WR Cooks brings missing element to Saints offense

Meeting with Saints brass at the scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks loved what he was hearing from coach Sean Payton.

If the Saints managed to scoop him up later at the draft, Cooks would “be used in the slot, in the outside and possibly returning kicks,” he was told.

Cooks’ reaction: “That’s my game.”

When the gathering wrapped up and he walked out the room, Cooks couldn’t shake the feeling that the Saints wanted him. The reigning best receiver in college football learned just how badly during the first round of the draft Thursday night.

The Saints traded both their No. 27 selection and third-round pick (91st overall) to Arizona to choose Cooks 20th. When the Jets — who hosted Cooks for a visit ahead of the draft — passed on him, New Orleans knew he wouldn’t last on the board much longer, and the team considered him both the best player available and a need-filler.

Cooks served notice he was a playmaker in 2012, racking up 1,151 receiving yards and five touchdowns on 67 catches, good enough to be a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award given out to the top collegiate receiver in the country.

Some wrote that kind of year off as taking advantage of the attention teammate Markus Wheaton (now with the Steelers) drew when he led the country by averaging 133 yards a game.

But those folks were wrong. Cooks proved 2012 was no fluke the next year — he set single-season conference records with 128 grabs and 1,730 yards, which were best in the nation; and this time he bagged the Biletnikoff award.

He added 16 TD receptions, 11 more than he had the previous year, and left with a school record in scoring grabs (24).

Cooks wasn’t merely a pass-catcher at Oregon State. He rushed 61 times for 340 yards and two scores, utilizing speed that later allowed him to run the fastest 40-yard dash among receivers at the scouting combine: a blistering 4.33 seconds.

Those are the assets the Saints are introducing to a wide receiver corps that many insisted could stand to be reinforced.

Though wideout Marques Colston is coming off a decent campaign, with 943 yards and five touchdowns on 75 receptions during the regular season, the yardage total was the second-lowest of his career; and the number of touchdowns was tied for the lowest.

With Colston heading into his ninth year, the time seemed ripe to find a player who could be the long-term complement to Kenny Stills, who dazzled last year as both a rookie and No. 2 wideout.

Cooks, like all college prospects, didn’t leave school without generating some level of concern. His 5-foot-10, 189-pound frame has been described as ordinary.

At least one scouting report judged that he was vulnerable to being jammed at the line of scrimmage and could be bumped off his routes.

But the Saints trusted the evaluations their scouting department handed in of Cooks after his record-setting year, Payton said Thursday. They envisioned him competing for the punt and kick return duties veteran running back Darren Sproles handled before he was traded away to Philadelphia for a fifth-round draft pick in March.

And they had faith in the coaching he was under at Oregon State.

Oregon State coach Mike Riley was a Saints assistant in 2002. He remains close with New Orleans General Manager Mickey Loomis, who went to school in Oregon, of which Riley is a native.

“He’s someone you’ll see the first chance you get to meet him he’s very impressive: ... his make-up, skill set,” Payton told reporters. “Anyone who has seen him play or has been involved in his career is very impressed with him.”

“He’s the type of guy who fits our program,” Payton said. “I think he’ll fit in real well.”

It wasn’t likely many in New Orleans were going to bed Thursday with a bad first impression of Cooks’ character.

Cooks told a television reporter at the site of the draft and journalists at Saints headquarters listening to him on a conference call that he had bought his mother a car with a $100,000 award Adidas gave him for his time at the combine.

It was a Mercedes, and it was going to replace a beat-up 1999 Saturn.

“I wasn’t having that any more,” Cooks said.

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This post was updated to add new information after it was first published. Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter @RVargasAdvocate. For more coverage of Saints football, follow our Black and Gold blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/blackandgold/