Did the Saints Make the Right Call With Cooks?

Pigskin Podcast and The Inside Zone UK's Nick Dunkeyson assesses whether or not the Saints took the correct offer for Brandin Cooks...

Brandin Cooks.jpg

Trades! Trades are fun! We’re deep in the dregs of free agency right now, which mostly involves reflux reactions to seeing your team signed a cornerback who can’t run for $7m a year. Plus ça change. So for your light relief, a few teams have been trading players or picks, or players and picks! And this gives us the opportunity to delve into the mind of the general manager, and to try and come back unviolated. 

No trade this year has yet been as interesting as the Brandin Cooks trade. So I’m going to take a look at what the trade was, why New Orleans went with New England’s offer, and what it all means. I may even mention Malcolm Butler. 

For those who might've missed it, the Saints sent to-be-fourth-year receiver Cooks to the Patriots for a first-round and compensatory third-round pick. The Patriots get the Saints’ fourth-round pick in return, too. So, New England have a new, very good wide receiver, but no draft pick this year until the third round. New Orleans, meanwhile, has five picks in the first three rounds, but only two good wide receivers (sorry, Brandon Coleman). 

Before delving into New Orleans and their options, let's delve into Bill Bellichick's mind, shall we? (Yes, it's icky in here. No, you can leave at any time.) Why did the Pats make this trade? Yes, Belichick’s made a cottage industry of being unpredictable and inscrutable when it comes to roster moves.  But...

As Tom Brady bounds towards his 40th birthday, he becomes more and more an outlier in quarterback longevity, ergo, New England want to surround him with as much talent as possible. Cooks is only under contract for one more year, though options and then the option of a franchise meaning New England can keep him for three. So that’s three years the Pats will now have a top-drawer deep threat alongside a very good “slot-plus” receiver (Edelman), an elite tight end (Gronkowski), good complementary pieces (Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell) and the best set of receiving running backs in the league. At this rate, Tom Brady might throw the ball every play! 

I suspect it’s mostly just New England doing what they do, evolving while already on top to keep a step ahead. Cooks is superior to all those I just listed by Gronkowski (and maybe Edelman), so he’s straight into the starting line-up. The rich get richer? Well, yeah. A luxury signing? I don’t really think so. Especially because he fills a role currently only sporadically occupied. Plus it means they can cut Danny Amendola. Although there's a decent chance Amendola could pull a hamstring while making his way onto waivers.

Anyway, enough feeling dirty writing about the Pats and onto New Orleans. 

New Orleans had three teams bidding for Cooks, once they made it known he was available: New England, Philadelphia, and Tennessee. We know what New England offered, we have a good idea of what Tennessee offered, and we’ve heard rumours (somewhat debunked) of what Philadelphia offered. For the purposes of this piece, let’s take the knows, suspects, and rumours, to analyse the Saints’ decision-making. 

So here’s what we think was offered: 

  • New England: first-round pick (#32), third-round compensatory pick (#103), in exchange for Cooks and fourth-round pick (#118, though this pick will be forfeiting due to that ball deflating scandal thingy). 
  • Tennessee: Per NOLA.com, first round pick swap (New Orleans gains #5, Tennessee #11), and a third-round pick (#83 or #100 – let’s assume #100) in exchange for Cooks.  
  • Philadelphia: Per ProFootballTalk, a third-round pick (#74), a fourth-round pick (assume the compensatory, so #139), and safety Malcolm Jenkins. Note that the accuracy of this has been…debated, shall we say. For the purposes of analysing what goes on in a team’s mind during trade discussions however, let’s treat it as accurate. 

This is interesting! New Orleans had three genuinely different approaches they could go for. To summarise, then. New England’s essentially gives a late-first-round pick. You’d be hoping to pick up either a risky potential game changer or a solid starter at that position.  Tennessee’s offers a chance to pick up a more elite player in the first round, and a mid-round pick where you’d hope to pick up a contributor. Philadelphia’s offer was a solid starter (and a former Saints player) and a couple of picks where you’d hope to get contributors. So what would accepting each one mean the Saints were after? 


Philadelphia’s Offer 

Starting with the Philadelphia offer. Were the Saints to have accepted that it’d send a fairly clear signal. That would be: we’re broadly satisfied with our defensive starters and impact players; we think Malcolm Jenkins can start for us and play a heck of a lot of snaps; we need a bit more depth. I can field this one. There is no way on God’s green earth that the Saints are broadly satisfied with their defensive starters. There are maybe…five they could be happy with? (For reference: Nick Fairley, Sheldon Rankins, Cameron Jordan, Kenny Vaccaro, Delvin Breaux. Maybe six if you’re okay starting Vonn Bell.) Accepting this trade would’ve sent a signal that it was more about getting rid of Brandin Cooks than upping defensive quality significantly. So, an easy rejection. 

Tennessee’s Offer 

How about that Tennessee offer? Personally, I quite like it. Accepting that offer would say: there is an elite player in the draft we’re specifically targeting, that we think can make a massive difference to our team. It’d also say: we could use a little more depth in our roster than we already had.  

Who would be potentially in play at 5 but gone by 11? Or rather, what position groups? At 5, you’d likely have at least one of the star safeties – Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker. You’d have a choice of all edge rushers other than Myles Garrett and probably Solomon Thomas. You might even have Jonathan Allen or Leonard Fournette. Compare that to who we’re looking at with the 11th pick: one of the top two cornerbacks – Marshon Lattimore and Marlon Humphrey – will likely be available. As will a top linebacker – Rueben Foster maybe? Pass rushers – well, you’d hope one or two of Haason Reddick, Derek Barnett and Taco Charlton will be on the board.  

What all that talent looks like is this: you’ve got maybe 2 or 3 utterly elite players in the draft (for me: Garrett, Allen, Hooker), then about 12-15 that look like really good picks. There’s a chance to get one of those utterly elite players at 5, but if you don’t, then there’s potentially not much difference in quality between a #5 pick and a #11 pick – it’s that deep at the top. So, maybe the Saints felt that this year, the difference between the two picks wasn’t that great, so they rejected it. 


New England’s Offer 

(This will obviously change if New Orleans ends up trading their #11 overall pick for Malcolm Butler. If they do, I’m starting a Kickstarter to buy 1,000 party hats with “IDIOT” written on them for Saints GM Mickey Loomis.) 

Right now, Drew Brees carries the Saints. He’s also 38 years old. That body is going to show signs of decline sooner rather than later, and right now the Saints have no succession plan in any area. A succession plan at quarterback is a crapshoot, but building a young, exciting, deep defense seems like the best way to both a) soften the blow when Brees leaves, and b) help make the most of his last few years by not requiring the team live and die by his passing. 

The 2017 draft appears to have a lot of quality players graded in the first and second rounds, particularly across areas of need for New England: the secondary, linebackers, and pass rush. The Saints are trying to build for the future and change themselves. Getting an extra first-round pick means if a player’s good, you have him for five years guaranteed before you even have to start thinking franchise tag. That’s key to filling your roster with solid starters.  

So you’ve got someone you expect to be a good starter, to improve your defense. An extra third-round pick also means either a decent starter or a very useful rotational player. And all you’re giving up for this is a wide receiver – an excellent one, sure, but you’ve got two very good receivers on your roster including one entering his second year who looks fantastic. 


So What Would You Have Done, O Wise Sage One?

I think I’d have taken the New England offer too, even though dealing with Bill Belichick is like challenging the Grim Reaper to a game of chess. The Saints clearly wanted rid of Brandin Cooks, though I’m not sure why. For what it’s worth, the rumour that dressing-room kingpin Drew Brees just didn’t like him is my favourite. 

So what represented the best value for New Orleans? The chance to get more players, near the top of the draft. Chasing a superstar, like through Tennessee’s offer, would’ve left fewer holes filled. Taking Malcolm Jenkins back? Well, he basically resurrected his career leaving New Orleans for Philly. Going back to the Bayou probably wouldn’t have worked out for anyone. 


What Does That Even MEAN, McBain? 


We can read a bunch of things into this trade. Some are discussed above, some are nuggets thrown out seemingly at random, for your delectation. So, things we can discern from this trade: 

  • New Orleans realise they are missing a good many pieces from a functional defense, but are stacked with receiving talent. 
  • New Orleans knows that if they don’t get a functional defense sometime soon, having all the offense in the world’ll mean nothing if Drew Brees has to put up 40 points every game. 
  • Understandably, given these two things, they’re prioritising having enough good starters over having a few elite starters. 
  • New England won the Super Bowl, and had one of the best free agencies of any team. With anyone but them, you’d think Sod’s Law would guarantee an 8-8 season. Alas, no. 
  • Titans GM Jon Robinson is good at structuring tempting offers that slightly favour Tennessee. This one got turned down, but others will be accepted. 
  • Tennessee was probably targeting Mike Williams or OJ Howard with the #11 pick. They’ll likely be gone at #18. Even with Brandin Cooks they’d still have needed one more receiving threat.

We can’t know anything about Philadelphia as we don’t know what they offered. But it’s telling that they, Tennessee and New England were the three teams in for Cooks. All have an aggressive policy towards trading and general managering (it’s a word). But whether it's a coach as a GM (in Belichick's case), an executive enjoying his return to power (Howie Roseman in Philly) or a young exec making a name for himself (Robinson), these are three teams that are making free agency fun!