FOXBOROUGH — Out of all the takeaways from Patriots training camp, wide receiver Brandin Cooks’s blazing speed may have been the most head-turning.
Whether he was using quick cuts in the slot to free himself or burning cornerbacks with his straight-line speed, it became apparent how important this added dimension of speed would become in one of the NFL’s most potent offenses. After two practices, Cooks’s new teammates were already gushing.
“He’s probably one of the fastest people I have ever seen in person,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said on July 28. “That’s nice having at your leisure as a quarterback. That type of speed is rare. And [he] uses it to his advantage to create space, and that makes our job a lot easier.”
In March, the Saints traded Cooks and a fourth-round draft pick for New England’s 32nd overall pick and a third-round pick. It was expected that his downfield speed would supplement New England’s army of shifty receivers and tight ends who operate closer to the line of scrimmage.
But Julian Edelman’s season ended before it really started, tearing his ACL in the third preseason game. Malcolm Mitchell was placed on injured reserve prior to the season opener on Thursday after periodically sitting out practice the past few weeks. Then, Danny Amendola, the only remaining Patriots receiver with extensive experience in the slot, suffered a concussion on Thursday. All of these injuries may expand Cooks’s role in the offense.
Even before Amendola sustained his injury, attrition forced the Patriots to shop for replacements. Five days before the opener, they traded quarterback Jacoby Brissett to the Colts for wide receiver Phillip Dorsett. Dorsett registered a 4.33 40-yard dash time at 2015 Scouting Combine, the same time Cooks ran a year prior.
Whether deliberately or not, the Patriots have fielded one of their fastest offenses in recent memory.
“We’re not putting together a track team here,” Bill Belichick said. “We’re trying to build a football team. A good football player is a good football player.”
But as Belichick knows, adding a downfield threat has proved effective in past cases.
Randy Moss and Tom Brady set NFL touchdown records in 2007, their first year together, as the Patriots boasted one of the greatest offenses of all time.
Last year, in his first season with New England, Chris Hogan averaged a league-leading 17.9 yards per catch. Brady was the second-best deep-ball passer in the NFL behind Matt Ryan, according to Pro Football Focus.
But Brady’s opening performance Thursday hardly resembled last year’s dominance, as New England fell to the Chiefs, 42-27.
Brady missed throws he habitually makes. He seemed to force the ball downfield as the game wore on, completing 16 of 36 pass attempts for a 44.4 percentage rate, his lowest in a game since 2004.
Despite the offensive inconsistencies, New England’s newfound speed helped created chunk plays throughout the game, including the first play from scrimmage.
Cooks and Hogan lined up on the left side, and tight end Dwayne Allen was sent in motion to stack that side. Cooks and Hogan ran streaks as Allen roamed free behind them, opening up the left side for a big play. Brady overthrew Allen for what looked like a sure 30-yard gain, an encapsulation of the Patriots’ frustrating night, but New England’s outside speed instantly presented problems for Kansas City.
Later in the first quarter, the Patriots stacked three receivers on the right side, including tight end Rob Gronkowski, while Cooks stood alone on the left side.
Hogan ran a double move and Gronkowski remained near the line of scrimmage, opening the middle for Amendola. Cooks ran a streak before cutting his route, forcing the deep safety to compensate for his speed. As a result, Amendola spun around Chiefs defensive back Ron Parker in open space before connecting with Brady for a 27-yard completion.
The Chiefs consistently deployed a deep safety to contain the home run throws, which created one-on-ones all over the field. Hogan lined up in the slot 64 percent of the time to help replace Edelman, and Cooks regularly streaked downfield, pulling both his opposing cornerback and the deep safety.
Midway through the third quarter, Cooks ran a go route, burning cornerback Terrance Mitchell. The safety was late to help, leaving Mitchell no choice but to hold Cooks in order to prevent a touchdown. Two plays later, Patriots running back Mike Gillislee scored on a goal-line rush.
Brady continued to feed Cooks, whose seven targets tied for the team high, from back-shoulder fades to crossing patterns. Eventually, the two connected on a big one. With fewer than three minutes remaining in the third quarter, Brady lobbed a 54-yard rainbow to Cooks, who snagged the ball with two defenders draped on him.
Cooks produced a solid Patriots debut, totaling three catches for 88 yards. He also drew three penalties, twice setting up the Patriots for goal-line touchdowns, and regularly opened the field for Amendola and New England’s pass-catching running backs.
The former Saint is one of the most explosive downfield threats in the league. He has 11 touchdown catches of 30 or more yards since his rookie season in 2014, second in the league to Odell Beckham Jr.
It’s unfair to heap Moss-like expectations on Cooks, but the comparisons are unavoidable.
“He reminds us — just a more medium-sized Randy Moss, is how I look at it,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in an interview last week with the Globe’s Ben Volin.
On Thursday, Brady was 3 of 15 on deep passes (throws of at least 15 yards), which accounted for 41 percent of his attempts. Only 11 percent of his attempts in 2016 were deep passes.
If the opener was any indication, this Patriots will attack vertically more than they did in recent seasons. And with limited healthy receivers, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have to tailor his game plan to his available skill players, most of whom are burners.
“The game-plan process really is the same as it always is,” McDaniels said on Friday. “You take the people that are available to you and then you try to create the game plan to give those players the best chance to have success as a unit together against the team that you’re playing.”
Dorsett, who logged only 18 snaps and was targeted just once without a reception in the opener, will become more involved as he acclimates himself with the playbook. Last year, he caught 33 passes for 528 yards.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dorsett caught 42.9 percent of passes thrown to him that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, which ranked 23rd in the league.
With time, Brady will develop a rapport with his new receivers. Speed kills, but only if it is used correctly.
“I think really it just comes down to whatever your different skill sets are, it’s still a matter of execution,” Brady said last week. “You know, fast, quick, tall, smart — I mean, you’ve got to put it all together, and you’ve got to put it together on every play.”