The New England Patriots can potentially make history Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
Wide receiver Danny Amendola missed practice Wednesday with a concussion and knee injury, putting his status for Week 2 in question. If Amendola doesn’t play, it will mark just the third time quarterback Tom Brady has been without all three of Amendola, Julian Edelman and Wes Welker in a game since 2007. The Patriots are 0-2 in those two games without any of the three wideouts.
So, to get straight to the point: Someone must emerge to become Brady’s security blanket in the slot Sunday against the Saints if Amendola can’t play. There are only two options (unless the Patriots planned to poach Welker, who now serves as an offensive assistant coach, from the Houston Texans). Either Chris Hogan or Brandin Cooks will have to serve as the Patriots’ slot receiver.
It’s likely both will see inside snaps against the Saints. Hogan played 64.1 percent of his snaps from the slot in the Patriots’ Week 1 loss. He caught just one pass on four targets for 8 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Cooks played 20.5 percent of his snaps in the slot, where he caught one pass on one target for 19 yards.
Hogan played 37.2 percent of his snaps last season in the slot, catching 16 passes on 21 targets for 282 yards with one touchdown. Cooks played with the Saints last season and spent 37 percent of his snaps in the slot, catching 23 passes on 31 targets for 305 yards with one touchdown.
Cooks caught 23 passes on 30 targets for 354 yards with two touchdowns from the slot in 2015, according to Nick Underhill of the New Orleans Advocate’s charting, and he caught eight passes on 11 targets for 123 yards with a touchdown as a rookie in 2014.
While Cooks has experience in the slot, most of his production has come playing outside. Saints head coach Sean Payton noted Wednesday that Cooks mostly played the “X” role in the Patriots’ offense Thursday, while he primarily played the “Z” in New Orleans. That’s likely a trickle-down effect from Malcolm Mitchell being placed on injured reserve and Hogan having to spend so much time in the slot. Once Amendola gets healthy, it’s likely we’ll see Hogan playing the “X” and Cooks in the “Z.”
But given Hogan’s lack of production from the slot in Week 1, would it make sense for Cooks to take on that role in Week 2? Slot receivers are usually, small, shifty and display elite agility scores in pre-draft testing. Hogan’s 6.75-second 3-cone drill fits the bill, but he’s 6-foot-1, 210 pounds.
Cooks ran a 6.76-second 3-cone drill coming out of Oregon State with a 3.81-second short shuttle. Cooks is listed at 5-foot-10, 189 pounds. Edelman is 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, Amendola is 5-foot-11, 190 pounds and Welker was 5-foot-9, 185 pounds.
Cooks said Wednesday he’s up for the challenge.
“I’m comfortable,” Cooks said. “It’s football. As long as you line me up anywhere, I’m comfortable at it.”
Cooks’ speed is his biggest strength. He can stretch the field and make the defense respect the deep ball while slot receivers work the middle, so playing in the slot doesn’t showcase his best qualities. But the Patriots could find themselves in a bind with just Cooks, Hogan and Phillip Dorsett at receiver on their active roster Sunday. It might be worth trying Cooks out of position to see if he can play the role Edelman, Amendola, Welker and Troy Brown before them made famous in the Patriots’ offense.
It’s entirely possible Hogan draws the slot again Sunday, but it’s worth seeing what Cooks can offer in the all-important position while Dorsett takes on the outside role.
The Saints are shallow at cornerback, so Cooks and Hogan likely will receive plenty of action from Brady no matter where they’re lined up.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images