By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The NFL is in trouble. Bill Belichick is on a mission.
Seemingly unsatisfied with his fifth Super Bowl victory as head coach of the Patriots, Belichick has spent the offseason thus far as if his team just went 2-14. He added cornerback Stephon Gilmore and tight end Dwayne Allen, he acquired potential defensive gamechanger Kony Ealy for nothing more than some draft repositioning, he appears ready and capable of re-signing Dont’a Hightower and retaining Malcolm Butler, and he’s either going to retain Jimmy Garoppolo or trade him away for a bevy of high draft picks.
And then came Friday night, when Belichick pulled off a trade with the Saints to acquire receiver Brandin Cooks for — essentially — nothing but pick No. 32. Considering that earlier this week it was reported that the Patriots might have to trade Butler in order to get Cooks, a late first-round pick is a much more palatable price to pay. (The Patriots also swapped pick No. 103 for pick No. 118.)
From a Patriots perspective, there is some serious reason for excitement regarding the addition of Cooks. First and foremost, he’s joining an already-loaded offense — one that ranked fourth in total yards, fourth in passing yards, third in yards per passing attempt and third in points scored. Secondly, there is Cooks’ talent. The 20th overall pick in the 2014 draft, Cooks ran the second-fastest 40-yard dash at the 2014 Scouting Combine. Though undersized, he’s shown no trouble whatsoever in succeeding at the NFL level, as evidenced by his back-to-back 1,100-plus-yard seasons in 2015 and 2016.
But as much as anything, Cooks’ greatest asset might be his age. He’s still just 23 years old, not much older than many receivers who will be drafted next month. Cooks was drafted young, and he was thrust into a high-octane passing offense immediately. He thrived. So much so, in fact, that his accomplishments through age 23 are almost unmatched in history, even among the all-time receiving greats.
Here are Cook’s career receiving stats:
215 receptions, 2,861 yards, 20 TDs
And here are the receiving stats of the top 15 receivers in NFL history through their age 23 seasons:
27 receptions, 345 yards, 0 TDs
35 receptions, 520 yards, 4 TDs
44 receptions, 733 yards, 5 TDs
44 receptions, 845 yards, 8 TDs
50 receptions, 890 yards, 6 TDs
49 receptions, 927 yards, 3 TDs
64 receptions, 1,026 yards, 3 TDs
101 receptions, 1,377 yards, 8 TDs
100 receptions, 1,786 yards, 10 TDs
Tony Gonzalez (tight end)
168 receptions, 1,838 yards, 15 TDs
140 receptions, 2,053 yards, 16 TDs
145 receptions, 2,118 yards, 10 TDs
230 receptions, 3,135 yards, 24 TDs
226 receptions, 4,163 yards, 43 TDs
Of that group, only Larry Fitzgerald and Randy Moss had more receptions, yards and touchdowns. That’s it.
Expanding the group to add some more Hall of Famers who lie outside the top 15 in all-time receiving yards:
35 receptions, 493 yards, 3 TDs
36 receptions, 692 yards, 5 TDs
58 receptions, 797 yards, 3 TDs
58 receptions, 1,032 yards, 7 TDs
87 receptions, 1,348 yards, 14 TDs
71 receptions, 1,431 yards, 14 TDs
158 receptions, 2,128 yards, 16 TDs
Andre Reed comes the closest to Cooks, but still, none compare.
(There actually is one more comparison, and he was a member of the Patriots. But instead of being on the list of top 15 receivers of all time or being a Hall of Famer, he’s currently on trial for a double murder in Boston. Aaron Hernandez caught 175 passes for 1,956 yards and 18 touchdowns through his age 23 season.)
This is not to suggest that Cooks at age 23 is on a surefire path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He merely has quite the head start. And his best years still lie ahead.
However, entering Tom Brady’s offense — which includes Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis, James White, Dwayne Allen, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan — it’s more than likely that Cooks might actually see a dip statistically. Cooks was targeted 129 times in 2015 and 117 times in 2016; only Edelman (159 in 2016) and Gronkowski (120 in 2015) have been targeted more than 100 times in that same span.
Cooks was also in a Drew Brees-led offense which has ranked second in total pass attempts in all three of Cooks’ NFL seasons. After ranking fifth and seventh in pass attempts in 2014 and 2015, respectively, the Patriots are coming off a season in which they ranked tied for ninth-fewest passing attempts. That drop was in part due to the absence of Brady for four games and the absence of Garoppolo for more than two games, but still, there’s no offense quite as dedicated to airing it out like the domed Saints.
So, clearly, expecting Cooks to replicate his 80-catch, 1,110-yard seasons from the past two years in Foxboro would probably require someone to overlook too many factors. But that doesn’t mean the Patriots have not added an explosive, dynamic, young weapon to an offense that just averaged 35 points in the postseason (against supposedly the best teams in the NFL) en route to a Super Bowl championship.