The picture becomes clearer game by game.
The New Orleans Saints had a specific vision when they moved up from No. 27 to No. 20 in the 2014 draft, and also gave Arizona a third-round pick (No. 91 overall), in order to select Brandin Cooks. This
season, it hasn't been difficult to see what they saw.
Cooks isn't just a deep, speed threat to stretch a secondary past its breaking point, though he capably has shown the ability to do that. More, as Drew Brees' top target this season, he has shown an all-around route-running prowess that has lifted him to the top of New Orleans' list in receptions (79), receiving yards (1,116) and receiving touchdowns (nine) while often being shadowed by the opponents' top cornerback.
Entering the season finale Sunday against Atlanta in the Georgia Dome, Cooks has shown the
improvement this season that he vowed to make from his rookie year.
"I think in his second year, and really his first full year as a starter, there are a ton of little things
(he has improved on)," Coach Sean Payton said. "He obviously is someone that works on the
details and spends a lot of time with Drew perfecting the looks within each route.
"There are other times – (Sunday, in a 38-27 victory over Jacksonville), for instance, on a long-
yardage situation where he just took the proper stem and ran by a corner. The execution of the route was perfect and then the throw – to be able to keep Brandin in stride is the difference between a long completion or a touchdown pass. So the timing of that play was very good."
The timing of the play was so good that Cooks hauled in a 71-yard touchdown pass on second-and-21 in the second quarter, his longest reception of the season and his eighth touchdown in the last eight games.
Cooks has made running by defensive backs seem so routine, the appreciation of him running the routes necessary to set up his wary foes is diminished.
What isn't, though, is the fact that he has posted his first 1,000-yard season and has four 100-yard receiving games this year, including three in the last four games.
"It's special," Cooks said of the 1,000-yard season. "Those are the type of things that you work for to continue to prove that you're a good player. So it felt good, but I really didn't notice until after the game because I was having so much fun in the game."
If happiness is honing your craft and running past cornerbacks, catching a touchdown about once every nine receptions, then it's easy to understand why Cooks smiles.
His touchdown helped the Saints off to the fast start they seek each week.
"That was big time," he said of the start. "That's what we focus on all week, to start fast. The other week (against Detroit), we started slow. So throughout the week, we made an emphasis on coming out swinging, starting fast and that's what we did. So to be able to close out on a game like that at home, for the last home game of the season, was special.
"(Brees) threw that thing out there, and that's what it is. He knew he had to come up some way, with that foot hobbling, but he made sure he put it out there and he put it on the spot."
Brees was hindered by a torn plantar fascia tendon in his right foot. Cooks, this season, hasn't been hampered by injury enough to miss a game and his presence has been needed.
"It's awesome," Brees said. "He's earned it, he deserves it. It's tremendous. It says a lot about his work ethic and everything that he did prepare himself coming into this season, and obviously how productive he's been and what we've asked him to do this season. I'm really happy for him."
Said Payton: "He's versatile. We've found at times, moving him either from the X to the Z and
sometimes just putting him in motion or shifting him to try to get him off of one corner, maybe on to another, has helped us."
It helped Cooks achieve his first 1,000-yard season, with possibly more to come.
"It means a lot but it doesn't feel that good because of the season that we had," he said. "So we just have to go back to work and continue to do those types of things."