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Making the Leap, No. 11: Saints WR Brandin Cooks

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The Around The NFL crew will document the players we believe will be "Making the Leap" in 2015. This could be a player emerging from no-name status to a quality starter. Or it could mean an excellent player jumping to superstar status. 

The list continues with No. 11 Brandin Cooks

Why Cooks is on the list


Last year's offseason sensation has two things in his corner: warp speed and a plum opportunity.

Coach Sean Payton and a "rejuvenated" Drew Brees entered the season with visions of Cooks as an uncoverable chess piece -- a smaller, quicker, less volatile version of Percy Harvin. Cooks raced out to an electric start, stealing the show with 86 yards and a touchdown on an assortment of deep balls, swing passes, slants and end-arounds by halftime of his first NFL game.

After the season opener, the Saints' first-round pick appeared to be well on his way to an Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign.

Limited to a Harvin-like role featuring jet sweeps, slip screens, and quick slants near the line of scrimmage, though, Cooks would spend the next six weeks averaging less than 9.0 yards per reception. He needed touches manufactured by the play-caller to make an impact.

The light appeared to flip on in Week 8 versus the Packers, as Payton made it a priority to expand Cooks' route tree.

"We just have to get him the ball more often," Payton told NBC's Cris Collinsworth leading up to the game. "I don't know exactly how, but we have to find a way. I feel like I'm slowing him down."

Buoyed by an increase in intermediate and deep routes, Cooks began living up to his immense potential. He burned Green Bay for 98 yards and a touchdown on seven touches and came back two weeks later with 90 yards and another score in a scintillating performance versus San Francisco.

Just as the 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner began hitting his stride, a broken thumb ended his season in mid-November. That injury robbed us of a chance to see Cooks taking advantage of his 4.33 wheels after he settled into his niche in Payton's offense.

Obstacles


As so often happens with lightning-quick jitterbugs, summer hype waned once the hitting started. Much like slightly-built running back-receiver hybrids Dexter McCluster and Tavon Austin, Cooks struggled to break tackles in his early-season Harvin reprisal.

Although Cooks' disappointing yards-per-touch number can be partially attributed to manufactured touches nears the line of scrimmage, he also failed to break arm tackles in tight spaces.

His lack of power was evident as the Buccaneers' defense bottled him up to the tune of 6.22 yards per catch on nine receptions in Week 5.

Cooks couldn't hang with Cardinals rookie John Brown as a field-stretcher outside the numbers and down the field. If he's going to be utilized primarily on high-percentage, quick-hitting routes in addition to end-arounds and jet sweeps, he needs to add a fraction of Harvin's power.

2015 expectations


Payton has shown a knack for taking advantage of "satellite" weapons who require space to make plays. That bodes well for the immediate future of Cooks, who offers rare suddenness and agility in the open field.

Now that Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills have been shipped off to Seattle and Miami, respectively, there could be as many as 175-200 targets up for grabs in the Saints' aerial attack. With only a declining Marques Colston ahead of him in the pecking order, Cooks is sure to be a featured player after dominating offseason practices.

Cooks was on pace for 85 receptions and roughly 1,000 yards from scrimmage prior to his season-ending injury in Week 11. Even if the Saints shift to a ball-control approach, a healthy Cooks has a good chance to sail past those numbers in 2015.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast welcomes back Lindsay Rhodes to recap Antonio Gates' suspension and the 'Top 100' rankings. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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