How Does Brandin Cooks' Injury Impact the New Orleans Saints' Offense?

The Saints are a unique offensive team, and an injury to one player doesn't always mean an opportunity for another.

Brandin Cooks has been one of the most exciting young players in the NFL this season, fitting in perfectly with the New Orleans offense and getting involved as a pass catcher, runner, and punt returner from day one. But his momentum has been halted for the time being, as a broken thumb will keep him sidelined for at least four weeks, according to his agent Jeff Sperbeck.

This throws a wrench into an already-struggling New Orleans offense, coming off of a disappointing 10-point output at home against the Bengals. Cooks was involved in the offense until the end of this most recent defeat, finishing second on the team in targets with seven. So how do the Saints move on without him? Who will step up to fill Cooks' role in the offense?

One Fewer Mouth To Feed

The Saints offense has been frustrating to predict this season, as their target numbers have been a roller coaster all season. Even this past week is a good example, as Jimmy Graham saw only three looks in the passing game, while Erik Lorig was thrown at four times. Cooks was one of the more consistent contributors to the offense, seeing six or more targets in all but two games, but his involvement still varied wildly from week to week.

Week 11 saw Marques Colston and Cooks get most of the attention from the receiver spots, while Mark Ingram saw plenty of work out of the backfield along with Travaris Cadet. Kenny Stills, who many will likely declare as the biggest beneficiary of Cooks' absence, saw only four targets, but caught them all, including a touchdown.

But Stills' usage has lagged behind that of Cooks and Colston all year, as he speedy receiver has seen between three and five targets in nearly every game this year. Yet he continues to impress on those looks, leading the team in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target.

And while this injury will put Stills on the field more often (Cooks primarily played outside with Colston inside, and Stills is an outside receiver), can we really trust a player with one career game with more than six targets? And for that matter, will the Saints be ready to hand a large chunk of the offense back over to the player they drafted Cooks to replace?

Start your Stars

When it comes to fantasy football, one of the most common refrains you'll hear when it comes to weekly roster management is to start the best players on your team, even if they're in a tough matchup. Taking a flier on a worse player with a plus matchup will often result in disappointment when a great player does great things, even in a tough battle with a good opponent.

For the Saints, this concept is true for another reason. The target distribution for Drew Brees' pass catchers is so erratic that even an injury doesn't clear the picture up at all. Marques Colston benefited most from the Detroit game in which Jimmy Graham was virtually non-existent, while Cooks and Stills combined for only six looks in that game. But during the Tampa Bay game, when Graham was injured, Cooks was the one to see a bump in opportunities.

So "start your stars" or "start your studs" applies to New Orleans in this way: continue to use Jimmy Graham and Mark Ingram, and understand that anyone else on that team is a week-to-week gamble. The injury to Brandin Cooks only increases the ceiling for every other New Orleans position player's fantasy productivity, it doesn't pave the way for any one player to step up and become a star.

Colston has been the most productive player this season at the wide receiver position, according to our data, ranking 48th in the league in Reception NEP. Graham is 22nd in the NFL in that stat and is the clear top option for the Saints (even after a surprising off week). If you're going to bet on any Saints weapons, those are the guys.

Stills is a lottery ticket thanks to his deep play ability, but don't expect him to step right into Cooks' role and see 10 targets anytime soon. If you have room at the end of your bench for him and want to add him just in case, that's fine, but he's not plug and play until we see that Brees and Sean Payton have specific plans for him like the did for Cooks when he moved into the starting lineup.

The main beneficiary here may be Ingram, who saw an uptick in receiving volume this past week, and has been one of the best runners in the league this season. Ingram struggled on the ground in what seemed like an easy matchup but also saw 30 touches for the third week in a row. Cooks' absence will likely mean the Saints lean on their top back even more, forgoing screens and end-arounds to feed the Alabama product the ball.

Cooks' timetable to return is disappointing for the young receiver, as it likely ends his season, or at least takes him out of some key games in the Saints playoff hunt. He's a player to keep an eye on for next season, to be sure, but don't expect anyone else to star in his absence thanks to the randomness of the New Orleans offense.