Tom Pelissero / USA Today Sports
The last time I talked to Drew Brees, we were in Orlando at the NFL Players Association meetings in late March, and the conversation inevitably turned to Darren Sproles, whom the New Orleans Saints had traded to the Philadelphia Eagles a few days earlier.
Brees, the Saints’ star quarterback, lamented the loss of Sproles then, calling him a “once in a lifetime player.” So, when I talked to Brees again on Tuesday, I had to ask: has the offseason provided answers on how the Saints will replace their dynamic halfback?
While Brees was quick to note again that “I don’t think you just replace a Darren Sproles,” he gave a nod to the top four backs on the depth chart – then brought up the Saints’ top draft pick, speedy receiver Brandin Cooks, who could be earmarked for big things as a rookie.
“Even though Darren Sproles played the running back position, we were creative with him,” Brees told USA TODAY Sports. “We did a lot of things with him out of the backfield. We’d split him out. We’d throw him screens. We’d do all kinds of stuff with him. So, that role can be filled by maybe even a receiver.
“Hey, we go out in the draft and get a guy in Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State – an explosive player, great speed, great talent, tremendous young man, loves to learn, loves the game of football. … From all indications, this guy can do a lot of things for us, and he’s eager to fill a role that we need him to on offense.”
Brees is going largely off Cooks’ reputation, given that the rookie missed most of the offseason program because of the NFL/NCAA rule barring players from practicing while their schools are in session. But it sure sounds like Cooks (5-10, 189 pounds) has impressed since rejoining the team this week.
Few players were more productive in college football in 2013, when Cooks had an incredible 128 catches for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns, plus another 217 yards and two TDs on 32 rushes as a true junior. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, has good hands, is strong after the catch and has been durable.
“Oh man, I’ve seen all the highlights, and that gets you excited,” Brees said. “I think he can do a lot of things. I think he can play outside receiver. I think I he can play inside in the slot. You can hand him reverses. You can throw him screens. He can return punts.
“He’s a very versatile player, very explosive player that you just want to get the ball in his hands and get it to him in space and good things will happen.”
Cooks has a long way to go to match the career of Sproles, who also played with Brees in San Diego and has amassed 15,504 total yards rushing, receiving and in the return game over nine NFL seasons. Before Sproles, the Saints had Reggie Bush, another talented and versatile back who was used all over the field.
Given coach Sean Payton’s knack for offense, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Cooks quickly becomes exactly what Brees thinks he can be – a difference-marker for a Saints team that could have used another one in the divisional playoff loss at Seattle that ended their 2013 season.