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How The New England Patriots Will Make Brandin Cooks a WR1 Stud

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Brandin Cooks Fantasy 2017

In the NFL, trades involving premier talents are quite rare. But when star wide receiver Brandin Cooks made ripples about being unhappy with his role for the New Orleans Saints during the 2016 NFL season, speculation began that the Saints might be willing to part with their 23-year-old wideout.

After landing superstar-in-the-making Michael Thomas in the second-round of the 2016 NFL draft to go with Willie Snead and newly-signed Ted Ginn, Jr., Saints executive vice president and General Manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton felt confident that the offense would be fine without Cooks.

Immediately, the New England Patriots were included in a handful of teams that would be interested in acquiring the services of Cooks, and after being unable or unwilling to part with cornerback Malcolm Butler in the deal, Bill Belichick eventually sent New England’s 2017 No. 1 (32nd overall) and a compensatory third-round pick (No. 107) to New Orleans for Cooks and the Saints’ 2017 fourth-round pick (No. 118.)

While the deal has been rumored, it was still quite shocking to see a young star wideout dealt so quickly, and equally surprising to see Bill Belichick part with two premium draft picks. New England’s normal modus operandi is to constantly be acquiring more draft capital.  

Now that the deal is complete, the real question, especially in fantasy football, is how will Cooks fit in with a potent New England Patriots offense that is already loaded with talented pass catchers?

The answer to that question, is quite simply, not only will Brandin Cooks fit in just fine with the Patriots, his route-running and speed will bring a unique wrinkle to that offense, and the way Patriots plan to implement Cooks into their gameplan is going to make Cooks a fantasy superstar in 2017.

Attributes

Coming out of Oregon State, Cooks ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL combine, which led all wide receivers. And that speed has certainly translated well to the pro game, as Cooks has already scored eight touchdowns from 40+ yards in his first three seasons.

Cooks has also proven to be sure-handed, producing a catch rate of 65.1% in 2015 and 66.7% in 2016. Both of these figures rank Cooks in the top-30 among NFL wide receivers in each season.

Although he’s listed at only five-foot-10, 189-pounds, Cooks excels at high-pointing the ball and winning at the catch point. But where Cooks really stands out is after the ball is snapped, where his agility, route-running, and run-after-the-catch skills put him way ahead of any X-receivers that the Patriots have tried to fit into their system since Randy Moss left town.

The Erhardt-Perkins system championed by Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels is ever-evolving and beautifully managed by Tom Brady, who has remained the one constant in New England. What’s going to make Brandin Cooks such a unique fit for the Patriots is his ability to be used as a chess piece, lining up anywhere to run any route.

New England’s offense thrives with constantly changing and always attacking a defense’s weak point from a variety of ways. One of the things the Patriots ask their running backs, tight end and receivers to do is run a big route tree that usually involves multiple reads or multiple breaks in the route.

The good folks over at Pro Football Focus broke down the data and discovered that the Patriots run a ton of pass routes with multiple breaks, and Brandin Cooks easily led the NFL in yards per route run with multiple breaks.

It’s that all-around skillset, game-changing speed, and versatility that separates Cooks from other wideouts that the Patriots have tried to install into their system over the years. And when it comes to putting their players in advantageous matchups or utilizing a player’s best attributes, nobody is as skilled as Bill Belichick.

The Patriot Way

Whether it’s lining up Rob Gronkowski outside to seek one-on-one coverage with a smaller safety or linebacker, getting his running backs paired against slower defensive ends, or using his receivers to “pick” opposing defensive backs, Bill Belichick knows how to gameplan for creating mismatches.

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Tom Brady‘s ability to see the field and make the correct read is also unparalleled. Brandin Cooks not only offers an all-around skill set that the Patriots haven’t had, but he has quickly learned to embrace the “Patriots way.”

Following June minicamps, Belichick complimented Cooks and his ability to rapidly pick up the offense and fit in well with his new teammates. Not long after making the trade, the club also picked up Cooks’ fifth-year option, showing they’re committed to making the fourth-year receiver a big part of their offense.

In June minicamp, Cooks and Tom Brady were often seen working together long after practice had been completed. According to NESN, the duo had built up some strong chemistry, with Cooks catching some 11 passes from Brady, including a 50-yard touchdown bomb.

While it’s imperative that a new player expected to be a key contributor get as much preparation and extra work in as possible, the biggest question facing the Patriots receiving corps is will there be enough balls to go around for Brandin Cooks, James White, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski to all maintain their lofty fantasy expectations?

Anticipating Target Share

It’s no surprise to anyone that the Tom Brady-led Patriots annually rank among the best passing teams in the NFL. Over the past six seasons, New England has ranked top-10 in the league in passing attempts while averaging over 4,400 passing yards and 33 touchdowns per campaign.Even last year, when Tom Brady missed the first four games of the season and the Patriots were unusually run-heavy with LeGarrette Blount, the Pats still ranked fourth in passing yards and sixth in touchdowns while only ranking 23rd in attempts.
Year Com. Att. Yds. Rank TD Rank
2011 402 612 5084 2 39 4
2012 402 641 4662 4 34 4
2013 380 628 4087 10 25 13
2014 392 609 4121 9 34 5
2015 404 629 4587 5 36 1
2016 368 550 4308 4 32 6
Avg. 391.3 611.5 4474.8 33.3

Blount is now in Philadelphia and the Patriots will likely run more of a committee with James White as the main receiving back and change-of-pace runner, and newcomers Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead commanding most of the first and second-down work.

Entering 2017, it’s safe to assume that Tom Brady’s pass attempts will rebound and the Patriots should approach the 611 attempts they averaged for the past six seasons. But with so many options in the passing game, it’s safe to question how Brandin Cooks will see enough targets to produce a top-10 fantasy wide receiver season.

Based on that figure of 611 pass attempts, Cooks would need to see 122 targets to approach the minimum 20+% share mark normally associated with team leaders or solid fantasy producers. While that might not seem like enough targets to produce a fantasy WR1, looking at the least-targeted top-12 wide receivers over the last five season shows that a WR1 season with 122 targets is well within reach, and something that Cooks himself just did with New Orleans.
Year Player Team Tgt Rec Yds TD Rank
2012 Julio Jones ATL 128 79 1198 10 WR11
2013 DeSean Jackson PHI 126 82 1332 9 WR12
2014 Randall Cobb GB 127 91 1287 12 WR8
2015 Doug Baldwin SEA 103 78 1069 14 WR10
2016 Brandin Cooks NO 117 78 1173 8 WR11
Tom Brady spreads the ball around, but the team’s target share leaders usually fall within normal team leader figures around the league. As expected, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski normally lead the Patriots in targets, but when you look back at 2014, three Patriot pass catchers had big enough target shares to enter our WR1 discussion.

Year Player Game Tgt Share Rec Yds TD
2014 Julian Edelman 14 134 22.0% 92 972 4
2014 Rob Gronkowski 15 131 21.5% 82 1124 12
2014 Brandon LaFell 16 119 19.5% 74 953 7
2015 Rob Gronkowski 15 120 19.0% 72 1176 11
2016 Julian Edelman 16 159 28.9% 98 1106 3

Considering that Brandin Cooks is far and away the biggest deep threat the Patriots have had in years and that Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski both are frequently listed as questionable or miss games, it’s more conceivable that the 2017 New England passing attack could sustain enough targets for Cooks to maintain weekly WR1 value, but it will likely come at the expense of Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and other minor contributors.

How the Patriots will use Cooks

Bill Belichick is a master at taking advantage of what his players do best and adjusting his offensive philosophy to suit those talents. To assume Belichick surrendered a first and third round pick to acquire an athlete like Cooks and that Cooks will only be used as a third option in New England’s passing game goes against everything that Belichick has stood for.

Instead, Cooks is going to play an integral part of the Patriots offense from day one, and his presence will not only help Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman but Cooks himself stands to play a prominent role as a versatile option that can line up in the slot, outside, or even the backfield.

With New Orleans, Cooks found himself frequently aligned in the slot, where his speed, route running, and run-after-the-catch ability made him an instant mismatch against a slot corner or safety. Even against a premier coverage safety like Tyrann Mathieu, Cooks’s agility, and change-of-direction speed often results in five-yard slot or crossing routes being taken for breakaway 45-yard touchdowns.

Another big part of the genius of New England’s passing attack is their ability to take advantage of mismatches by frequently moving all of their pass catchers all over the field. When Tom Brady reads that he’s facing man coverage, he might audible to a different route concept, but with an uncanny ability to decipher coverages, Brady will know right away what one-on-one pairing favors the Patriots.

Having a force like Rob Gronkowski capable of lining up outside and running with cornerbacks, paired with nimble, precise route runners like Julian Edelman and Brandin Cooks will be a huge problem for opposing defenses. It almost assures that the Patriots are going to see at least one very favorable mismatch every time they line up in a spread formation.

When running 11 personnel and utilizing a trips formation frequented by New England, Cooks would be able to attack downfield up the seams or run a post route when matched-up one-on-one. In a Cover 2 look, Cooks would rely on his agility and route running to find the soft spot underneath. From the shotgun, Tom Brady would have ample time to pick apart opposing secondaries.

Regardless of personnel, having Cooks lined up on the outside–even with safety help– can cause major problems, as the Raiders learned on this 98-yard touchdown bomb last season- the longest in the NFL. “Cheating” a safety to mitigate Cooks would only free up Julian Edelman, or allow Gronkowski to attack the middle of the field.

In New Orleans, the Saints would often use Willie Snead to “pick” the defender running with Brandin Cooks to get Cooks into space and take advantage of his run-after-the-catch ability. This is also a concept that the Patriots have used, and will undoubtedly continue to with Cooks frequently being sent across the middle in the hopes of catching the ball in stride, with no defender anywhere near him.

Fantasy Forecast

Year Game Tgt Rec Yds Avg TD Ctch % PPR PPG Rank
2014 10 69 53 550 10.4 3 76.80% 139.3 13.9 WR56
2015 16 129 84 1138 13.5 9 65.10% 253.8 15.9 WR14
2016 16 117 78 1173 15 8 66.70% 246.3 15.4 WR11

At a 20% target share, Brandon Cooks would garner 122 targets for New England in 2017. With a career catch rate of 68.3% and 13.3 yards-per-catch, those raw numbers would but Cooks in line to catch 83 passes for 1,108 yards.

Even a modest season of 83-1,108-8 would translate to 241.8 fantasy points in a PPR league. That figure would have been good enough to be the WR12 in 2016.

But after looking at all the things that Cooks brings potentially adds to New England’s already potent offense, and breaking down how the Patriots might use Cooks, those WR12 numbers could be just his floor- and that makes Brandin Cooks an intriguing, must-have fantasy wideout in 2017.

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About the author

Jody Smith

Senior Writer Gridiron Experts. 2012 FantasyPros Most Accurate Fantasy Expert. Member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. 26-year fantasy football veteran. Featured on NFL.com, Fantasypros, Football Diehards annual magazine, local AM sports radio, podcasts everywhere and SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio. Once scored 4 touchdowns in a single game for Polk High School.

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