Film review: Cooks gives Patriots versatile big-play threat

Film review: Cooks gives Patriots versatile big-play threat

Brandin Cooks sounded like a player who felt he wasn't being used to his full potential.

Nearly four months after he wasn't targeted in a Saints win over the Rams and told NOLA.com that "closed mouths don't get fed," Cooks spoke to members of the New England media on a conference call and indicated that he could've been used differently in New Orleans.

"As a young guy, I think there were some things that I would’ve liked to have done more," the newest Patriots receiver said. "Not like I wasn’t able to do them. We just had great guys doing those other things so if it’s not broken why fix it?

"But coming to New England it seems like it’s an offense that guys do a bunch of different things and I’m looking forward to being able to do some things that I didn’t necessarily have to do in New Orleans, hopefully to get the chance here and do it here."

When pressed for specifics on what he wished he could have done with the Saints, Cooks said that he didn't want to get into details.

That Cooks was at all frustrated with his role -- barring that one target-less game last season -- is noteworthy because he has been on a historically-productive pace over the course of the last two seasons.

Only three players in each of the last two years have recorded 75 catches, 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. Cooks was one of them, joining Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr.

Perhaps the best window into Cooks' feelings last year came courtesy of this piece from ESPN's Mike Triplett in November. In it, Cooks pointed out that he wanted to show the Saints coaching staff that he can be more than a deep threat.

“I know that’s what I can do,” Cooks said. “It’s just a matter of having the opportunities to do it, and when they present themselves, taking advantage of it, to be able to put that on film for the coaches.

“To get them to understand -- which I think they already do -- that I’m a tough player, and I’m gonna continue to work at that, to not just be one-dimensional. And as I continue to remind them, I feel like they trust me and they will continue to put me in those positions when the time comes.”

Cooks may have been disappointed in the number of opportunities he was asked to serve in certain roles, but a review of his tape from 2016 reveals that he was actually anything but one-dimensional in New Orleans.

For a glimpse at what he may be asked to in New England -- where the long-standing mantra has been "the more you can do..." -- let's have a look at the variety of ways in which he was used while with the Saints.

DEEP THREAT
Cooks didn't want to be put in a box as strictly a down-the-field target in New Orleans, and he wasn't. (Per Pro Football Focus, 21.2 percent of passes sent his way were "deep passes," meaning they traveled 20 yards or more down the field.)

Had he been? He still would've been one of the league's top game-breaking threats.

Only five wideouts caught more deep targets than Cooks (11), and only DeSean Jackson -- who caught five more deep passes than Cooks -- picked up more total yardage on those types of passes. Cooks didn't drop a single deep attempt.

Cooks ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, and his speed stresses corners and safeties alike. During his 98-yard score against the Raiders in Week 1 of the regular season, he was checked at the line of scrimmage by corner Sean Smith with safety Reggie Nelson shaded over the top. Cooks quickly beat Smith at the line, and he simply ran by Nelson's help despite the fact that Nelson was cheating in that direction.



The speed with which Cooks gets on top of defenders and his quickness in and out of his breaks also makes him a double-move demon. Post-corners, stop-and-gos, out-and-ups all gave opposing defensive backs fits with Cooks bearing down on them.

He burned the Broncos twice in Week 10 on long-developing plays, hitting them for a 37-yard gain on an out-and-up and a 32-yard touchdown when he sold a post and then headed straight up-field past a flat-footed TJ Ward.



In Week 14, Cooks victimized the Bucs with a stop-and-go move out of the slot that allowed him to beat both corners in the area. It also subjected him to a massive hit from the on-coming safety, but as he did at the end of both big plays against the Broncos, he protected the football and finished the catch. 



In his quote to ESPN back in November he alluded to the fact that he wanted to prove to coaches that he was a tough player. Hanging on in those types of situations should have done just that.

SLOT WORK
Cooks isn't considered a slot receiver, but according to PFF, more than a third of his routes came from inside. 

He ran a variety of patterns from that spot -- including quick-outs, slants, stops and shallow crosses -- and was targeted often in the short-to-intermediate passing game upon which the Patriots offense has relied for years under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. 

He was targeted 48 times (out of 113) in the area between zero and nine yards from the line of scrimmage. Twenty-seven of his targets, and three of his eight touchdowns, came over the middle of the field between the numbers from the area between the line of scrimmage and 19 yards down the field. 

Cooks isn't always used inside -- perhaps in part because he's not as prone to forcing missed tackles (three last season) as someone like Julian Edelman (14) -- but his short-area quickness allows him to find small openings quickly when things get crowded.

"I definitely think I can do that at a high level," he said of playing in the slot. "It’ll be all about what coach [Bill] Belichick and the offense think I can fit well at and just doing my job the best that I can."

Cooks also has the rare ability to catch a pass close to the line of scrimmage and turn it into an explosive gain.

In Week 15 against the Cardinals, Cooks emerged from the bunch formation on the left side of the line of scrimmage and broke over the middle with Tyrann Mathieu trailing in coverage. Once Drew Brees' pass found its mark, Cooks turned up the field and out-ran the rest of the Arizona secondary.



SWISS-ARMY SPEEDSTER
Though the Saints had plenty of other offensive weapons, they tried to find creative ways to get Cooks the football -- or fake getting him the football while opposing defenses were zeroed-in on his speed. 

As the Patriots often do with all of their receivers, big or small, Cooks was used in the screen game and was targeted eight times behind the line of scrimmage. 



He was also used out of the backfield as a receiver, catching one of his touchdowns when aligned next to Brees out of the shotgun with a 49ers linebacker on him in coverage. His wheel route up the right sideline was easy pickings. 



Cooks was also used on a half-dozen jet sweeps last season. He never broke one for a gain of longer than 11 yards, but he posed a problem for back-side defenders forced to stay home and honor his speed. Saints coach Sean Payton often asked Cooks to serve as a decoy, dialing up fake jet-sweep handoffs when the ball was headed in the opposite direction.  



Cooks has rare tools that will allow the Patriots to deploy him in whatever manner they deem fit based on the opponent or the situation. Need someone to stretch the field and take a safety with him? He can do that. Need someone to work the slot in the red zone and take advantage of a small opening in coverage? He's done it. Need someone to provide the occasional gadget play out of the backfield? No problem. 

It may not have been a lack in variety of roles that had Cooks less than pleased in New Orleans -- he did damn near everything but run the triple-option. It may have been the frequency with which, or lack thereof, he was used creatively that bothered him. 

It's unclear exactly how the Patriots will use Cooks, but if history is any indication the coaching staff in New England won't hesitate to exploit the versatility of its newly-acquired 23-year-old dynamo. The more you can do...

Hightower, Branch will begin training camp on PUP list

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Hightower, Branch will begin training camp on PUP list

The Patriots will be without two of last year's defensive starters when training camp begins later this week. 

Both Dont'a Hightower and Alan Branch were placed on the physically unable to perform list on Monday. They are eligible to come off the list at any time. Once they are removed from the list, they will be eligible to practice fully. Players on PUP count against the 90-man training-camp roster.

Undrafted rookie tackle Andrew Jelks will begin camp on the active/non-football injury list. The Vanderbilt product dealt with knee injuries that kept him off the field each of the last two seasons. 

Neither Hightower, nor Branch, nor Jelks participated in spring practices at Gillette Stadium. Hightower was present for voluntary work, but during practices open to the media he typically did some conditioning off to the side. Branch skipped optional team activities (as he usually does), and though he was in Foxboro for mandatory minicamp, he did not practice during that three-day stretch.

Hightower was limited last season with knee and shoulder injuries. The MMQB.com's Albert Breer said on Sports Sunday that Hightower's health concerns made teams reticent to make him offers that would lure him away from New England. 

Report: Patriots in talks with CB Brandon Flowers

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Report: Patriots in talks with CB Brandon Flowers

In what’s been a somewhat busy offseason for their secondary, veteran cornerback Brandon Flowers is in talks with the Patriots, according to Adam Schefter. 

Flowers, who spent the first six seasons of his career with the Chiefs and last three with the Chargers, was released in March. He is set to meet with the Cardinals this week as well. 

The Pats lost cornerback Logan Ryan this offseason, but landed the top free agent corner on the market in Stephon Gilmore. A potential addition of Flowers might give them an insurance policy if second-year pro Cyrus Jones fails to improve from a dismal rookie season. 

Flowers was limited to just six games last season, as a concussion ended his season in December. He has played in at least 11 games in the rest of his NFL seasons. His lone Pro Bowl nod came in the 2013 season.