Saints mailbag: Expect breakout year from Brandin Cooks

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@MikeTriplett: You just answered your own question.

I'm expecting really big things from Brandin Cooks this year, and I'd be feeling that way even if the Saints didn't lose their two leading pass-catchers from last season, Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills.

As we saw last year, Cooks is a dynamic speedster who will catch a ton of passes on shorter routes (screens, etc.). But I expect even more big plays from him this year, as well. The Saints were just starting to consistently hit on some deep balls to Cooks before he suffered his season-ending thumb injury in Week 10.

Cooks finished with 53 catches for 550 yards, which would have translated to 85 catches for 880 yards in a full season. It's not unrealistic to expect him to approach 100 catches or 1,000-plus yards now with Graham and Stills gone.

I also expect veteran Marques Colston to put up his usual 900 yards and five TDs -- which wouldn't be a breakout, but he shouldn't be forgotten.

Beyond that, it depends on your perspective. Coach Sean Payton has repeatedly praised second-year pros Seantavius Jones and Brandon Coleman throughout this offseason as guys with serious talent and real shots at significant roles this year. But I still see them both behind Nick Toon in the pecking order for now, so it's hard to predict major breakouts.

Toon has a great opportunity to be heavily involved if he locks down the No. 3 receiver job. I'm not sure I'd use the word "breakout" for him, either. But maybe in a best-case scenario, he could approach what we saw from Stills over the past two years.

Joe Morgan and Josh Morgan are also in the mix for those No. 3 and No. 4 roles, but they seem like longer shots at this point.

@MikeTriplett: Great question. I rank the top players on the roster every summer, and I've consistently gone with Graham at No. 2 in recent years. But last year it was close between Graham and defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had a down year in 2014. No. 4 on my list last year was safety Jairus Byrd, who had even more of a down year.

If we're talking purely talent and potential, Jordan and Byrd might still be the next best on the roster. For example, if everyone was a free agent, those two might earn the biggest contracts. But at this point, I'm leaning toward cornerback Keenan Lewis because he's been so good in such an important role for New Orleans for two straight years. Lewis has more consistently lived up to his potential than those other two.

And by this time next year, I wouldn't be surprised to see either Cooks or third-year left tackle Terron Armstead emerge as the answer to that question.

@MikeTriplett: Two extremely tough questions to answer at this point -- and they go hand in hand. Typically teams keep 8-10 total defensive backs on the roster. And both positions are loaded with competition right now.

I'd say safeties Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro, Rafael Bush, Pierre Warren and Vinnie Sunseri are strong bets to make the roster, which wouldn't leave much room for veterans Jamarca Sanford and Kenny Phillips.

Then cornerback is even more of a free-for-all. Only starters Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner are locks. But you have to imagine the Saints will keep third-round draft pick P.J. Williams and fifth-round draft pick Damian Swann (whom they traded up for). That could leave Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Kyle Wilson, Terrence Frederick, Delvin Breaux and Brian Dixon fighting for just one spot -- if that.

Special teams will be huge for all of those guys (it's how Dixon made the roster last year and it's been a big plus for guys like Bush and Sunseri so far in their careers, among others).

@MikeTriplett: Unfortunately we didn't get to see much from newly-signed inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who sat out during team drills in Thursday's OTA session that was open to the media. It was unclear if he was still limited by the hip injury that ended his season in Week 1 last year with the Miami Dolphins or if he's recovering from a new ailment. It's worth noting, however, that he was working with the first string during walk-throughs at the start of practice.

I'm very intrigued by Ellerbe's potential. Two years ago he was one of the most coveted players in all of free agency, coming off of a breakout year and a Super Bowl win with the Baltimore Ravens. His two years in Miami were a disappointment (moving to middle linebacker didn't seem to suit him well as he made very few big plays in 2013, then he was injured in 2014). But the 29-year-old has been a dynamic playmaker in the past, capable of dropping back in coverage, blitzing and chasing down plays in the open field -- elements that have been missing from the Saints' linebacking corps for years.