The Brandin Cooks trade is yet another potential disaster in the making for Bill O’Brien

I’ve been writing about football for a little over 10 years now, so I’ve been around the block enough to know that the reaction to the DeAndre Hopkins trade being largely negative was a one-time thing. It was a perfect storm of things that most fans hate:

— Bad value in return.
— Trading away an established star.
— The idea that David Johnson — who I still have not gotten to write a real piece about because the team keeps making new terrible moves — is one of the most overpaid players in the NFL.

There are fans who would be swayed towards the trade the second any of those three things was different. If Hop had gone for a 1 and a 2. If the Texans had been the ones trading a couple future 2s for, say, Yannick Ngakoue. If the Texans hadn’t taken on a bad contract to do it. The only people left who could argue for the Hopkins trade were pure homers and true O’Brien believers.

Trading a different second-round pick for Brandin Cooks is designed to appeal to the fans from the second scenario — he’s established enough to appease a fan base. He played very well in a Super Bowl. He “opens up the underneath receivers.”

The problem is that every underlying part of trading for Cooks reeks. It is hard to look past the fact that the Rams were willing to take the largest ($21.8 million) single-season cap hit in NFL history just to get rid of him. It is hard to look past the fact that they traded him despite already paying him a roster bonus. It is hard to understand how having four receivers capable of starting (five if you count Keke Coutee, Bill O’Brien doesn’t) is going to fit into Bill O’Brien’s offensive design philosophy. Most importantly…

It’s incredibly hard to see this trade as anything but an admission that Bill O’Brien’s relationship with DeAndre Hopkins was broken

If you were following the excuse-making for the Hopkins trade, friction was cited as a reason by Aaron Wilson and, more memorably, Michael Irvin:

The party line at the Texans season ticket holder conference call was that they simply couldn’t afford DeAndre on a new deal:

Bullshit. The Texans didn’t give Hopkins that money because either a) they thought he had “lost a step,” — the popularly leaked narrative, b) Bill O’Brien and Jack Easterby don’t like DeAndre Hopkins, or c) they let b inform a. It is true that the Texans will not pay any of the guaranteed money on Cooks’ contract, but it is also true that they just traded a second-round pick for him and he will still take up a significant portion of their cap space. Given what signing Hopkins to an extension would have looked like, it is incredibly unlikely that the cap hit difference would have been meaningful until 2022 or so.

The DeAndre Hopkins trade was an evaluation of Hopkins’ character, more than anything. That is what this team values, and they can’t value it properly in a context that they don’t understand. Giving balls to your blind mother in the stands isn’t enough to overcome your baby mamas.

What happened to Brandin Cooks in 2019?

Cooks had an incredibly down season where he caught just 42 balls for 583 yards. His yards per target declined to 8.1, the lowest it had been since his rookie season. He dropped four of his 72 targets per SIS data — more if you want to use other drop sources. It was a disastrous season.

More importantly, the design of Los Angeles’ offense moved entirely away from Cooks because they couldn’t run play-action once teams started defending them with a heavy box. What wound up happening was that Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp became much more valuable receivers in those circumstances. Even when we consider the two missed games Cooks had last season and give him 50 snaps for each of them, he would have been the third-most used receiver on the team. Cooks’ main gripe coming out of Oregon State was an inability to get off press coverage, and while he is not as one-dimensional as he was then, it’s obviously still an issue if that kind of offensive shift forces him to be mostly irrelevant.

Then there’s the issue of the five documented concussions. Cooks is not an injury-prone player in general, but his steep decline last year is extremely concerning in light of those concussions. Let me pull up his pro-football-reference comps:

Outside of the players who are still active (Beckham, Allen, Cooper, Diggs, Adams) these other guys show a strong trend line towards being done at Cooks’ age, which makes sense given Cooks’ sudden decline and how the career lines will change for both Cooks and the other active players as their careers go on. George Sauer’s last NFL season was played at 27. Harvin, in a bit role in Buffalo, 28. Jefferson, in a bit role in Cleveland, 29. Shanklin, 28. O.J. McDuffie made it to 31 but was essentially done as a star after his age-29 season. Cooks is 26, will be 27 in September.

Now, I don’t bring these numbers up because I think Cooks is completely toast. I don’t think it’s completely impossible to get good production out of him. I just think that the downside of this trade is very high considering the price. The Harvin comp stands out to me because it also occurred in the modern NFL and he had similar explosiveness and a similar number of concussions. When Harvin was traded to the Jets off a lost season, at a much younger age, he cost a sixth-round pick that could have upgraded to a fourth in certain circumstances. He also came with more off-field baggage, so I’m not suggesting that Cooks should be valued that lowly. But I do think the Texans have overpaid by a bunch here, especially in light of draftniks declaring this one of the better draft classes for wideouts in recent memory.

If put in to the role that Hopkins filled for this offense on most downs last year, Cooks will struggle. He got by far the least separation of any Rams full-time receiver last season per NFL Next Gen Stats, and Bill O’Brien will not scheme separation anywhere near as often as Sean McVay did:

If you are curious, the only Texans receiver in 2019 to average more than three yards of separation was Jordan Akins.

If put in to the role that Fuller filled for this offense last season, he’ll probably perform fairly well. The problem is that this relies on Fuller being healthy enough to emulate Hopkins, and also it relies on Fuller not getting traded to the Detroit Lions for a fifth-round pick. Initial fan reaction was very caught up on Cooks’ high yards per catch numbers, but it’s not like Bill O’Brien is going to run four verticals every play. By pretending that they can replace what Hopkins did with Randall Cobb and Cooks combined — at a price that will likely be worse than the rumored Hopkins extension! — they are instead going to make their offense incredibly transparent and reliant on deep balls. The value of DeAndre Hopkins was that he could do it all and teams couldn’t play him one way.

By the way, Deshaun Watson’s loft balls deep are great, but he has never had Andrew Luck-level cannon throws or anything. There’s a reason that scouts critiqued his ball speed coming out, and it does show up on some of his throws. Not enough to keep him from being a great quarterback in the aggregate, but it’s not like he’s been hitting 100% of open deep targets.

The cult grows

Every football team has a little bit of cult in them, and I think we have to accept that it’s almost necessary in some ways that whoever leads a team has some of those elements in them. Players are always asked to sacrifice for the greater good. We hear about the building of a good culture. NFL teams often hire people they are familiar with. The bubble, as they call it, is something that rules a lot of the NFL.

But I think you’d be hardpressed to find a situation where it rules it quite as much as it does in Houston.

So it is important to note that Cooks and Easterby have a fairly one-sided Twitter relationship where Cooks tweets Christian-themed motivational gruel and Easterby retweets it.

Easterby retweeted Cooks four times in about the span of a month. They have a pre-existing relationship from their New England days:

And when Aaron Wilson drops something like this:

It is hard to escape the idea that this was a move made because they value Brandin Cooks as a person more than most teams value him as an asset. I’m not going to chase the religious underpinnings here because the beliefs honestly do not matter to me, the person who only cares about how good the team is. But it is clear that the Houston Texans standard is set up for a certain type of person at this point, with this leadership. You would have to stick your head in the sand to ignore that.

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Now, in the aggregate, is trading for Brandin Cooks a good thing or a bad thing for 2020 Super Bowl hopes? Probably a good thing. It has been pointed out to me by several Twitter users who dislike my stance on this trade that it is going to be hard to get on-field practices together this year, even in optimistic COVID-19 scenarios. But, to take a construct that O’Brien, Cal McNair, and Easterby used in defending themselves earlier: You’ve got to look at the whole picture. A better way of having a team ready for 2020 would have just been keeping DeAndre Hopkins instead of trying to build a culture along the lines of the old Apple commercial.

The leadership that Cal McNair has entrusted to show off bold moves is using those bold moves to wipe the slate clean of anybody that they don’t find to match their desired playing persona. They believe that this is a novel approach that nobody has tried and failed with before. Hilariously, the culture they came from in New England was one that was almost dedicated on pouncing on talent that came out of situations similar to this.

It only makes sense that in this dumb moment of history that we are all suffering through, these two have the keys to Deshaun Watson’s career.

I will not be surprised by 1,000 yards for Brandin Cooks. I will not be surprised by 250 yards and a ton of missed games by Brandin Cooks. I will take the under on him being on the team for three years. I will take the second-round pick.

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