Saints' Cooks on fast track to rookie of year

Brandin Cooks should benefit from having one of the NFL's elite players as his quarterback. Stacy Revere/Getty Images

New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson was trying to be a voice of reason when describing the potential of rookie receiver Brandin Cooks.

Watson said there are too many variables when it comes to making any kind of NFL Rookie of the Year predictions -- things such as injuries, grasping the offense and adjusting to NFL defenses.

But like everyone else on the practice field when Cooks first showed up this summer, Watson couldn't help but be taken aback by what he saw from the 5-foot-10, 189-pound speedster out of Oregon State.

"When you see a guy catch a pass and you see his first two steps look like he's about to run a 40-yard dash, you know that the guy is quick and fast. And when you get the ball to him and he learns what to do, there might be problems [for opposing defenses]," Watson said. "And that's what we all saw from the first pass he caught.

"Everybody looked at each other like, 'Wow, this kid is definitely at a different speed.'"

Cornerback Keenan Lewis nicknamed his new teammate "Lightning" after Cooks torched him down the field on an end-around, even pausing to playfully let Lewis try to catch up for a moment.

Outside linebacker Junior Galette added, "I haven't seen that kind of speed in a while," which is saying an awful lot since Galette has played across the field from Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush, Joe Morgan, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson while in New Orleans.

"I didn't even see when he got the ball on that handoff," Galette said. "Just moving around, he can get into that last gear quick. His speed is obviously top tier in the league."

Like Watson, I usually consider myself a voice of reason when it comes to predicting the level of impact any rookie can have in the NFL.

But even my practical, sensible side believes Cooks can become the Saints' first offensive rookie of the year in nearly three decades, joining Rueben Mayes (1986) and George Rogers (1981).

Cooks was the 20th pick in the draft, and no other offensive weapon landed in a better place to immediately showcase his skill set. Even if Cooks is only the third or fourth option in New Orleans' versatile offense, you know coach Sean Payton will find a way to create mismatches for him and quarterback Drew Brees will find a way to exploit them.

Cooks boasts a stunning combination of athleticism and actual college production. Last year, he led the nation and set Pac-12 records with 128 catches for 1,730 receiving yards. He set a school record with 16 touchdown catches. Then he went out and ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any receiver at this season's NFL scouting combine (4.33 seconds) and the fastest 20- and 60-yard shuttles of the past decade (3.81 and 10.72 seconds).

Watch highlights of Cooks tearing up the Pac-12 and you see glimpses of both Sproles and Lance Moore, two of the longtime playmakers that the Saints released this offseason. You also see a lot of Payton-level creativity in former NFL coach Mike Riley's offense at Oregon State. Cooks burned defenses on reverses, screen passes, passes over the top, passes in traffic and punt returns.

Former NFL general manager Phil Savage -- who scouts college talent as the Senior Bowl's executive director and analyzes the game for ESPN, among other outlets -- said Cooks' exposure to a pro-style offense should help him make the transition to the NFL. Savage also believes the "perfect marriage" with the Saints' offense could give Cooks a better chance to thrive quickly than even the top receiver taken in this year's draft, Sammy Watkins of the Buffalo Bills.

"If he's in the slot, Drew Brees literally can raise up, flip him the ball and let him go," Savage said of Cooks. "They can do that in Buffalo with Watkins, and I'm sure they will. But I feel certain that the Saints can guarantee getting the ball to Brandin Cooks, and I'm not 100 percent certain and convinced the Bills will be able to consistently get the ball to Sammy Watkins.

"I could see Watkins having some of those one-catch, 15-yards kind of games, just because EJ Manuel didn't play well or they double up Watkins and he's gotta go other places with the ball. Whereas with Cooks, I think there's gonna be probably three or four automatic completions in every game plan."

The Saints' history under Payton and Brees indicates they won't have any trouble trusting Cooks. Last year, rookie Kenny Stills caught 32 passes for 641 yards and five touchdowns, leading the NFL with 20.0 yards per catch. And he was just a fifth-round pick. As rookies in 2006, Marques Colston caught 70 passes for 1,038 yards and the versatile Bush caught 88 passes for 742 yards.

Payton and Brees also were adept at getting running backs Bush and Sproles in open space on screen passes or tosses -- a role Cooks could help fill even though Payton insisted he's a wide receiver, first and foremost.

"You hope that whenever you add speed to the field, it stretches the defense both in the passing game and the running game," Payton said. "It will just be finding that balance and fitting it into what we are doing."

Cooks has drawn favorable comparisons to versatile players such as Sproles, Percy Harvin and the player Cooks said he likes to model his game after, Steve Smith.

Another comparison I particularly like came from NFL analyst Matt Bowen: Az-Zahir Hakim, who thrived in a similar role in an offense with a similar attitude, the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf."

"That guy is Az Hakim, Part 2. You don't want to cover him in the slot," said Bowen, a former NFL safety who now analyzes the league for Bleacher Report among other outlets. "With his change-of-direction skill set, plus electric talent in the open field, Cooks has the opportunity to produce big numbers with Drew Brees in Payton's scheme."

Added Savage: "You're basically gonna have in one slot Jimmy Graham, and in the other you're gonna have Brandin Cooks. In and of itself, that's gonna create problems. Because how do you match up with a 6-foot-7, 255-pound tight end and a 5-foot-10, 185-pound quick-as-a-cat speed merchant?"

I'm not necessarily predicting blockbuster numbers for Cooks, since the Saints spread the ball around so much. But even if he catches something like 70 passes for 800 yards, he'll be doing it for a Super Bowl contender. And he's likely to hit a lot of "home runs" on a variety of screens, reverses, deep balls and punt returns.

The kind of highlight-reel stuff that will attract the attention of voters.