FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It doesn’t take long to locate wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the New England Patriots' locker room. He’s the third locker on the right, and a logjam of media members was there Wednesday afternoon.
Cooks was sitting at his locker, his back turned to the crowd, before catching a glimpse of the horde and flashing a knowing smile that basically said: I’ve been expecting you.
Now in his fourth NFL season, Cooks has been around long enough to know how these things work.
He spent his first three years with the New Orleans Saints, who selected him in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. Now he’s with the Patriots, who traded a 2017 first-round pick to acquire him. The Patriots visit the Saints on Sunday, and that makes Cooks one of the big storylines of the week.
As always, Cooks was engaging with reporters, at times flashing what Saints coach Sean Payton has described as “a great smile." Even so, Cooks downplayed his return to New Orleans, which he’s trying to treat as just another game because “when you start to get hyped up too much, you psyche yourself out.”
Cooks, 23, also reflected on the day he received a call from Payton informing him of the trade, with a “respectful” delivery.
“We ended on a great note. I love him. He did me well when I was there. There’s no bad blood at all,” Cooks said. “I loved every bit of playing there. They gave me an opportunity, first team coming into the NFL. You have to respect that, and respect the owners, [general manager] Mickey [Loomis], Sean for believing in me, and there’s a lot of great memories made.”
Cooks also described quarterback Drew Brees as “family," and seemed genuinely flattered by Brees’ remarks that Cooks should receive a nice reception from Saints fans because “a lot of people liked him and respected him; he was a big part of our team.”
In six months, Cooks has earned a high level of respect from many in the Patriots organization, and he’s quickly become a key cog on offense. He had three catches for 88 yards in the season-opening loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, and also drew four penalties for 46 yards.
But as Patriots coach Bill Belichick often points out, it’s about the entire body of work more than one game, and one of the first things Belichick mentioned about Cooks is that he hasn’t missed a practice all year. Quarterback Tom Brady, for his part, has been impressed with Cooks’ professionalism.
“I’ve just loved the time I’ve had with him. He’s been so much fun to play with and to work with,” Brady said. “He’s got great talent but he’s even a better person: young, professional, diligent, competitive. I have just nothing but great things to say about him.”
The Patriots will have to rely on the speedy Cooks even more Sunday because he’s one of the team’s only healthy receivers, along with Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett. When the Saints’ Payton watched him in his debut with the Patriots, it struck him that Cooks was playing more as the X receiver, whereas in New Orleans, he most often lined up as the Z.
Otherwise, Payton sees the same thing he saw in New Orleans.
“Him getting down the field, stretching the defense,” he said. “Obviously, he is someone you have to really pay attention to where he is and stay on top of. He can run extremely well. ... He’s a great competitor and comes to work every day with an intensity each rep. There’s not really an off-speed rep for him and the way he prepares.”
That helps explain why Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is among those Cooks has impressed in New England.
“Brandin came in with a great attitude,” he said. “He’s worked extremely hard to learn his role, his jobs in our system. He’s been on the field every day. He’s a very intelligent football player, certainly has a lot of skill. And we’re still getting used to all the things we could do with our entire group this year, but I think Brandin’s really done everything we’ve asked him to do. ... So he’s been really a great addition.”
Cooks said he isn’t sure about the type of reception he’ll receive Sunday from New Orleans fans, saying, “We left off on a great note; I love the fans. But hey, I don’t know. It’s an away game, so you’re expecting what away fans give you, right?”
Away from football, Cooks said what he misses most about New Orleans is the food. As for what he’s come to appreciate in New England, it’s “the history of Boston, a special place.” Specifically, he’s enjoyed visiting the North End neighborhood, and also found his way to Harvard earlier this week.
“I had to feel smart again," he cracked. "I felt like I was going to class."
Cooks’ studious ways have helped ease his transition from the Saints to the Patriots. On picking up the Patriots’ offensive system, he said, “I don’t think it was a hard transition at all.”
Although it’s only the second week of the season, it's timely to revisit that transition with Cooks as he makes his first return to New Orleans since the trade.