Brandin Cooks Could Become an Elite Receiver in 2016

Cooks excelled in the second half of the season and at home. Will he put it all together in 2016?

New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks had a very pedestrian start to the 2015 season.

In his first seven games, he had only 35 catches for 444 yards and 1 touchdown. In that stretch of games, Cooks eclipsed 100 yards receiving only once and totaled fewer than 50 yards in three games.

Then he exploded.

Cooks finished the season with 84 catches for 1,138 yards and 9 touchdowns. He became the first Saints player since Jimmy Graham in 2013 and the first Saints wide receiver since 2012 to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving, a somewhat shocking revelation considering Drew Brees' proclivity for piling up passing yards on an annual basis.

Cooks led the Saints in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns. According to Football Outsiders, his 82.7 percent offensive snap rate was fourth-best on the Saints, behind only Brees, Benjamin Watson, and two offensive linemen.

Which type of production can we expect in 2016?

A Tale of Two Seasons

In the final nine games of the season Cooks grabbed 49 receptions for 694 yards and a very impressive 8 touchdowns.

While his per-game averages of 5.4 catches and 77.1 yards in the final nine games weren’t a huge improvement over the 5 catches and 63.4 yards he averaged in the first seven – the touchdowns obviously were.

After the first seven weeks of the 2015 season, Cooks’ 33.28 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP), which quantifies a player's impact in terms of points added above expectation level, ranked 24th of the 30 wide receivers who had at least 30 catches.

His 74.29 percent Reception Success Rate was 27th of those 30 receivers. He basically was one of the most inefficient receivers in the league up to that point.

By Week 17, Cooks’ 96.56 Reception NEP had climbed to 17th among the 48 receivers who had at least 50 catches. His Target NEP of 49.45 ranked eighth of 24 receivers who saw at least 100 but no more than 150 targets.

A Tale of Two Cities

Even more significant than the difference in Cooks’ first and second halves of the season were his home and away splits during his final nine games.

In his final four road games, Cooks averaged 4.5 catches and 46 yards per game. He scored a total of two touchdowns.

In Cooks’ final five home games, he averaged 6.2 catches and 102 yards per game and scored a total of 6 touchdowns. He scored at least once in five straight home games and went over 100 yards receiving in three straight.

Cooks was an elite wide receiver in his final five home games of the season. But can he put up numbers like that consistently over the course of an entire season?

Reasons to Be Excited

Over the past five seasons, the Saints’ top target has received an average of 136 targets per year -- or 8.5 targets per game. Graham was Brees’ preferred weapon of choice from 2011 through 2014, topping out at 9.31 targets per game in 2011. Last season, as the Saints’ top target, Cooks averaged 8.06 targets per game after averaging 6.9 per game his rookie season.

He has obviously gained Brees’ trust and is trending upward. Projecting him for 8.5 targets or more per game this season is completely reasonable and in line with Brees’ historical tendencies.

When Cooks is targeted, he’s one of the more efficient receivers in the game. Among the 25 players who caught between 65 and 99 passes last season, Cooks’ 0.75 Reception NEP per target was tied for seventh-best with T.Y. Hilton.

Our projections currently have Cooks as the 16th-most productive receiver on the year in terms of fantasy points with a projected 87.36 catches, 1,061.4 yards, and 9.06 touchdowns.

The New Orleans Advocate’s Nick Underhill believes our projections are too conservative, setting Cook’s floor at 1,200 yards and saying he could flirt with 1,500 yards. ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett, says Cooks "looks ready to explode."

Red (Zone) Flag?

One cause for concern regarding Cooks' upside is Brees’ tendency to target tight ends in the red zone. Last season, Saints’ tight-ends, Ben Watson, Josh Hill, and Michael Hoomanawanui combined for 30 red zone targets compared to Cooks’ 8.

Jimmy Graham was the was the most frequently targeted player in the red zone in both 2014 and 2013.

The signing of Coby Fleener to a five-year, $36 million deal likely means that Brees will continue to target tight-ends inside the scoring area.

Only 5’10” but explosive, Cooks has a game that will never be predicated on bodying up cornerbacks on goal-line fade routes. He’s more likely to score on a 71-yard bomb.

What It All Means

Cooks could very well be the most dynamic receiver Brees has ever had on his roster.

While it remains unlikely that Brees will suddenly force feed one player -- regardless of his play-making abilities -- 150-plus targets, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that Cooks will be the most heavily targeted Saint this season. With somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 targets, Cooks will produce big numbers.

Even if Cooks is giving up red zone looks to Fleener and other bigger bodies, he more than makes up for it with his ability to score from anywhere on the field.

If Cooks can begin to produce on the road at a level similar to the way he produces at home, he could move from the bottom tier of wide receiver-one status up into the elite echelon of playmakers you wish you drafted.