The NFL’s rules are designed to create parity with the draft and roster turnover through free agency. But don’t tell that to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. As if you didn’t already know, the Patriots have had unprecedented success in the last two decades – winning five Super Bowls in that span. And it doesn’t look like they’ll be slowing down anytime soon. Fresh off their incredible comeback Super Bowl victory against the Atlanta Falcons, the Patriots entered the offseason with a ton of cap room. According to Spotrac, New England had $62,946,093 in cap space back in February. As of April 3rd they now have $18,716,638 remaining in cap room when factoring in Top 51 salaries and the likely price of their rookie pool.
Belichick is known for taking players who are either the wrong fit for their previous team’s scheme and turning them into solid contributors, or signing under-appreciated players to bargain deals. Think Kyle Van Noy and Chris Long as examples from last season. To simplify, the Patriots have identified and valued average-to-solid players and then evaluated where they win to fit them in their scheme. Yet, with more cap room they don’t have to settle for just those players. The Patriots can improve talent within their scheme going after better players who have comparable skill sets to those already on their roster.
The team has done exactly that. Using their cap space they signed, re-signed, and traded for a number of players including LB Dont’a Hightower, S Duron Harmon, DT Alan Branch, CB Stephon Gilmore, RB Rex Burkhead, DT Lawrence Guy, TE Dwayne Allen, and DE Kony Ealy.
Despite all the possible examples to analyze, the one I want to further analyze is the trade for wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
The Patriots traded their first round pick, 32nd overall, and third round pick for Cooks and the Saints’ fourth round pick. It’s been documented that Belichick is an advocate of Cooks’s play, especially after seeing him live during joint practices in the preseason against the Saints the last two seasons. The future Hall of Fame head coach also stated during that time, “I’m glad we don’t have to play him twice a year and he’s not in our division.”
Cooks possesses a similar skill set to all of the Patriots wide receivers currently on their roster, but with more speed to test corners vertically. At 5’10”, 189 pounds, he’s also somewhat similar in size to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola who are 5’10”, 200 pounds and 5’11”, 190 pounds, respectively. Productivity wise, however, Cooks may be considered one of the games better receivers. He’s totaled 1,138 yards with nine touchdowns in 2015 and 1,173 yards with eight touchdowns in 2016.
When you think of a Patriots’ wide receiver, you think of a tough, reliable receiver who relies on quickness rather than speed and gets open using their quickness and / or mental processing ability. If you’ve studied Cooks you’ll know he has all those abilities, except the part about being quicker than fast. He’s plenty fast in addition to being quick.
Here are two plays, one by Edelman and one by Cooks. I tried my best to use similar scenarios for this comparison. Notice the difference in explosiveness.
In this play Edelman is motioned before the snap. He runs a crossing route with Martellus Bennett (#88) creating traffic for the defensive backs on the play. Edelman has separation and catches the pass thrown from Jacoby Brissett (#7) for the 1st down on 3rd and 5.
What sets Cooks apart is that he has the next gear that the Patriots current crop of receivers are lacking.
Cooks is lined up in a bunch formation to the bottom of the screen for this 3rd and 4. When the ball is snapped Cooks gets a free release into his route. He breaks in and runs across the field with S Tyrann Mathieu (#32) defending him. Cooks creates separation using his speed and makes the catch adjusting to a low throw. Then he accelerates and explodes into the open field outrunning the Cardinals secondary down the sideline for a touchdown.
Cooks’s ability to make splash plays might make him the most explosive vertical threat, Gronkowski not included, in New England since Randy Moss. They’re different receivers of course, but Cooks can blow the top off a defense. On this play Sean Smith (#21) has no shot to cover Cooks once he’s unable to jam him at the line of scrimmage. Cooks quickly gets to the outside and accelerates upfield outrunning both Smith and Reggie Nelson (#27).
The deal for Cooks makes sense both in the short and long term. Cooks is inexpensive for a player of his caliber. His salary cap hit is only $1,563,198 this season, taking up just 0.93% of the Patriots’ cap room as of now according to Spotrac. Since Cooks was a first round draft pick by the Saints in 2014, New England can pick up his fifth-year option before deciding to sign him long-term. He’s only heading into his age 23 season – which is just a year older than most of the wide receivers being taken in the upcoming draft this April. After speaking to Dave Archibald about Belichick’s methods of bringing in receiver talent, I learned this isn’t uncommon for Belichick to do. The Patriots haven’t drafted a wide receiver in the first round since 2000. They also pursue the trade market more than other teams to bring in receivers, but, on the other hand, they pursue the trade market more than most team’s at all positions. Belichick might rather trade for established veterans than use first round picks because he knows what the player brings to the table. Getting an inexpensive young player with experience and an extra year of control was an opportunity New England could not pass up.
Check out more of Joseph’s work here, including a look at Kareem Hunt’s superior balance, James White doing his job in Super Bowl LI, and Chris Godwin’s separation ability.
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All film courtesy of NFL Game Pass.