Fantasy Football: Brandin Cooks Is Being Limited By a Lack of Targets
When the New England Patriots traded first- and third-round selections to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for Brandin Cooks and a fourth-rounder in a blockbuster offseason trade, there were mixed opinions in the fantasy community about what the speedy wideout could accomplish with his new team.
Some expected him to reach new heights with the defending Super Bowl champions, while others were more skeptical, and an offseason of hand-wringing began. No one doubted the fourth-year pass-catcher's talent, but there were concerns that the move would hurt his counting statistics. After all, the Patriots passing offense is less voluminous than that of New Orleans, and quarterback Tom Brady spreads the ball around better than almost anyone in the NFL.
Considering Brady's strong connections with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, as well as the presence of Chris Hogan, James White, and Danny Amendola, among others, it seemed probable that Cooks would see a reduction of the 17.4 percent target share he enjoyed during his final season catching passes from Drew Brees.
However, when Edelman suffered his unfortunate ACL tear in Week 3 of the preseason, that perception changed. Pundits began to assume Cooks would absorb a hefty portion of the 158 targets Edelman received in 2016, and the former's Average Draft Position (ADP) climbed to the middle of the second round in 12-team PPR leagues as the season approached.
If the early-season data is indicative of what's to come, perhaps those expectations were unrealistic.
Indeed, through four weeks of the season, the concerns about Cooks' involvement in the passing game have been validated, even without Edelman. Over the first quarter of the schedule, Cooks has only seen 24 targets (tied for 51st in the NFL). He's currently on pace for only 96 targets this season, which would represent a career low for any campaign in which he's played every game after logging 129 and 117, respectively, over the two seasons prior. Disappointingly, he has yet to receive a single red zone look.
While he is currently the WR11 in PPR formats and his 294 receiving yards also rank 11th in the NFL, those numbers are buoyed by a 5-catch, 131-yard performance in Week 3 that saw him haul in two touchdown catches of 25-plus yards.
TB12 + @BrandinCooks 🔥🔥🔥
42-yard @Patriots TD! #HOUvsNE #GoPats pic.twitter.com/uruvf9gzE6
— NFL (@NFL) September 24, 2017
As impressive as it was, if you take that game out of the equation, he's averaging 5.67 targets, 2.67 catches, 54.33 yards, no touchdowns, and 8.43 PPR points per contest this year. That's not exactly what drafters expected when they spent a premium selection on him in late August.
Too Many "Cooks" In the Kitchen?
Perhaps Cooks and Brady are still working to build the sort of connection and trust the veteran quarterback has already established with his other top targets, but there's no reason why he should rank fourth on the team in targets behind Gronkowski, Hogan, and White. Yes, Gronk will always be Brady's favorite option, but the 15.5 percent target share Cooks is currently receiving simply isn't enough for a talent of his caliber.
Cooks is a more complete receiver than most realize and, given the team's substantial investment in him, should be utilized as more than as situational deep threat. However, with 5 of his 13 receptions going for more than 20 yards and an average target distance of 19.3 yards, it's clear the Patriots have used him as exactly that.
Furthermore, his surprisingly low total of 50 yards after the catch illustrates that he isn't receiving many opportunities to secure short passes closer to the line of scrimmage and make plays in space with his speed.
What's even more concerning is that this is happening despite Brady attempting the fourth-most passes (155) in the NFL. The 620 passes for which Brady is currently on pace are only slightly below his career high of 637, while his 30 deep-ball tries rank second in the league. Clearly, there are plenty of targets to go around and Cooks is one of the more talented receivers in the game, but the ball isn't coming his way with regularity for some reason.
What is certain is the fact that Cooks has made the most of the targets he's received. This isn't surprising, as he's never had a problem with efficiency. So far in 2017, he's averaging an insane 22.6 yards per reception, which is the highest number among all qualifiers, while also accumulating a solid 2.31 fantasy points per target. Furthermore, Brady has compiled a 126.0 quarterback rating when looking in Cooks' direction, which ranks best on the team by a slight margin.
Tom Brady's passer rating when targeting each of these WRs pic.twitter.com/nM4iGrMcfx
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 2, 2017
Additionally, he's been a Net Expected Points (NEP) standout. NEP employs historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on a per-play basis. Positive NEP is earned when a player performs above expectation, and negative NEP is indicative of sub-standard performance.
Currently, Cooks is tied for fifth in the league among receivers who have seen 15-plus looks with a Reception NEP per target of 1.06. This is up from his already sterling 2016 tally of 0.84, which ranked fourth among wideouts with 60-plus targets. He clearly knows how to maximize his opportunities, even when they're limited.
This isn't the time for disappointed fantasy players to try to move him. You invested heavily for his talent and situation in one of the game's best offenses. It makes little sense to attempt to unload him now while his perceived value is depressed. The kinks are still getting worked out, but as the season wears on, his role in the offense should continue to develop, while his ability and efficiency will allow him to flourish.
The Patriots' defense is struggling, Brady is going to continue slinging it, and eventually, Cooks should be a primary beneficiary. Head coach Bill Belichick knows how to get the most out of his players. Once he figures out a more effective method of utilizing Cooks' immense abilities, those targets should increase significantly. The data illustrates that he's performing exceptionally with his limited opportunity share. Should his workload increase to match that efficiency, he will be a game-changer for your squad.