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New Orleans Saints program cover story: Brandin Cooks

Cooks' competitiveness pushes him to be great

Check out Brandin Cooks during the regular season opener on Sunday, September 11, 2016.

Send forth lightning and scatter the enemy; shoot your arrows and rout them (Psalms 144:6).

The Psalms in the Bible reach 150 in number and in those Psalms, there are countless verses.

Why, then, did New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks choose this one as the foundation of his touchdown celebrations? Why, after the NFL frowned so vehemently upon the pantomiming of firing arrows that it fined a player (Washington cornerback Josh Norman, not Cooks), leading Cooks to modify his celebration but not to abandon it, from reaching into his imaginary quiver and plucking an imaginary arrow to fire into the sky, to reaching into his quiver and plucking an arrow, then dropping to one knee and lifting it toward the sky with both hands?

Why, of all the verses in all the Psalms, is that the one with which he most closely identifies?

"It made me feel like it had to do with what I was doing," Cooks said. "And what I mean is, it felt like it had to do with football by what it said. So I was able to correlate it and put it in and adapt it into my life in the terms that I want to see it as. To send forth lightning, scatter the enemy, shoot your arrows and rout them – the way that made me feel was as if I was out there running routes. It gave me that boost of confidence.

"I had to modify (the celebration), but the whole point of it all is to be able to give God the glory in just a different meaning. So it still has that meaning to me and it still is driving the purpose that I want it to drive, and that's giving God the glory for the gift that He has given me to play this game."

And Cooks is gifted.

Very, very gifted.

This season, his gifts have yielded these results in 11 games: 51 catches for 736 yards and six touchdowns, including a franchise-record, 98-yard touchdown against Oakland in the season opener, and an 87-yarder against Carolina in Week 6.

Cooks is second on the team in all three categories. And he's a step or two behind last year's pace, when he caught 84 passes for 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns. But it's safe to say that at any time, he's capable of doing the thing that allows him to reach into his quiver and to pluck an arrow.

Now, perhaps, he's more capable of that than at any time in his NFL career, given that he's evolving as a receiver.

Cooks entered the league as a "speed" guy. The 5-foot-10, 189-pound jet from Oregon State ran the second-fastest time (4.33 seconds in the 40) at the NFL Combine in 2014 and opponents were well aware of his specialty and worked hard to limit his use of it when he was a rookie; he caught 53 passes for 550 yards and three scores as a rookie, with a long reception of 50 yards.

But he has begun to diversify his route-running portfolio.

"I work so hard, I feel like I work my tail off to be great," Cooks said. "You never hear of a receiver – for the most part – that is considered great who is one-dimensional, or just a speed guy. Any time you talk about a great receiver, it seems like they're the complete package – catching balls across the middle, blowing the top off, running routes, blocking. That's the way I want to see it.

"I don't play this game just to say I played in the NFL. I play it to be considered great, and I have a long way to go before that, so that's why I don't want to be considered a speed guy or just one-dimensional. Now, don't get me wrong, that's my strength. But I don't feel like that is something where there's a tap on my shoulder and just being labeled as that and being used as that."

Said Saints Coach Sean Payton: "I think he does a lot of things, and I would say the last year and a half he's got(ten) active inside in different slot positions and not just outside. He will be involved in the run game. Certainly, he is a guy that we can get the ball to as a reverse or (end) around type of guy, and I think he is up for the challenge each week.

"If all of a sudden he's asked to do something for the first time, maybe more so than he has in a game on a certain play, they're smart enough to look at the installation and see what they are doing with each play."

Whatever it is Cooks is asked to do, he'll attack. The competitiveness in him won't allow it to be any other way, and it shines through.

Ask Cooks about the standout cornerback du jour that the Saints will face each week, and see a burst of fire flash in his eyes. It's a flame that ignited years ago and doesn't figure to extinguish any time soon.

"It derives from my childhood and growing up," he said. "I always, for the most part, was the smallest and (I was) hearing those things like, 'You must be crazy, you won't make it to the league.' Hearing that stuff growing up, that always drove me. So now that I'm here, I guess it's just in my blood.

"I want the best, I want to go against the best and on the flip side I feel that there's a respect factor, to be able to be getting those matchups. It's something to be thought of like that and to know that I'm nowhere near where I want to be in my game. It's just fun. It's fun to have those types of matchups."

Those matchups, and the critical moments in a game, make Cooks one of quarterback Drew Brees' most reliable targets. When the Saints needed a touchdown against Denver, trailing by six points with less than two minutes remaining, Brees zipped a spiral to Cooks down the right seam.

The pass was exactly where it needed to be – a little high, where Cooks had the best play on it, and between a couple of defensive backs. He snagged it, tucked it in, absorbed the punishment and tied the score at 23 with 1:22 left.

"I wouldn't say I knew he was going to throw it to me (off the play call)," Cooks said. "It was just one of those moments where Drew and I were able to look at each other. You get these moments every once in a while – we gave each other that look like, 'I knew he was coming to me.' And I knew it was going to have to be a tough catch because the safety was a little high.

"It was just one of those moments where, 'OK, here's a chance I can make something happen to change the game and to also show them that I can play bigger than what I am.' Honestly, it was by the grace of God that I was blessed to be in that position and He gave me the ability to be able to make that play."

There are more plays to be made by Cooks, more cornerbacks to torment, more arrows to extract from his quiver.

"Honestly, I mean this: I really think I can be a lot better," he said. "And what comes with that is multiple things. Last year was an OK year, in my opinion. This year has been OK. I'm trying to say, I want to be great. I feel like I've gained a lot of ground from where I was last year and I have lots of room for improvement.

"(Being in the Saints offense) still excites me, because as a competitor, to hear about those years before, I feel like we can do it and do it better. So it excites me to have that opportunity to come in every day, to be able to sharpen that and to be able to reach that goal."

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