Patriots

Film review: Cooks gives Patriots versatile big-play threat

Film review: Cooks gives Patriots versatile big-play threat

Brandin Cooks sounded like a player who felt he wasn't being used to his full potential.

Nearly four months after he wasn't targeted in a Saints win over the Rams and told NOLA.com that "closed mouths don't get fed," Cooks spoke to members of the New England media on a conference call and indicated that he could've been used differently in New Orleans.

"As a young guy, I think there were some things that I would’ve liked to have done more," the newest Patriots receiver said. "Not like I wasn’t able to do them. We just had great guys doing those other things so if it’s not broken why fix it?

"But coming to New England it seems like it’s an offense that guys do a bunch of different things and I’m looking forward to being able to do some things that I didn’t necessarily have to do in New Orleans, hopefully to get the chance here and do it here."

When pressed for specifics on what he wished he could have done with the Saints, Cooks said that he didn't want to get into details.

That Cooks was at all frustrated with his role -- barring that one target-less game last season -- is noteworthy because he has been on a historically-productive pace over the course of the last two seasons.

Only three players in each of the last two years have recorded 75 catches, 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. Cooks was one of them, joining Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr.

Perhaps the best window into Cooks' feelings last year came courtesy of this piece from ESPN's Mike Triplett in November. In it, Cooks pointed out that he wanted to show the Saints coaching staff that he can be more than a deep threat.

“I know that’s what I can do,” Cooks said. “It’s just a matter of having the opportunities to do it, and when they present themselves, taking advantage of it, to be able to put that on film for the coaches.

“To get them to understand -- which I think they already do -- that I’m a tough player, and I’m gonna continue to work at that, to not just be one-dimensional. And as I continue to remind them, I feel like they trust me and they will continue to put me in those positions when the time comes.”

Cooks may have been disappointed in the number of opportunities he was asked to serve in certain roles, but a review of his tape from 2016 reveals that he was actually anything but one-dimensional in New Orleans.

For a glimpse at what he may be asked to in New England -- where the long-standing mantra has been "the more you can do..." -- let's have a look at the variety of ways in which he was used while with the Saints.

DEEP THREAT
Cooks didn't want to be put in a box as strictly a down-the-field target in New Orleans, and he wasn't. (Per Pro Football Focus, 21.2 percent of passes sent his way were "deep passes," meaning they traveled 20 yards or more down the field.)

Had he been? He still would've been one of the league's top game-breaking threats.

Only five wideouts caught more deep targets than Cooks (11), and only DeSean Jackson -- who caught five more deep passes than Cooks -- picked up more total yardage on those types of passes. Cooks didn't drop a single deep attempt.

Cooks ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, and his speed stresses corners and safeties alike. During his 98-yard score against the Raiders in Week 1 of the regular season, he was checked at the line of scrimmage by corner Sean Smith with safety Reggie Nelson shaded over the top. Cooks quickly beat Smith at the line, and he simply ran by Nelson's help despite the fact that Nelson was cheating in that direction.



The speed with which Cooks gets on top of defenders and his quickness in and out of his breaks also makes him a double-move demon. Post-corners, stop-and-gos, out-and-ups all gave opposing defensive backs fits with Cooks bearing down on them.

He burned the Broncos twice in Week 10 on long-developing plays, hitting them for a 37-yard gain on an out-and-up and a 32-yard touchdown when he sold a post and then headed straight up-field past a flat-footed TJ Ward.



In Week 14, Cooks victimized the Bucs with a stop-and-go move out of the slot that allowed him to beat both corners in the area. It also subjected him to a massive hit from the on-coming safety, but as he did at the end of both big plays against the Broncos, he protected the football and finished the catch. 



In his quote to ESPN back in November he alluded to the fact that he wanted to prove to coaches that he was a tough player. Hanging on in those types of situations should have done just that.

SLOT WORK
Cooks isn't considered a slot receiver, but according to PFF, more than a third of his routes came from inside. 

He ran a variety of patterns from that spot -- including quick-outs, slants, stops and shallow crosses -- and was targeted often in the short-to-intermediate passing game upon which the Patriots offense has relied for years under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. 

He was targeted 48 times (out of 113) in the area between zero and nine yards from the line of scrimmage. Twenty-seven of his targets, and three of his eight touchdowns, came over the middle of the field between the numbers from the area between the line of scrimmage and 19 yards down the field. 

Cooks isn't always used inside -- perhaps in part because he's not as prone to forcing missed tackles (three last season) as someone like Julian Edelman (14) -- but his short-area quickness allows him to find small openings quickly when things get crowded.

"I definitely think I can do that at a high level," he said of playing in the slot. "It’ll be all about what coach [Bill] Belichick and the offense think I can fit well at and just doing my job the best that I can."

Cooks also has the rare ability to catch a pass close to the line of scrimmage and turn it into an explosive gain.

In Week 15 against the Cardinals, Cooks emerged from the bunch formation on the left side of the line of scrimmage and broke over the middle with Tyrann Mathieu trailing in coverage. Once Drew Brees' pass found its mark, Cooks turned up the field and out-ran the rest of the Arizona secondary.



SWISS-ARMY SPEEDSTER
Though the Saints had plenty of other offensive weapons, they tried to find creative ways to get Cooks the football -- or fake getting him the football while opposing defenses were zeroed-in on his speed. 

As the Patriots often do with all of their receivers, big or small, Cooks was used in the screen game and was targeted eight times behind the line of scrimmage. 



He was also used out of the backfield as a receiver, catching one of his touchdowns when aligned next to Brees out of the shotgun with a 49ers linebacker on him in coverage. His wheel route up the right sideline was easy pickings. 



Cooks was also used on a half-dozen jet sweeps last season. He never broke one for a gain of longer than 11 yards, but he posed a problem for back-side defenders forced to stay home and honor his speed. Saints coach Sean Payton often asked Cooks to serve as a decoy, dialing up fake jet-sweep handoffs when the ball was headed in the opposite direction.  



Cooks has rare tools that will allow the Patriots to deploy him in whatever manner they deem fit based on the opponent or the situation. Need someone to stretch the field and take a safety with him? He can do that. Need someone to work the slot in the red zone and take advantage of a small opening in coverage? He's done it. Need someone to provide the occasional gadget play out of the backfield? No problem. 

It may not have been a lack in variety of roles that had Cooks less than pleased in New Orleans -- he did damn near everything but run the triple-option. It may have been the frequency with which, or lack thereof, he was used creatively that bothered him. 

It's unclear exactly how the Patriots will use Cooks, but if history is any indication the coaching staff in New England won't hesitate to exploit the versatility of its newly-acquired 23-year-old dynamo. The more you can do...

Gronk -- the horse -- will not run in the Kentucky Derby

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USA TODAY Sports Photo

Gronk -- the horse -- will not run in the Kentucky Derby

There was more breaking Patriots news this afternoon.

This time it was related to Gronkowski, and a health scare.

But it wasn't the Gronkowski that plays for the New England Patriots.

So it is unfortunately confirmed that Rob Gronkowski's horse will not be competing in the Kentucky Derby.

The 3-year-old colt named after Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski had a “minor setback,’’ according to trainer Jeremy Noseda when he spoke to The Racing Post.

Gronkowski was unbeaten in starts, earning his place in the Kentucky Derby field.

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Prototypical Patriots: Hubbard, Ejiofor look like Belichick's type on the edge

Prototypical Patriots: Hubbard, Ejiofor look like Belichick's type on the edge

Breaking down the edge defender spot is one of the reasons the Prototypical Patriots series is such an interesting one to put together.

For instance, last year, Deatrich Wise was an easy fit. His height, arm length, production (when healthy), and the conference he played in made him a perfect fit. He was Chandler Jonesian.

But Derek Rivers, who was taken one round ahead of Wise? He didn't make the "Prototypical" list. At 6-foot-4 and 248 pounds at last year's combine, Rivers was nearly a full 20 pounds lighter than what Bill Belichick has typically looked for in his top-101 edge defender draft picks in New England. Not exactly the "prototype."

Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 2010) was 6-3, 266 pounds. Jones (first, 2012) was 6-5, 266. Jake Bequette (third, 2012) was 6-5, 274. Geneo Grissom (third, 2015) was 6-3, 262. Trey Flowers (fourth, 2015) was 6-2, 266. All powerfully built. All from Power-5 conferences.

Rivers, who went to Youngstown State, was a bit of an anomaly. What did it mean? Did the Patriots see him as a player who could pack on pounds and look like his edge predecessors? Did they see him as a more versatile weapon who could play both on the line and off? Did they simply look at his outstanding athletic testing numbers (6.94-second three-cone, 35-inch vertical, 4.61-second 40 time), and say to themselves that they could work with him?

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Because Rivers suffered a season-ending injury in training camp last year, it's hard to know exactly what their plan was for him. In camp we saw him both rush the passer and play in coverage. He aligned in both two-point and three-point stances, on the ball and off.

The Rivers pick may show that the Patriots prototype is adjusting. And it may continue to adjust if the team is going to shift back to more 3-4 looks now that Matt Patricia -- who favored a 4-3 and helped change the Patriots' front in 2011, one year before he was given the coordinator's title -- is in Detroit.

Still, we generally know what a Patriots defensive end looks like. He stands between 6-2 and 6-5. He's in the 260-pound range. His arms are between 33 and 36 inches. His hands are about 10 inches. He runs the three-cone in less than 7.3 seconds. His vertical is at least 33 inches. His broad jump is about 120 inches. His 40 time is under 4.9 seconds, usually.

There's obviously much more than a list of physical benchmarks a prospect has to possess in order to be considered by the Patriots -- skill set, college production, durability and character all play a role -- but it's not a bad place to start.

Who fits that bill in this year's class? Let's take a look. They one player who likely isn't within range for the Patriots, unless he slides, would be NC State's Bradley Chubb. He's expected to go in the top-five picks and could hear his name called as early as No. 2 overall to the Giants. 

PROTOTYPES IN RANGE

MARCUS DAVENPORT, UTSA, 6-6, 264 POUNDS

There are plenty of knocks on Davenport. He's raw. He played against lower-level competition and was able dominate because of his superior physical gifts. His hands are small (9 1/8 inches). But he checks just about every other marker from a size and athletic testing perspective, and he's thought to be a hard worker with a high ceiling as a 4-3 defensive end. He may go as early as the teens. My hunch is that, while gifted, he isn't so off-the-charts special (4.58 40, 7.2-second three-cone, 124-inch broad, 33.5-inch vertical) that he'd be worth the Patriots trading up for. 

SAM HUBBARD, OHIO STATE, 6-5, 270 POUNDS

Again, let's go ahead and start with the negatives. He ran a 4.95-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, which was a full tenth of a second slower than what Trey Flowers ran in 2015. Not good. But his 10-yard time was 1.69 seconds, which was much more in range for the Patriots. Jones ran the same 10-yard time in 2012. Wise ran a 1.68. Otherwise, Hubbard is what the Patriots want. He was productive in Urban Meyer's defense, recording 13.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles. A high school safety -- who was headed to Notre Dame on a lacrosse scholarship! -- Hubbard is quick and explosive for his size. He jumped 35 inches in the vertical and clocked a ridiculous 6.84-second three-cone drill. On paper, Hubbard is one of the best fits for the Patriots in this class, and he could be had at the top of the second round. If his 40 time drops him into the bottom of the second or top of the third round, he'd be a steal. 

RASHEEM GREEN, USC, 6-4, 275 POUNDS

Another physically-impressive defensive end, Green offers some versatility. He looks like a base end on first and second downs who could kick inside to generate pressure in obvious passing situations. He has nearly 34-inch arms and 10-inch hands, and if the Patriots do shift to more 3-4 looks, he could potentially play as an end in those formations -- particularly if he improves his functional strength. He's a little raw and a little less athletic than the parameters set above, but he's also heavier than many Patriots ends. His 4.73-second 40 time, 32.5-inch vertical, 118-inch broad and 7.24-second three-cone are impressive for his frame, and he could be a boom-or-bust second-rounder for New England. 

DUKE EJIOFOR, WAKE FOREST, 6-3, 265 POUNDS

Making comparisons this time of year can be a little dangerous, but when it comes to Ejiofor, it's hard not to be reminded of Flowers (6-2, 265 at the combine in 2015). Ejiofor has 35-inch arms and 10-inch hands, while Flowers had 34-inch arms and 10-inch hands. NFL.com's scouting report for Flowers three years ago? "Consistent with hand placement and is technically sound." NFL.com on Ejiofor? "Possesses a mature approach as a pass rusher." Neither player would be described as incredibly "quick-twitch," but Flowers has had great success as an interior rusher and Ejiofor projects similarly because of his length and power. One question mark about Ejiofor is his motor, but he dealt with an injury last season, and late in the second round he'd be worth a roll of the dice. The Patriots reportedly hosted Ejiofor on a pre-draft visit. 

ADE ARUNA, TULANE, 6-5, 262 POUNDS

It'll require some time, but if a team can find a roster spot for Aruna on special teams, and if he takes to the coaching he receivers, he could end up being a late-round find. Classic height/weight/speed prospect since he ran a 4.6-second 40 and has 34-inch arms and 10 5/8-inch hands. His three-cone was lacking (7.53 seconds), but he's explosive as all get out (38.5-inch vertical, 128-inch broad) and worth a shot some time on Day 3 since he's relatively new to the sport. From Nigeria, Aruna only found his way onto a football field as a senior in high school.

IMPERFECT BUT INTRIGUING

HAROLD LANDRY, BOSTON COLLEGE, 6-2, 252 POUNDS

Landry is one of the best pass-rush prospects in this draft class. He might be the best, which could compel a team to call his name inside the top 10. He's undersized by Patriots standards, but an exception could be made if Belichick believes Landry is athletic enough to play a variety of different roles. The question is, would the Patriots be willing to trade way up in the first round to make an exception?

JOSH SWEAT, FLORIDA STATE, 6-5, 251 POUNDS

Sweat is a little light compared to other top-100 edge picks for Belichick, but he's not all that far off from Rivers. Undersized. Great athlete. Sweat ran a 4.53-second 40 and jumped 39.5 inches in the vertical. His broad was 124 inches. There are reportedly some concerns about Sweat's durability, but he could be a second-round gamble.  

UCHENNA NWOSU, USC, 6-2, 251 POUNDS

One evaluator told me that Nwosu looks like a Patriot because he offers the kind of on-the-ball, off-the-ball versatility that Belichick appreciates. Athletically, he tested in the same range as bigger players the Patriots have taken in the past (32-inch vertical, 119-inch broad). That may not help his chances. But he's long (almost 34-inch arms) and a smooth athlete. Would the Patriots view Nwosu's instincts in the passing game -- he flashed an ability to cover on tape, and he's a good enough athlete to do it -- and make him an off-the-line type? Some may see "tweener." The Patriots may see "hybrid." And if they move to more of a 3-4 defense, he'd be an ideal outside linebacker. 

KEMEKO TURAY, RUTGERS, 6-5, 253 POUNDS

Another great athlete (4.65-second 40) with long enough arms (33 3/8 inches) and big enough hands (9 5/8 inches), Turay shows good explosiveness on tape. The Rutgers connection doesn't mean what it once did for the Patriots now that Greg Schiano has moved on, but the school fit doesn't matter much in this instance. This is a relatively rare athlete who needs some polish, but if he's athletic enough to rush and cover on the outside, he could be an outside 'backer for Belichick. 

DORANCE ARMSTRONG, KANSAS, 6-4, 257 POUNDS

Size-wise, Armstrong is right there. He has almost 35-inch arms and 10-inch hands, and his height-weight combination is within the desirable range for the Patriots. Armstrong would be even more of a fit if he was just a bit more powerful and a bit more athletic. His 40 time was fine (4.87 seconds), but his explosiveness (30-inch vertical, 118-inch broad) left a little to be desired. And he plays more like a 3-4 outside linebacker than a true end (like the majority of the players listed as "Prototypes in Range"). But on Day 3? He could be worthy of a choice and given an opportunity to make the roster this summer. 

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