The decision to trade the 57th overall selection of the 2020 NFL Draft to the Rams for Brandin Cooks and a 2022 fourth round pick was a tame decision by Houston Texans standards. For most franchises, adding a pseudo number one wide receiver would be a focal point of the offseason. Not for Houston. This trade is instead a return to normalcy. It’s nothing like the hordes of players and picks exchanged when they traded Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins or traded for Laremy Tunsil. Bill O’Brien’s newest decision is a fascinating one with lots to unpack.
Cooks is one of the league’s premier deep threats. In his single season in New England, he averaged 16.6 yards a reception, and had an average depth of target of 16.5 yards (4th). In 2018, he averaged 15.1 yards a reception and had an average depth of target of 15.1 yards (19th). Cooks’ usage rate rarely floats above 20%; he doesn’t have the usage rate to be a typical WR1 who carries an offense. Cooks is a deep running demon though, and thanks to this alone, he’s usually fringe top ten receiver by efficiency (DVOA) and total value (DYAR).
Cooks wins with the same 4.33 40 blistering speed he showed off at the 2014 NFL Combine. Against Minnesota below, on Thursday Night Football in 2018, Cooks is the single wide receiver on the closed (weak side) side of the formation. The Rams have a bunch formation left, and it looks like the Vikings are trying to defend a 3x1 with quarters defense. This leaves the safety biting on the deep crosser and gives Cooks a one-on-one matchup against the outside cornerback.
Cooks’ speed forces cornerbacks to speed up their decisions. They are forced to count steps and decipher routes quicker. If they open their hips and turn to run too late, they’ll stand no chance at catching back up and playing the football.
There’s eight yards separating Cooks and the corner. From the snap, Cooks puts his head down and turns up the dial. The corner backpedals, reads, and turns his hips, but he doesn’t bail and chase early enough. When he turns, Cooks has already hit full speed, eating up the cushion between the two, and leaving the cornerback behind. Jared Goff puts the ball on his front shoulder in the perfect spot.
Cooks can win downfield regardless of the pre-snap cushion. Here the Saints have a four deep shell. Marshon Lattimore (#23) is responsible for the deep left fourth. It looks like he has safety help. They holler trying to communicate what they have ahead of the snap.
The safety drives on the deep crosser that runs behind the short middle curl defenders. Unlike the previous play, Lattimore recognizes the route early. He breaks to turn and run. He’s just too slow and is his leverage is too wide. Cooks puts his head down, slightly feigns the widening of his route, and gets skinny to float down the seam.
Cooks creates enough separation to throttle down and track the ball. The ball is placed outside the seam so the other safety can’t replace and affect the throw. Cooks goes from looking over his inside shoulder, to looking up to the heavens, and receiving his blessings right in the basket.
Speed is used to destroy defensive backs in a variety of ways. It’s more than simple sprinting. It can also be used to create horizontal separation. Cooks has the speed to outrun defenders vertically and horizontally.
Here the Rams use max protection and play action to take a shot downfield. They have two wide receivers balanced across the formation against cover one. Cooks is matched up one-on-one against a cornerback with slight outside leverage and a deep middle safety. The corner wants to funnel any route to the middle of the field where he has help. Cooks has the perfect response. He runs an out and up, running wide of the cornerback at the top of his stem to take his route upfield.
The key to Cooks’ route is his eyes. He looks inside at the safety before the top of his route. This leaves the cornerback balanced and feeling like he’s in control because he has help inside.
Goff eyes the crossing route after the play-action fake. This keeps the safety in place, in the center of the field, before chasing the crossing route. The deep middle is empty. Giving Cooks a pure one-on-one match up.
When Cooks breaks outside, the cornerback is ahead of Cooks, but he isn’t already turning and running. This is death. Cooks has the speed to outrun nearly every cornerback, especially one he has a head start against. Speed forces corners to be exact and perfect. Any slight mistep, read, or a heart too pure with too much faith in his help will find a corner chasing in dismay.
This is the same route. This time it’s against Cover One. Cooks torches the corner once again. Speed creates space. He’s just unable to hold on as he brings the ball to his outside arm and loses it as the cornerback chases back and tomahawks the ball.
The route is different, but the idea is the same. Houston’s defense is in Cover Four, but the screen fake pulls the strong safety down. Cooks is the outside receiver on the closed side of the formation, running a deep post. His post carries him behind the strong safety, and his speed torches the outside cornerback. It’s a Yankee concept, a staple of the Texans’ deep passing game in 2019. The other deep post pulls the outside quarters corner out of his zone. Cooks walks in for an easy score.
The other aspect of Cooks’ game that makes him a special deep threat is his ability to win from any alignment. In 2017, he lined up in the slot 29% of the time. In 2018, he lined up in the slot 70% of the time. He can run downfield routes from reduced, plus, and numbers splits, or even from the slot.
The corner route is his best route when he’s lined up tighter to the formation. Eyes are used to stare inside, allowing Cooks to sell the inside break before crossing back across the cornerback.
On this touchdown catch, Cooks has a reduced split and is running a corner route against one deep safety. The cornerback is lined up in press coverage pre-snap. Cooks releases inside of the cornerback and isn’t touched. This sells the seam, forcing the corner to turn and run. Cooks plants his outside foot, comes behind the corner’s back, and breaks outside. The safety is between the hashes and has no chance to play this ball.
The Rams are once again running play-action with only two real routes. Cooks is the outside receiver with a reduced split. Like the previous snap, Cooks uses this split to create more space when he breaks outside on the corner. The Saints have one deep safety once the strong safety climbs down to fit the run.
The corner isn’t playing pure man, though. He’s using a trail technique. He’s expecting the corner route based on the down, distance, and Cooks’ pre-snap alignment. The corner sits on Cooks’s inside hip, trying to stay between the receiver and the ball. His fears of getting beat deep are quelled by the safety sitting over the top in case Cooks turns his route downfield. Hopefully it won’t come to that. Hopefully they can play under and over Cooks to squash this throw.
Despite the perfect technique and defense for this route, Cooks is able to beat the coverage. He outruns the corner’s trail technique and then opens his shoulders to the center of the field. This forces to the safety to open up and shuffle along the deep middle of the field. Cooks sells the seam to open up the corner.
Cooks drags the corner to the hash and then separates from him when he breaks outside. The deep middle is on the opposite hash. Cooks elongates his route and stretches it along the sideline instead of to it. This screws with the safety’s pursuit angle and creates an uncontested catch.
Things aren’t always this complicated for Cooks. This time, he’s the number three receiver in a Trips Right formation. He’s a pure slot slot receiver. Detroit is showing a two high look, but they change to single high after the snap and have the free safety drop down as a robber. The Lions are playing man the rest of the way. Cooks is against a corner with strong inside leverage, with a safety over the top even with him.
After the snap, the strong safety rolls to the deep middle. The free safety rolls down, leaving Cooks on an easy corner route against inside leverage.
The corner routes open up the post for Cooks as well. Reduced split. Cover One. The corner has outside leverage. The free safety assumes the corner route and scampers to the sideline. Cooks leaves the cornerback behind when he breaks his route inside and shatters the safety, turning him into a carcass for red-hooded avians. The play-action fake pulls Goff into the pressure; he’s unable to reset his feet and deliver an accurate throw to Cooks, leaving a touchdown on the field.
Speed forces cornerbacks to make a decision immediately. If they don’t turn and run quick enough, they don’t have the ability to catch the receiver downfield. This opens up deep comebacks, curls, and outs for Cooks. When cornerbacks turn and run, he can snap the head off his route and break towards the sideline or to the quarterback to create easy intermediate completions.
Here the Eagles are in Cover Three. Cooks is the closed outside receiver in a reduced split, giving him space to break towards the sideline comfortably.
5’10” is an advantage on deep curls and comebacks. Because of his low center of gravity, Cooks can easily downshift, change speed, and cut routes off. Most of these routes are probably options. If Cooks can’t beat the vertical with straight speed because of an early decision to open hips and turn and run or because of deep zone coverages, Cooks can bail, break his route off, and get wide.
Cooks stomps, shuffles, cuts wide, and sits waiting for the throw. Goff has plenty of space to put the ball over the flat defender, and Cooks creates enough separation to make this catch without worrying about the corner over the top.
In the intermediate passing game, Cooks routinely uses his speed to get the corners to open up—doomsday preparation to turn and run—throttle down, and break back towards the ball for easy completions.
Sometimes it’s not that simple. Even against outside leverage, Cooks has the route running nuance to accentuate his route and sell deep digs. He has the body control to create separation and break his routes across the corner.
In the deep or intermediate game, the one thing that remains consistent is the amount of separation Cooks is able to generate. He creates enough space to slow down and find the ball. He makes easy catches away from defenders.
His height and little hands, things outside his control, limitations of his own body, are the only downsides of his deep catching ability. Cooks will drop passes flying above his head. He doesn’t win in constricted environments. Cooks isn’t going to go up and make contested catches like DeAndre Hopkins. When targeted against tight coverage, cornerbacks will come over the top of Cooks and beat him to the ball. Cooks has to create obscene separation to make downfield receptions.
Cooks is a downfield receiver whose speed unlocks the rest of the route tree. He isn’t a short middle receiver who consistently picks up first downs. Despite having the ability to beat press coverage with jab steps, slants, angles, and drives aren’t typical routes for him.
Most of Cooks’ short pass receptions are screens and hot potato jet sweeps that count as receptions. On these plays, Cooks displays good vision as a runner. He’s a mouse scurrying under a horrified elephant clopping. He’s patient, sets up blocks, and constantly cuts to daylight.
These plays should be a thing of the past now, though. Cooks suffered his fifth concussion in 2019. He ran a post against Cover Three. The safety drove on the inside breaking route, hit Cooks high, and he tumbled onto the back of his head. Cooks disappeared in 2019 after this hit. After taking this shot, Cooks only caught 15 of his 37 targets for 181 yards.
This trade isn’t without risk. Cooks wasn’t having a great 2019 season before taking this shot. Houston is gambling that the head injuries won’t be a problem moving forward and that Cooks will see an improvement playing with Deshaun Watson instead of Goff. As a deep thrower, Watson is 105 for 232 (45.3%) for 3,105 yards, 13.4 yards an attempt, with 24 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. Goff is 135 for 326 (41.4%) for 3,867 yards, 11.9 yards an attempt, with 15 touchdowns to 13 interceptions.
Goff struggled throwing downfield last season without great interior blocking; the Rams lost their left guard and center in free agency, and had a brand new interior in 2019 once Austin Blythe was forced to move to right tackle. Goff doesn’t have the athleticism to escape the pocket and outrun defensive linemen. He hasn’t developed the footwork in the pocket to sidestep and dodge quick pressure. Any semblance of interior disruption gets Goff out of whack. He throws extended. His arm angle is wonky. It leads to deep downfield heaves that miss open receivers.
This won’t be an issue with Deshaun Watson. He’s a spectacular downfield thrower who knows how to hold safeties with his eyes and lead his receivers to a spot. He also excels as much as a quarterback can under pressure. Plus, Houston’s pass protection should continue to improve after a fine showing in 2019. The Texans should already know who their Week One offensive line is and be able to use the same position group week to week.
By trading the 57th overall pick for Cooks, the Texans are paying for certainty to some extent. Cooks isn’t an injury prone player. He doesn’t have the soft tissue injuries that Will Fuller deals with. His hamstrings, groins, and calves are strong and durable. Cooks has missed just eight games in his six year career. By comparison, Fuller has missed 21 games without including those early exits.
This trade, however, doesn’t feel like a final conclusion. Instead, it feels like a trade before a trade. Cooks and Fuller are redundant players. Both are vertical receivers who use the speed of light to open up easy short completions. The difference is Cooks, regardless of the concussion history, has been able to consistently stay on the field. My best guess is head coach Bill O’Brien is tired of game planning without knowing Fuller’s whereabouts and made this trade to get someone who’s tougher, smarter, and more dependable.
Houston could move Fuller to pick up a veteran pass rusher or a mid round pick, getting rid of his $10 million cap hit. Timmy Jernigan and Eric Murray isn’t enough of a talent influx to improve the 26th ranked pass defense by DVOA in 2019.
Kenny Stills could also be on the way out. He’s what, 85% of what Cooks and Fuller offer? He is owed $7 million in the last year of his contract. By removing his salary, Houston could create some breathing room for their Laremy Tunsil and Deshaun Watson contract extension negotiations.
What Cooks isn’t is a DeAndre Hopkins replacement, despite their similar contract designs. They are entirely different players. Hopkins has a similar level of downfield production, plus the ability to beat defenders with every route to carry a passing attack on his own. Since 2016, Hopkins is third in the league in first down receptions with 275. Cooks is 17th with 176. The Texans have a wide array of pass catchers, but they don’t have a receiver who can consistently convert on third and long. This may end up being the blind spot of their passing attack in 2020.
The Cooks trade gives Houston a consistent downfield threat as long as Concussion No. 6 doesn’t happen and/or if Concussion No. 5 from last year doesn’t have an extended effect that lingers into the 2020 NFL season. Cooks is a very good receiver, the perfect player to pair with Watson’s downfield passing ability. He should, at a minimum, become the solution to Fuller’s injury woes.