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Reexamining the Patriots-Saints trade for WR Brandin Cooks

New England gave up a first- and third-round pick to New Orleans to get the young wide receiver, and it’s paying it’s dividends.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

This past March, the Patriots and Saints announced a shocking trade: New England sending a first- and third-rounder for 23-year-old (now 24) wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The receiver had been outspoken about his role in New Orleans, and Payton and company decided to ship him to New England.

With the regular season wrapped up and the Patriots on a bye for Wild Card week, it seems like a good time to take a look at Cooks’ production and value to the Patriots.

Brandin Cooks 2017 Statistics

Statistic Value Rank
Statistic Value Rank
Targets 114 T-19th
Receptions 65 T-29th
Receiving Yards 1082 11th
Touchdowns 7 T-19th
Y/R 16.6 7th
Y/G 67.6 12th

The table above shows Brandin Cooks’ statistics for 2017 with the league rank next to them. Purely off of the numbers, it’s hard to argue that Cooks had a down season. If there is one area Cooks can improve, it’s his catch percentage. He should have caught more balls thrown his way, as catching about 57% of his targets is relatively average. However, this is discussed later when detailing his role this season and in future season(s).

In an offense including Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and at least three running backs that can catch the ball, Cooks statistics are very good. He received 19.6% of Tom Brady’s target share, highest on the Patriots, and gained just two yards fewer than Gronkowski.

Cooks’ production has been compared to being either “feast or famine,” yet, he was held to under 50 yards in just six games: against New Orleans’ revamped secondary, Carolina, Casey Hayward and the Chargers, Buffalo twice, and Miami in the Monday night slop-fest. While these low yardage outputs are frustrating, it’s also important to note that Cooks’ production is heavily reliant on certain strategies and play calls.

Cooks adds value by drawing 141 yards in defensive pass interference penalties- the fourth-most in the NFL- and two extra defensive holding calls. Sometimes he’s just used as a decoy due to his speed, and that impact doesn’t show up on the box score.

Looking past the traditional box score, Cooks also ranks high in three separate advanced statistics.

The first, passing net yards over average, measures how well a player does in passing plays over the league average factoring in field position, down, and distance. The more yards gained on a passing play, the higher the net yardage for every player on the offense. Cooks finished the 2017 regular season with a passing NYoA of 465.12 yards over average, good for 9th in the NFL for wide receivers.

That statistic shows how well an offense does passing when the player is on the field, but another statistic that can show a receiver’s worth is the percent share of a team’s air yards. Shown below, TAY% represents how many intended air yards a receiver was targeted for over the total amount of intended air yards for a team. This specific statistic help illustrate who the team’s top receiver is, as they will theoretically be targeted the most, for the most yardage.

Cooks came in at 12th on the list, and he’s not in bad company. Also, of those 11 ahead of him, only six finished with more receiving yards on the season. Being high on this list proves how often the offense looks to Cooks. The wide receiver is given “WR1” targets, and the Patriots made it clear that they would use the player they traded a first round pick for.

We know that Brady and the Patriots always finish near the top of passing yards on a season, and these statistics only further the idea that Cooks is heavily involved and productive.

When discussing Cooks’ production, we also have to discuss his role in New England’s offense. In fact, Evan Lazar recently broke down Cooks’ role in the Patriots’ offense and looked beyond the statistics.

Obviously, we know that Cooks’ calling card is his speed down the field. When the Patriots acquired him in the offseason, a lot of the talk circulated around the idea that Brady hadn’t had a deep threat like Cooks since Randy Moss.

We saw that from Cooks this past season.

With Cooks on the field, opposing defenses always have to respect the possibility of a shot down the field. Cooks forces the defense to adjust how many safeties they have deep, where their cornerbacks line up, etc. The possibility of a deep ball opens up the middle of the field and intermediate to shorter passes, allowing Brady to do his thing.

This past regular season, we saw the Patriots incorporate a more vertical offense. Instead of relying heavily on a horizontal scheme, with more crossing routes, Brady tested the defense vertically with the likes of Cooks and Gronkowski.

Gronkowski will always be a nightmare down the seam for opposing defensive coordinators. With the addition of some speed along the perimeter with Cooks, it becomes even more of a numbers game with Brady against the defense.

Even after losing Julian Edelman for the year, having Chris Hogan only active for nine games, and virtually no receiving threat at the backup tight end spot, the Patriots offense finished first in offensive DVOA with 27.3%. Cooks may not have been the “chain-mover” that Edelman has been for New England, but Cooks was still able to make up for much of Edelman’s production. The offense did not miss a beat, giving more targets to running backs, Gronkowski, Amendola, and Cooks.

But, with Edelman on track to return next season, Cooks will no longer have to be the team’s ‘number one’ receiver. His target share will drop from the 114 targets he saw this past season, but Cooks proved that he can be an integral part of this offense with his 16.6 yards per reception. If his average holds around 15-16 yards per reception, he will continue to be a great asset as only Gronkowski can produce numbers close to that.

Now that his regular season numbers are final and his role has been defined, it’s fair to look back on the trade from this past offseason.

You can look at the trade from many different standpoints. You can argue that trading a first- and third-round pick for a wide receiver should translate to more than 1,082 yards on a season, but you’d be looking at it the wrong way.

The way I look at it, the Patriots acquired a young wide receiver that brought production and a few game-changing plays.

New England has not had a wide receiver under 25-years-old with over 60 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards in a season since Terry Glenn. That’s astounding. And when you change the restriction from 25-years-old or younger to by the fourth year of their career, the only other player added to this list is Wes Welker.

As if you needed more evidence of New England lacking a young, dynamic receiver in past seasons, just look to the receivers drafted by the Patriots since 2000.

Besides Patriots heroes Deion Branch, Edelman, and David Givens, this list is nothing to be proud of (we still believe in you, Malcolm Mitchell). Cooks’ one season with New England would already put him fifth had he been drafted by New England. And in an era with Tom Brady as their starting quarterback, that’s also pretty surprising.

It’s clear that New England knew they wanted to add another passing threat this offseason. With a depleted wide receiver free agent class in 2017, the choice was to trade for a proven starter, or to look to the draft. The draft has been uncomfortable position for Belichick with regards to receivers, as Belichick has made 157 draft picks in his time in New England, and only 15 of them have been wide receivers.

The 2017 NFL Draft had three receivers selected in the first round: Corey Davis, Mike Williams, and John Ross. Those three receivers combined for 90 targets, 45 receptions, 470 yards, and 0 touchdowns, with Davis producing most of those statistics. The only receiver from last year’s class that even comes close to matching Cooks’ production is Pittsburgh Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Cooks, a receiver that had already recorded two 1,000 yard seasons in his short career, had much more value to Belichick than the 32nd and 103rd overall picks in the 2017 draft. Instead of taking a chance early on a wide receiver or drafting a project, Belichick preferred to snag the known commodity and add another element to his offense. The loss of a team-friendly rookie deal hurts, but the addition of a proven game-changer at wide receiver outweighs the cost of the two draft picks.

The outcome of the trade won’t truly be known until Cooks’ fifth-year option is completed and his next contract is known, but the trade has certainly helped New England this season. Take any Antonio Brown-like expectations out, and we have just witnessed one of the most productive seasons from a New England receiver ever.