DeAndre Hopkins is no longer a Houston Texan. But now, Brandin Cooks is.
In two trades, head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien downgraded from a perennial All-Pro to a rangy deep threat. Hopkins was shipped off to the Arizona Cardinals. Cooks, freed from the Rams’ teardown along with a future fourth-round pick in exchange for a second-rounder, will be tasked with replacing him.
Those are big expectations for a player quickly becoming known for his offseason trades. Cooks has been moved for draft considerations in three of the past four years, jumping from the Saints to the Patriots to the Rams to the Texans. His move west spurred a five-year, $80 million contract extension with Los Angeles in 2018. While Houston is technically on the hook for $47 million the next four years, his guaranteed money runs out after the 2020 season.
If Cooks returns to his 2015-18 form, he would give Houston a field-stretching presence capable of rewarding Deshaun Watson’s risk taking downfield. But a continuation of his 2019 slump, in part brought on by injury, would likely leave the Texans in the same place they’ve been the past two seasons — on the periphery of contention.
Is Cooks’ production and potential worth the price? Let’s talk it out.
Was this a(nother) terrible trade for the Texans?
Adam Stites: It’s bad every way you cut it.
Instead, the Texans gave up the 57th pick for a player who turns 27 in September, has four years left on an $81 million contract, and has suffered multiple concussions in the last few years.
Cooks was knocked out of Super Bowl 52 via a brutal hit from Malcolm Jenkins and he missed two games during the 2019 season after suffering two more concussions. It was bad enough that Cooks saw a concussion specialist last fall.
When healthy, Cooks is an electric player. But he finished the 2019 season with a career-worst 42 receptions and two touchdowns in 14 games.
Christian D’Andrea: I don’t think it’s necessarily a good trade, but I do think it’s a defensible one.
O’Brien didn’t want to pay Hopkins, so he got Cooks as a cheaper alternative. After acquiring a second-rounder for his former top wideout, he traded a second-rounder for his new top wideout. If things don’t work out, he can walk away from his new deep threat after only a one-year, $8 million investment.
Even if the former Saint/Patriot/Ram isn’t going to replace Hopkins, he’s a solid addition. His injury-marred 2019 is a problem, but he averaged 77 catches and nearly 1,150 yards per 16 games in the four seasons before that. His 10.3 yards per target was 12th-best in the NFL in 2018, better than Julio Jones or Hopkins. That was the same year he played a key role for an LA team that made it to the Super Bowl. He was 25 years old then and will only be 27 in 2020.
Stites: Still, the Texans could’ve used the second-round pick to draft a receiver who’s younger, healthier, cheaper, and possibly more productive than Cooks. The veteran has never made a Pro Bowl in his career, after all.
Houston also could’ve used the draft pick to address its severe pass rushing deficiency. While the loss of Hopkins made receiver a need, giving $18 million guaranteed to Randall Cobb plugged that hole a bit. Now Cobb is fourth on the receiving depth chart.
It makes sense to have receiving depth with Will Fuller and Kenny Stills both missing time in 2019 due to injury. Dishing out top draft picks and a significant amount of the salary cap isn’t the way to do that, though.
D’Andrea: Just getting out of Los Angeles should help Cooks find more, and better, opportunities that can make this deal look better. Jared Goff backslid mightily (and unexpectedly) in year four as his Rams went from NFC champions to seventh-place finishers.
Now Cooks gets to play with a quarterback more willing to take chances deep. Watson’s average throw depth is a full yard farther downfield than Goff’s, even though they throw a similar number of 20+ yard passes. After sharing the spotlight with capable wideouts in Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, he’ll have the opportunity to lead the Texans in targets this fall — something he never did as a Ram.
Thanks to the Hopkins trade and the Cobb contract, acquiring Cooks will likely be, at worst, the third-dumbest thing O’Brien did at wideout this offseason. It is the 3.6 roentgen reading of a Bill O’Brien decision. Not great, not terrible.
Stites: The Hopkins trade makes the Cooks trade look worse, but what’s done is done. It’s unfair to keep using that deal as a barometer.
The Cooks trade is bad all on its own, though. Even if the Texans are better with Cooks than without him, the value of the deal is atrocious. It’s harder than ever to figure out if the Texans even have a plan.
Is Cooks what the Texans needed to retain their AFC South title (and keep Deshaun Watson happy?)
Stites: Horrible trade value aside, adding Cooks should certainly help the offense. Watson has thrived with receivers who can stretch the field and Cooks fits the bill. He’s no Hopkins, but he’ll help Watson keep things on track.
Cooks isn’t the missing piece that makes Houston a Super Bowl contender, though.
The team’s overall defense was 28th in the NFL last season and it has only got worse this offseason. Defensive tackle D.J. Reader — the team’s highest-graded defender on Pro Football Focus last year — left to join the Bengals in free agency. He was replaced by former Eagles defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who signed a one-year, $3.75 million deal in Houston. The rest of tinkering on defense was in the secondary with the additions of Eric Murray and Jaylen Watkins.
The Texans finished 2019 with the sixth-fewest sacks and haven’t done a thing to fix that. Their best chance at being competent on defense is 31-year-old J.J. Watt turning back the clock and playing like it’s 2015 again (and staying healthy). Using a second-round pick on an injury-prone receiver doesn’t fix the team’s real issues.
D’Andrea: Probably not, but the AFC South is a silly place where nothing really makes sense. The Titans are primed to ascend to the throne after locking in Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, but history suggests they’re going to finish 9-7 no matter what they do and, let’s be honest, Tannehill probably isn’t going to lead the league in passer rating again.
The Colts made big moves by bringing Philip Rivers and DeForest Buckner to town, but Rivers wasn’t appreciably better than Jacoby Brissett for much of the 2019 season. The Jaguars will field a team in 2020.
If Cooks can come in and return to Pro Bowl-adjacent form, Houston should have enough firepower to remain competitive in the South. Whether this bandaid can heal any possible, speculative wound between O’Brien — you know, the guy who just traded away one of the best wideouts a passer could hope for — and his quarterback is a different question altogether.
Will Cooks be a Texan in 2021?
D’Andrea: I have my doubts. If he can’t shake the ineffectiveness that marred his 2019, O’Brien will likely cut him straightaway rather than bring him back at $12 million. If he outperforms expectations he’ll probably start talking contract extension or restructuring with Houston. That means he’d be dealing with the same coach/GM who exiled Hopkins to Arizona right when he wanted a lucrative extension.
Granted, O’Brien and Hopkins reportedly had tension between them and the Texans may not be willing to cut a high-profile acquisition loose after just one year. Still, it’s not too hard to envision a scenario where Cooks has 1,000+ receiving yards, broaches the topic of guaranteed money, and gets spurned by team executives who want to see him do it again before handing over an extension.
O’Brien has botched these transactions in the past, and while Cooks has been anything but a problem when it comes to holdouts and negotiations, things have a funny way of going sour in Houston.
Stites: The Texans’ ability to cut ties with Cooks after the 2020 season, if necessary, is a silver lining ... kinda. They now have the ability to parachute out of a bad trade if it does, in fact, turn out to be a bad trade.
So yes, it’s probably a situation where Cooks will either be released if he struggles or extended if he plays well. My question is whether O’Brien will be the one who gets to make that decision. It’s impossible to know what Texans ownership’s expectations are for 2020. But the inability to get past the Divisional Round of the playoffs has to be testing their patience — even if he did get elevated to GM after the 2019 season.
If O’Brien is back, I’d lean toward Cooks sticking around. He’s the one who made the trade and invested in the receiver. But if the Texans finally start over and fire O’Brien, I’d expect Cooks to be part of that purge.