The New England Patriots paid a high price for Brandin Cooks, and there are some misconceptions out there about the type of wide receiver he is.
A running gag in New England has been the fans clamoring for Bill Belichick to add a deep threat for Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots have actually tried to do this several times. Just a few years ago, the Patriots drafted Aaron Dobson in the second round, and he flamed out. Dobson replaced Brandon Lloyd, who went from regularly averaging 14.0 yards per reception to 12.3 yards per catch for the Patriots.
Before free agency opened, it was clear that the Patriots would make every effort to snag a wide receiver with speed, even though Chris Hogan was among the league leaders with 17.9 yards per reception. Armed with ample cap space, the Patriots showed interest in DeSean Jackson, but they were most prominently linked to New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who made his displeasure with his role known months ago.
When the news of the Patriots interest in Cooks first broke, I was in disbelief and actually believed Belichick was trying to help his friend, Sean Payton, by increasing the wideout’s trade value. After all, the Patriots have never entertained trading a first-round pick for a receiver, because it’s always seemed like they’ve went after having multiple solid pass-catchers as opposed to investing in one stud wideout.
Instead, the Patriots packaged a first and third-round pick to the Saints for Cooks and a fourth-round pick (that they must forfeit). In a way, this trade was unprecedented from the perspective of someone who has followed the Patriots for years, because it represents a significant investment in a wide receiver.
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This means the Patriots think Cooks is a special player, and it’s hard not to see why. Cooks is one of the NFL’s most explosive players, and he’s averaged over 70 receiving yards per game in each of the past two seasons. Cooks put up 15.0 yards per reception in the 2016 season, and the arrow-shooter found the end zone eight times.
Cooks is known for his speed, which is why so many fans are excited to see how he does as a deep threat in the Patriots offense. Last season, New England attacked the deep areas of the field as well as any team. Brady completed 49.3 percent of his deep attempts with nine touchdowns and one interception. Meanwhile, Cooks caught 66.7 percent of the passes thrown at him, despite averaging 15.0 yards per reception, making him and Taylor Gabriel, who had a much smaller role, the only players to do this in 2016.
While Cooks’ is reputation is as a deep threat due to his excellent 2015 and 2016 seasons in that role with the Saints, he’s capable of much more. When Cooks came out of Oregon State, most scouting reports praised the Biletnikoff Award winner for his ability to make things happen after the catch. That could be more important in New England’s offense, because even though the Patriots can take advantage of his 4.33-second 40-yard dash, they might be more interested in his 3.81s 20-yard shuttle and 6.76s three-cone drill times.
The worry that Cooks may not be “tough enough” over the middle of the field is somewhat unfounded. As Ollie Connolly wrote in a piece for All22.com, Cooks’s main struggles come against press coverage, and those issues seem to be more about his experience and ability to get a clean release off the line of scrimmage (remember how much noted press corner Aqib Talib talked about that?) as opposed to an unwillingness to get physical.
Back when Cooks was a draft prospect, Rotoworld’s Josh Norris compared him to Victor Cruz because of Cooks’s ability to win on the inside and outside. The thing is, Cooks is more like Taylor Gabriel in the slot with his size, speed, and quickness profile, as opposed to a Jason Avant or Cole Beasley.
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More importantly, the fear that Cooks isn’t willing to play over the middle of the field doesn’t make much sense. In 2014 before he was drafted by the Saints, Cooks stated that he looks up to Steve Smith Sr., whom he was compared to frequently. Cooks added that he is “fearless” and is not afraid to make plays over the middle of the field.
If he were afraid or if there were major red flags with him fitting into the locker room, would the Patriots really trade him? This is an organization that unceremoniously dumped promising, former first-round pick Dominique Easley after he failed to fit in. They weed out players who don’t love the game of football, so why would they trade a first-round pick for one of them?
The Saints chose Michael Thomas over Brandin Cooks for a reason, and that’s because Thomas is a better No. 1 wide receiver. He runs much better routes, he’s smarter, he’s better at the catch point, and he can consistently haul in a higher percentage of his targets while still being a big-play threat. The thing is, Cooks is a better complementary receiver for a team that isn’t as interested in distinguishing a wide receiver as a No. 1 guy, simply because Cooks is more dangerous. Additionally, because Cooks is still just 23 and not nearly a finished product, the Patriots can still develop him into a superior receiver, especially if you believe the Pats have a better coaching staff than New Orleans.
Cooks isn’t going to be a target-hog, and he won’t replicate Edelman’s success over the middle of the field. He can get open on the strength of his physical tools, but he isn’t the finished product when it comes to working himself open against heavy coverage or smart gameplanning.
As of right now, Cooks doesn’t have the attention to detail required to win many 50-50 battles, but that’s fine. All of these are advanced traits expected from an Allen Robinson or Mike Evans; Cooks just has to be a guy who can take on 120+ targets and efficiently turn them into around 1,200 yards. In the Patriots offense, he’ll have an even better chance of winning matchups, and he has a great chance of becoming that truly well-rounded top guy with time.