The New England Patriots acquired a young, talented receiver in Brandin Cooks, who has averaged 1,180 yards and 8.5 touchdowns over the past two seasons for the New Orleans Saints. And despite the fact that Cooks is entering his fourth season in the NFL, he is younger than a handful of the Patriots incoming rookie class and is still just scratching the surface of his potential.
But while Cooks is the most exciting receiver in New England since Randy Moss, it’s important to temper our expectations- even Moss didn’t have to deal with the same volume of talent in the Patriots supporting cast.
Cooks will be fighting with Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, James White, and Dion Lewis for targets, and that’s before we factor in fellow new acquisitions in Dwayne Allen, Rex Burkhead, and Mike Gillislee.
Over the past two years, Cooks has been the #1a or #1b target in New Orleans with a fairly defined role in the Saints offense. Michael Thomas was the outside receiver, Willie Snead was in the slot, and Cooks was the flanker, moving around the formation to create beneficial match-ups; Cooks lined up in the slot just 37% of the time, per Pro Football Focus.
In his role, Cooks has received 18.3% of the Saints passing targets over the past two seasons, and a fair question is whether he will receive the same share of opportunities in the Patriots offense. Cooks will be battling Edelman and Gronkowski and is the likely #1c target- and there is precedence for a top trio in the Patriots offense.
In 2014, the Patriots balanced an offense with Edelman (22.0% of targets), Gronkowski (21.5%), and Brandon LaFell (19.5%). Shane Vereen was fourth on the team with 12.6% of the targets out of the backfield.
In 2011, the Patriots juggled Wes Welker (28.3% of targets), Gronkowski (20.3%), and Aaron Hernandez (18.5%), with Deion Branch in fourth with 14.7% of the targets.
In both years, the Patriots reached the Super Bowl, so this is a strategic approach with solid results in New England. The Patriots will trot out an offense with three receivers capable of taking over the game and a host of supporting talents that can supplement the stars.
It’s also worth noting that the Saints have had three receivers with 100+ targets in each of the past two years, with Cooks and Snead joined by Ben Watson in 2015 and Thomas in 2016. Cooks has already been operating in a three-target offense.
Of course, Cooks’ volume will likely decrease because the Patriots simply don’t throw the ball as much as the Saints do; New Orleans averaged 81 more passing attempts than the Patriots over the past two years. But we can try to see where Cooks’ snaps will come from in the formation and whether there is enough opportunity for the depth players on the team.
Over the past three years, the Patriots have dedicated roughly 20% of their targets to outside receivers, 20% to running backs, 25% to tight ends, and 35% to flankers and slot players (grouping Edelman and Danny Amendola into one category due to their fluid nature).
When healthy, Edelman hovers between 20-25% of team targets, which leaves a solid 10-15% of targets still available for others at the flanker position. Chris Hogan saw 10.5% of the team targets in 2016 and even with an increased role for Hogan, there is a path for Cooks to see his same 15-20% of team targets that he saw with the Saints.
And while the Patriots throw the ball a substantial amount less than the Saints, there’s no question that playing with Edelman and Gronkowski will create more open field and yards after the catch opportunities for Cooks than playing with Snead and then-rookie Thomas.
Still, Cooks will have had an incredible year if he can copy his previous two seasons of production with roughly 1,200 yards; that would be roughly 25% of the Patriots passing offense. We should instead realistically look for Cooks to crack 1,000 yards and flirt with double-digit touchdowns.