, the veteran had plenty of space to operate and catch Brady's pass for a 1st down.
1-10-HST 24 (13:13) R.Burkhead right tackle to HST 22 for 2 yards (B.Cushing; U.Kamalu).
New England again used Cooks as the boundary receiver in a right-side slot formation on the next play. The play stayed on the ground, though, with Cooks quickly engaging his man and sustaining his block until the whistle was blown. The Patriots' coaching staff places a lot of emphasis on receivers' blocking skills – and Cooks' were on display on this particular play.
2-8-HST 22 (12:46) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short middle to R.Burkhead for 22 yards, TOUCHDOWN
One play later, the Patriots' starting offense scored its first touchdown of the preseason. Cooks aligned as the single weak side receiver on the right side of the formation. Houston countered with a cover 3 man-to-man defense and Cooks was able to gain separation on a fade route down the sideline against the on-man coverage.
However, the ball went elsewhere as Brady was forced to release a quick pass to Burkhead underneath. The play was still a success, however, as the running back had plenty of space for a run-and-score from 22 yards out.
All in all, it was no spectacular debut for Brandin Cooks. Still, it was a somewhat revealing 16 snaps as the team was not afraid to use its new wideout in a multitude of roles in both the passing and the running game. With opening day exactly two weeks away, Cooks appears to fit in well into the Patriots' system – and tomorrow against the Detroit Lions we might see even more of that.