WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) Brandin Cooks might have been New Orleans' leading receiver as a rookie last season if not for an injury that sidelined him for the final six games.
Fortunately for Cooks, a broken thumb was never going to affect his exceptional speed or his sudden changes of direction. So as his understanding of the Saints' offense grows, so does his potential to be a game-breaker.
''He's smart and he's a tireless worker. He can run. He can get on top of the defense,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said following practice at training camp Thursday. ''He has all those other things along with his skill set - all those other things that give you the chance to be a real good player.''
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Cooks, who played in 10 games last season before smashing his hand on a helmet during a punt return, finished with 53 catches for 550 yards and three touchdowns, including a 50-yard scoring play. That kind of production as a rookie left him confident he could post formidable numbers if healthy for a full season. But Cooks sounds as if he's less concerned with how frequently he is targeted than how much he does with the opportunities he gets.
''It's a new year. We have great players. To be able to do something like (leading the team in receiving) would be special, but is that going to help us win?'' Cooks said. ''If we spread the ball out, I think that's when we're a pretty dangerous team.''
Cooks spent his offseason in San Diego, which also is quarterback Drew Brees' offseason home. They trained together as Cooks worked on refining his route running while building chemistry with Brees.
''He may give me this look,'' Cooks said about Brees. ''He won't do any type of signal, but I see what he's seeing and we end up being on the same page.''
Cooks said he has also worked on gaining more yards after the catch, which, to him, isn't so much about toughness or breaking tackles as situational awareness.
''That's just being savvy, knowing what type of defense they're in, where you need to hit that hole,'' Cooks said.
When the Saints made Cooks their first-round pick in 2014, they expected him to be a significant contributor immediately, and Payton said he was not surprised to see Cooks, who demonstrated competence as both out wide and in the slot, near the top of the club in receiving before his injury.
''You saw a comfort level that we have with him outside and inside and the timing he and Drew had,'' Payton said. ''The other thing is, he is a guy that will play a little bigger than his size. He is pretty physical.''
When the 5-foot-10 Cooks hears people refer to him a ''small receiver,'' it seems to motivate him.
''What is your prototype? A person that can catch the ball, can run good routes and have speed,'' Cooks said. ''I guess the tall part is the factor that I'm missing, but I feel like I'm doing those other things at a high level.''
Cooks also noticed that a lack of height hasn't stop veteran receiver Steve Smith from going up to get contested passes, so Cooks has been spending time with him watching film and listening to Smith talk about his approach to the game.
Saints senior defensive assistant coach Dennis Allen wasn't on the staff last season, and has been getting his first consistent looks at Cooks while working with New Orleans' secondary.
''He's got great initial quickness and burst off the line of scrimmage - and then he can really run,'' Allen said. ''If you can't get your hands on him at the line of scrimmage, he's going to create some real issues.''
Cooks said his thumb injury, long-since healed, has not changed his technique in terms of catching or running with the ball. It doesn't sound like it's made him tentative, either.
''It was more one of those accidents that you couldn't do anything about,'' Cooks said. ''The only thing that it did is make me more hungry and more motivated to do bigger things this year.''
Notes: The Saints hold a scrimmage Friday morning, but a number of players could be watching from the sideline after either sitting out recent practices or participating on a limited basis. Players who did not practice fully on Thursday included cornerbacks Keenan Lewis, P.J. Williams and Damian Swann; tight end Josh Hill; receiver Brandon Coleman and Jalen Saunders; left tackle Terron Armstead; linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Anthony Spencer. Tight end Jack Tabb, an undrafted rookie out of North Carolina, was carted off the field with an apparent leg injury. ... Payton said Byrd's rehab is ''on schedule,'' and the safety could be seen working out separately on part of the practice fields. ... With Armstead out, top draft choice Andrus Peat saw work at both left and right tackle.
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