Why Brandin Cooks Is the Biggest Beneficiary of the Saints' Offseason Moves
It has been a busy offseason for the Saints.
Free agency began with a bang when New Orleans traded star tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle in exchange for Max Unger and a first-round pick. The team also sold wide receiver Kenny Stills to Miami for linebacker Daniel Ellerbe plus a third-round pick. And on the same day, the Saints signed soon-to-be 28-year-old running back CJ Spiller to a four-year deal.
Perhaps most importantly, their mid-March shakeup included re-signing Mark Ingram, which screams that the team is gearing up for a more run-heavy approach.
What these moves have done, too, is show us that the Saints are committed to second-year wide receiver Brandin Cooks. What should we expect from the speedy wideout in 2015 and moving forward? Let's take a look.
Voids To Fill
Obviously, it's probably too easy to say the Saints will miss Jimmy Graham at some point in the 2015 season and beyond. Graham has finished third, first, and fifth in terms of Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) among all tight ends over the last three years, and his career 40.2% red zone touchdown rate will be tough to replace inside of the 20-yard line.
While Brandin Cooks' 5'10'', 185-pound frame may not replace Graham's red zone efficiency, he could certainly see a massive jump in targets in 2015 regardless of the next moves on offense the Saints make.
Below are the five Saints pass-catchers who had 25 or more targets in 2014, relative to their Reception NEP and Reception NEP per target scores and ranks. Also, to gain a better understanding of the way the team spread the ball around via the air last season, I added these players relative target market share (Target %). The data is sorted in descending order by Reception NEP per target.
|Name||Rec. NEP||Rank||Rec. NEP/Target||Rank||Target %|
|Stills||86.87||21st of 115||1.05||1st of 115||13.7%|
|Colston||80.64||26th of 115||0.81||18th of 115||16.3%|
|Cooks||41.58||72nd of 115||0.60||72nd of 115||16.8%|
|Graham||73.56||5th of 49||0.59||27th of 49||20.1%|
|Watson||10.41||47th of 49||0.34||46th of 49||5.4%|
Essentially, there should be two major takeaways from this data. First of all, while Brandin Cooks' Reception NEP and Reception NEP per target ranking of 72nd aren't stellar on a large scale, he was basically just as efficient as Jimmy Graham last season on a per-target basis. Reception NEP, too, is a cumulative metric, and Cooks season was cut short last year.
Next, note there is a gaping 33.8% target-share void opened up due to Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills' subtractions in an offense that has finished in the top five in points per drive in each of the last four seasons. Of course that type of offensive effectiveness isn't guaranteed to persist, but shouldn't a wide receiver that is supposed to see a larger role next season be a highly-valued commodity?
To be clear, Brandin Cooks will not soak up all of the 13 targets per game Graham and Stills' absences are leaving behind. The offseason is far from over and the Saints could add a wide receiver or tight end in the draft, incumbent tight end Josh Hill is certain to eat in to that target pie, and I'm sure Drew Brees is going to love throwing the ball to C.J. Spiller out of the backfield. Nonetheless, a 20% to 22% target share is certainly feasible for Cooks in 2015 given the offseason subtractions.
Fantasy Efficiency in a High-Flying Offense
While his season was cut short by a thumb-injury that robbed him of his ability to finished out the year, Brandin Cooks nudged out Kenny Stills and was actually the most efficient Saints wide receiver last season on a fantasy points per route run basis.
Here are the 2014 Saints top-four pass-catchers relative to fantasy points per target and fantasy points per route run data. There are additional columns for routes run per game (RR/Gm) and average depth of target (aDOT), as well. The data is sorted by fantasy points per route run (FPs/RR) and all scoring is PPR.
It's worth mentioning that every Saints wide receiver except Marques Colston was above the league average in fantasy points per route run (0.36), and Jimmy Graham was above the tight end league average of 0.33.
Interestingly, Cooks' 2.14 fantasy points per target actually tied for the 11th-best mark of 90 total qualified wide receivers. If that figure stands, it should be a nice boon for his overall prospects in a larger role. If you wanted to build a better situation for a player like Cooks to excel in, you would likely be incredibly hard-pressed.
The Path Ahead
Just like any pick in fantasy football, players come with inherent risk. Cooks is coming back from thumb surgery, which leaves a small pause for concern. Also, and more importantly, the Saints may be completely overhauling the way they do business on offense.
Over the past three seasons, the Saints have become more run-heavy. They have decreased their pass-to-run ratio from 1.88 in 2012 to 1.77 and down to 1.70 this past season. And, as alluded to in the opening, every indication so far is the Saints are likely to continue this trend. Barring an unprecedented change, New Orleans will likely build off of their 34.9 rush percentage in 2014. (Keep in mind that figure was still in the bottom six in the league, so head coach Sean Payton was still predominantly pass-heavy.)
While a lot of moving parts are still yet to fall in place for New Orleans, one thing is for sure: Brandin Cooks has gained a great deal of real and fantasy football value this offseason.