How Brandin Cooks will push secondaries (and the Patriots) over the top

By: Drew King (drewking0222)

Following the conclusion of Super Bowl LI, in which they made one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, the New England Patriots came to a sudden realization.

Rob Gronkowksi had been sidelined for half the season. Martellus Bennett was underwhelming as his replacement. Four wide receivers combined for 23 receptions, 292 yards and just one touchdown. New England’s leading pass catcher was James White—a running back.

The Patriots needed another playmaker to carry Tom Brady into his 40s. They needed another red zone threat in case Gronkowski went down again. They needed someone with a different skill set than the likes of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, but with more talent than Malcolm Mitchell. They needed… not James White.

One month later, New England sent a first and third-round pick to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for breakneck wideout Brandin Cooks.

Many wondered if Cooks was really necessary, especially with so many weapons already on the roster. Critics asked: “How is a 5’10” receiver supposed to help in the red zone? Is he really all that different from what they already had? How can Cooks keep up his same level of production on an offense that loves to spread the ball around?”

They’re wrong. Cooks could not be a better fit for the Patriots.

Cooks is low-key dangerous inside the 20

LeGarrette Blount played out of his mind last year, rushing for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns. But did you know that all but three of those touchdowns came from inside the 10-yard line? Blount scored once every three carries from there.

Blount’s dominance near the goal line made up for New England’s lack of red zone weapons in the passing game. Gronkowski typically sets up shop in the end zone, but he suffered a back injury in Week 8 that required surgery and kept him out for the remainder of the season. No other receiver stepped up when Gronk went down.

Still, Brady was quietly one of the better quarterbacks inside the 20-yard line last year. In 12 games, he converted 43 of his 62 passes from that distance, scoring 20 touchdowns and getting picked off just once. With Blount joining the Philadelphia Eagles, Gronk healthy and no looming suspension, those numbers will go up.

Cooks is also sneaky-menacing in the red zone. Last season, he had a 90.9 percent catch rate inside the 20-yard line (10 receptions on 11 targets), third among pass-catchers who saw double digit targets from there, and he scored three times in the process. Cooks is also a prolific scorer, finding the end zone 20 times throughout his 42-game career.

Talent-wise, Brady is easily on the same level as Drew Brees, and he might even be a little better. Cooks should have no issues finding ways to hook up for six with his new star quarterback.

Cooks is the best wide receiver the Patriots have had since Randy Moss

You could make a case for Wes Welker in this argument, but New England’s offense almost always inflates the production of slot receivers.

Julian Edelman is a former seventh-round pick. Welker, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan went undrafted. All of them exceeded expectations with the Patriots because they all fill the same role.

New England’s offense doesn’t typically feature a stellar offensive line. To compensate, the Patriots run a ton of rub routes and bubble screens in order to get the ball out of the Brady’s hands as quickly as possible.

Make no mistake though, New England uses the slot as a safety valve, not a primary option. When they can, the Patriots like to put their best athlete on the outside and launch him out deep. They did it with Moss, they’ve done it with Gronk and Mitchell, and they’ve even brought relevance to the names Aaron Dobson and Brandon LaFell.

Aside from Moss, Cooks is faster than all of those guys. He might be the only player on the roster who can consistently torch through secondaries this easily:

The Patriots thrive on maximizing their talent, and Cooks is their most talented receiving option. He’s found ways to succeed in every role he’s been in, and this time should be no different.

Cooks is used to sharing touches

The most common argument among critics of Cooks’ fit in New England is that there are too many mouths to feed for him to keep up the same level of production that we saw in New Orleans. Along with the receiving corps, the Patriots also like to spread the ball around to scat backs such as White and Dion Lewis.

However, the Patriots have finished in the top-10 in the league in pass attempts every season since 2011, last year being the exception with Brady missing four games. New England will continue to throw the ball at a high volume for as long as Brady (or Jimmy Garropolo) allows them to.

With so many targets available, Cooks shouldn’t have trouble getting his touches. Consider LaFell’s season with the Patriots in 2014 as proof. 

On a team that featured Gronk, Edelman and receiving back Shane Vereen, LaFell caught 74 of 119 targets for 953 yards a seven touchdowns, his best season to date. What’s more, LaFell’s target share (19.5 percent) was higher than Cooks’ was during his time in New Orleans (18 percent).

All of this is to say, Cooks makes the most of the targets he does get. He’s young (he’ll turn 24 in September), he’s already got a solid rapport with Brady, and now on a new team, he’s got something to prove.

And the Patriots know a thing or two about motivating a guy with a chip on his shoulder.

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