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How Brandin Cooks Explains the Modern NFL

The Rams just handed their new receiver a five-year, $80 million deal. It speaks volumes about how L.A. prizes Cooks—and it’s the latest example of Cooks’s career reflecting the NFL’s value structure at large.

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Brandin Cooks has been on one hell of a ride during his first four years in the NFL. Despite tallying three 1,000-plus-yard receiving seasons and racking up 27 touchdown catches before his 25th birthday, he has already been traded twice. He’s been on offenses led by Drew Brees and Tom Brady and is now set to line up next to one of the league’s most promising young passers in Jared Goff. And on Tuesday, the Rams wideout finally landed the long-term contract he’s desired—a five-year, $80 million deal with $20.5 million in guarantees. Cooks has had the most fascinating start to a career of any (non-bust) first-round pick I can remember. And his journey to this point goes a long way in explaining the machinations of the modern NFL.

The former Oregon State receiver was taken by New Orleans with the 20th overall pick in the 2014 draft—a selection that was made after the Saints traded up seven spots in that year’s first round. The franchise was desperate to acquire a dynamic playmaker who could help Brees keep thriving into his late 30s, and Cooks fit the bill. He emerged as a potent force for most of his time in the Big Easy, with at least 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns in both his second and third seasons. Cooks began to feel his opportunities were limited in the Saints’ egalitarian system, though, and his frustrations became one of the league’s worst-kept secrets. As such, he was dealt to the Patriots in exchange for a first-round pick in March 2017. Cooks went on to help transform New England’s offensive approach by giving Brady his first legitimate deep-ball threat in years; Cooks’s 608 yards on throws that went 20-plus yards downfield last season ranked second in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. His reward was a March 2018 trade to the Rams, part of Los Angeles’s offseason effort to stockpile talent.

To the casual observer, it may seem like something must be wrong with Cooks. Players with his talent just don’t move around this often. Let’s unpack the moves one at a time, though, because they say more about the league’s value structure than about what Cooks can do as a receiver.

Cooks made it known that he didn’t feel valued in New Orleans. By shipping him to the Patriots, the Saints’ brass essentially acknowledged he was right. New Orleans head coach Sean Payton and Co. have been reluctant to hand out massive contracts to pass catchers during much of Brees’s tenure; along with jettisoning Cooks, the Saints also traded Jimmy Graham to Seattle in March 2015, about eight months after making him the highest-paid tight end in the league. It’s all in keeping with the franchise’s approach: New Orleans has been willing to sacrifice assets to move up and draft receivers but has shied away from keeping sizable receiver contracts on the books. The Saints’ personnel decisions reflect just how large the value gap under the current CBA is between players on rookie deals and veterans on second contracts. Knowing they wouldn’t want to pay market value for Cooks when he eventually hit free agency, the Saints elected to start the cycle over again with more high-end draft capital. The team’s 2018 roster is telling; its highest-paid receiver is Ted Ginn Jr., who will make just $4.5 million.

New England’s motivation to give up draft capital to land Cooks in 2017 reveals a different method teams are using to find value in the league’s current structure. The Patriots decided the production that Cooks could generate over the final two years of his rookie deal (which carried cap hits of $1.6 million in 2017 and $8.5 million in 2018, respectively) outweighed the concerns of giving up the 32nd overall draft pick. To Bill Belichick and staff, the certainty that came with adding a proven player was worth more than the chance to keep a young, unproven talent on a rookie contract for twice as long. This move was originally regarded as a win-now deal for a team with an aging quarterback, but that type of pick-for-player trade has since become a team-building staple for several of the league’s smartest teams, independent of perceived championship window. The Patriots (Cooks and Eric Rowe) and Eagles (Timmy Jernigan and Ronald Darby) have both made trades for players nearing the end of their rookie deals to shore up areas of need. New England making this play for Cooks just happens to represent the highest-profile example of one to date.

Cooks was undeniably productive during his only campaign with the Patriots (65 catches for 1,082 yards with seven touchdowns), but this offseason, New England considered his value once again. Rather than pay Cooks more than five times what he made against the 2017 cap and then evaluate whether to extend him next spring, Belichick dealt Cooks to the Rams in exchange for the same level of asset he gave up to acquire the wideout a year earlier. If that sounds like some black-magic Patriots nonsense, that’s because it is. New England rented an upper-echelon deep threat for $1.6 million in a league where Tavon Austin will make twice that much. To recoup that kind of value, the Pats had to find a trade partner willing to sacrifice similar draft capital for Cooks after the final dirt-cheap season of his rookie contract. And that’s where the Rams come into play.

New England saw Cooks as a cheap asset from whom it could squeeze value over a season or two; Los Angeles sees him as a luxury it can afford because of another cheap asset on its roster. General manager Les Snead has spent this entire offseason doling out money and throwing around draft capital (he gave up the no. 23 pick in the Cooks trade) to bring in big-name players because, like the Eagles in 2017, the Rams understand the team-building flexibility afforded by a good quarterback on a rookie contract. Goff is set to make $7.6 million in 2017 and $8.9 million in 2018 before his cap hit spikes two years from now, when he’ll likely be on the fifth-year option in his rookie deal. Snead knows that the Rams’ window is right now; while Cooks’s new contract makes him one of the richest receivers in the league on a per-year basis, only $20.5 million is guaranteed at signing, meaning that the team’s financial ties to him are probably packed into the first two years of the deal. That coincides with the stretch over which Goff will rank among the lowest-paid starting quarterbacks in football.

Cooks’s deal also sheds light on the way teams contextualize positional value. The Rams chose to extend their new receiver right now, even though they have contract negotiations looming with running back Todd Gurley and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the reigning offensive and defensive players of the year. Cooks also landed his extension a day after the Steelers and star running back Le’Veon Bell failed to come to terms on a long-term extension. Bell has 17 more receptions than Cooks over the past two years and was seeking a deal worth upward of $15 million per season; the Rams gave Cooks a contract worth $16 million annually.

The receiving work Cooks and Bell do clearly differs, but that difference speaks volumes about the way many teams think about how to spend. Above all else, the Rams have tried to build an infrastructure to elevate their young quarterback; the trade and subsequent extension for Cooks shows they believe replacing (and possibly) upgrading their deep threat is more valuable than just about anything else. Cooks has represented three things to three different organizations over the course of his rookie deal. Now, with this extension, his latest stop should be his long-term home.