FOXBOROUGH — When Donte Stallworth joined the Patriots in 2007, he learned quickly that things were done differently within the organization notorious for its obsessive attention to detail.
Josh McDaniels, then in his first stint as offensive coordinator, had a specific route in mind for the explosive Stallworth, who signed as a free agent months before the team also acquired Randy Moss. The way Stallworth interpreted it, he would run 12 yards, fake a few steps to the outside, and then run a post. It seemed similar to the double move he ran with the Eagles the year prior, so Stallworth ran it that same way in his first few practices with Tom Brady.
“I’m expecting him to launch it out there because I had perfect coverage, and then the [defender] didn’t bite, so Tommy doesn’t throw it,” Stallworth recalled during a phone call Wednesday afternoon. “I come back to the sideline and he says, ‘Hey babe, I don’t want you to take so many steps out. Give him one step but don’t lose your speed.’ Automatically, I realized it was a totally different route and we hit it later in practice. He nodded and winked like, ‘That was what I wanted.’ ”
It took time for Stallworth to strike the right chemistry with Brady, but he finished the season with 46 catches for 697 yards, an average of 15.2 yards per catch. His three touchdown catches went for 34, 69, and 30 yards. Moss nearly doubled Stallworth’s production with 98 catches for 1,493 yards, but with an identical 15.2 yards per catch.
Brandin Cooks has given the Patriots their first legitimate downfield threat since that historic 2007 season. Cooks, acquired from the Saints in the offseason, is in an echelon of his own, somewhere between Stallworth and Moss, and Stallworth said he can see that same chemistry brewing between Brady and Cooks.
“It’s hard to fool Brady, and it’s hard to throw something at him he hasn’t seen before, so he expects the wide receivers to see the same thing he’s seeing and be on the same page,” Stallworth said. “He trusts that you’ll be there . . . and you can see how much Tommy targets [Cooks] that they’ve developed that trust and it takes time.”
Cooks has caught 51 passes for 869 yards and five touchdowns through 12 games. He’s averaging a career-best 17 yards per catch, which ranks sixth in the league. He’s hauled in 12 catches for 25 yards or more, tied with Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins for the league lead.
Wes Welker was the last Patriots wide receiver to have more than 10 catches for 25-plus yards in a season when he had 11 in 2011. Cooks also has a league-best six catches of 40-plus yards, and he’s been a stalwart on third down.
Brady has targeted Cooks 17 times in third-down situations, and he’s caught five of those passes for 116 yards, an average of 23.2 per catch.
“Whatever’s expected of me, I try to do my best,” Cooks said. “When I first got here to now, obviously there’s going to be differences as we go, but what I consider myself in this offense, I look at it as just doing my job the best that I can.”
His most productive game as a member of the Patriots came against the Raiders in Mexico City, when he had six catches for 149 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown pass.
In Week 3, he caught five passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns against the Texans, including a toe-tapping score that gave the Patriots the lead with 23 seconds left.
Cooks’s success isn’t predicated on getting into the end zone. His 42-yard reception on third down against the Jets set up Rob Gronkowski’s 2-yard touchdown, which tied the score.
On one play during the opening drive last Sunday against the Dolphins, three defenders tracked Cooks into the secondary, which left Phillip Dorsett open for a 39-yard gain. He had a similar effect on a Gronkowski touchdown in the third quarter.
From the moment Cooks joined the Patriots, he’s also endeared himself to teammates, several of whom used the same term — professional — when describing him.
“Talk about being a real professional guy, whether it’s walkthrough or practice, combined with the talent . . . it’s great to see a guy work as hard as he does as talented he is and to see him have that type of production,” said backup quarterback Brian Hoyer.
Safety Jordan Richards, who went to Stanford and played Cooks three times in college when Cooks was at Oregon State, called him a “technician” and sees the same focus he saw then.
“He wants to complete every play and that’s very evident by the way he goes out and carries himself,” Richards said. “I remember playing in college, how competitive he was, and to see that craft at this level is really cool.”
When Stallworth joined the Patriots, he said it took some time to adjust to the versatile demands of the offense because he had strictly been an outside receiver and had to learn more. He surmised that Cooks has been able to adapt to the Patriots offense so quickly because Saints coach Sean Payton demanded a similar versatility from his receivers.
Cooks was unwilling to discuss his time with the Saints, but said, “I think just studying hard and paying attention” has helped him get comfortable in New England. “Watching film, doing the little things. It’s football season, so have that mind-set to study this offense and do as much as you can to get up to speed.”
At this point, there’s little doubt Brady and Cooks are on the same page, and it is expected that the big plays will continue down the final stretch of the season.