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Player Faceoff: Brandin Cooks, New England

Two staffers go head-to-head and discuss Brandin Cooks

The staff members at Footballguys are full of opinions. In a Faceoff, we allow two members to voice their opinions on a specific player. One picked the high side, and the other took the low side.

High Side: Jason Wood

Brandin Cooks is going to be a key piece on a lot of championship rosters. In spite of ranking 12th and 8th in the last two seasons, Cooks is being discounted by too many analysts thanks to his move from New Orleans to New England. The argument against Cooks is that New England plays no favorites and will not give him the targets required to be a fantasy WR1. That’s a puzzling argument considering Cooks only had 129 and 117 targets over the last two seasons. In 2015, Cooks was the 19th most targeted receiver and finished WR12. In 2016, Cooks was the 24th most targeted receiver and finished WR8. He’s incredibly efficient and doesn’t need 150+ targets to be a top fantasy asset.

Here’s the reality, Brandin Cooks is the second best receiver to play with Tom Brady in his career. That’s not hyperbole. It's a fact. In Brady’s career, he has completed passes to 46 different wide receivers. Most of the names were forgettable (Kelley Washington, anyone?) but a few are household names and fantasy stars: Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Deion Branch. All great players, but none of them are as good as Cook OTHER than Randy Moss.

Of receivers with at least 100 career targets, only Wes Welker has a better catch rate (72.5%) than Cooks (68.3%). Julian Edelman – a target vacuum in recent years – has a 66.5% catch rate in spite of being thrown higher percentage passes. Only Randy Moss has a better touchdown rate (11.2%). Cooks’ 6.3% touchdown rate is demonstrably better than Welker (4.0%), Edelman (3.7%) and Branch (4.4%). Cooks’ 13.3-yard career average is better than everyone of prominence outside of Moss. Why are these comparison relevant? Bill Belichick plays the best players on the roster. And he and Tom Brady usually make players better. Even if you don’t think Cooks’ numbers will improve (they’re already elite, and Drew Brees is no slouch as a passer), he’s stepping into Foxborough as the best receiver since Randy Moss. He will see a lot of targets. If he “only” sees 110-120 targets, we know he can be a Top 12 fantasy receiver – just as he was in New Orleans. But, if logic holds and the best player gets the most targets, Cooks could be DOMINANT. Julian Edelman has been targeted nearly ten times per game; imagine what Cooks can do with 150-160 targets!

Low Side: Matt Waldman

There are a lot of reasons to like Brandin Cooks as a fantasy prospect but to believe he has elite fantasy WR1 upside in New England requires one to love his skills. In order to feel this way about Cooks, one has to see him as a receiver capable of things that define most top-12 fantasy options with top-5 upside. Cooks’ three-year track record in New Orleans indicates that if he can only approach the boundary of WR1 production with a future Hall of Famer throwing to him who broke Dan Marino’s “unbreakable” single season yardage record, then New England’s offense isn’t going to improve Cooks’ fantasy value. In fact, there’s a good argument that Cooks’ presence helps the New England offense more than it helps the receiver’s production.

Cooks’ speed, skill after the catch, and successful relationship with a top quarterback are positives about his game that have made him a borderline WR1 in fantasy leagues. But he has never been and doubtfully will ever earn the illogical comparisons to Steve Smith, who was a true undersized, elite option. Top primary options who are height –challenged but possess elite upside have skills that Cooks has not exhibited with any level of consistency, including rebounding the ball against tight coverage and catching the ball in the face of physical contact. These two skills are significant traits for a successful red zone option, and Cooks has never been a double-digit red zone option. In fact, Cooks has only scored 6 touchdowns in the red zone during his three seasons as a pro and half of that total came last year. This has never been the strength of Cooks’ game.

At best, Cooks has been inconsistent in these two areas and New Orleans maximized Cooks’ strengths rather than trying to force the receiver to overcome his weaknesses. Expect Tom Brady and the Patriots to do the same with Cooks in New England, especially when Malcolm Mitchell and Rob Gronkowski are skilled rebounders who thrive against physical play. Although Randy Moss was a sensational performer with Brady in the vertical game nearly a decade ago, Brady has never been a great vertical thrower. Moss was capable of winning targets against double or even triple coverage and didn’t require perfect pass placement to do it. While he still has functional arm strength, Brady is no longer in his physical prime as an arm talent and Cooks has mixed results against tight physical coverage, at best.

There will be some deep hookups between Brady and Cooks, but look for the Patriots to exploit Cooks’ skill after the catch as a short and intermediate receiver who can threaten the defense with his deep speed for easy big plays. Those easy, uncontested big plays may only come around 4-6 times this year, and I doubt Cooks will earn more than 2-3 scores on contested or red zone targets, which means fantasy owners are once again staring at a touchdown total of 6-9 scores in 2017. This is no different that Cooks’ production in New Orleans.

Considering and the Patriots still have a stocked depth chart of receivers with multiple years with the team who have developed a rapport with Tom Brady and understand his pre-and post-snap adjustments, I would be surprised if Cooks emerges as an elite fantasy threat this year. Look for Cooks to force defenses to honor his deep speed and give Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots receiving corps advantageous reads. I’m not saying Cooks will be a bust, but expecting more than what he’s earned in New Orleans doesn’t account for what Cooks has shown thus far as a pro and Brady’s strengths as a quarterback.