We all know Brandin Cooks' playmaking ability, but it's difficult to project New England's passing distribution on a week-to-week basis because of all their weapons.At this point, words truly don’t do Bill Belichick’s mastery and aggressiveness as general manager justice. Just six weeks removed from winning the Super Bowl in an epic comeback fashion, Belichick elected to pull a blockbuster trade that wasn’t entirely unexpected, but still impressive. After a few months of trade rumors swirled, the Saints finally moved Brandin Cooks and the 118th selection in the 2017 NFL Draft to the Patriots for rights to the 32nd and 103rd overall picks.

As if Tom Brady needed yet another stellar weapon in his arsenal, Cooks is 28th in receiving yards/game (68.1) and eighth in receptions/game (5.12) all-time among receivers in their first three years as a pro. Even though Michael Thomas usurped him in 2016 —Thomas led the Saints in target share, red-zone targets, receptions, yards/game, and touchdowns as a rookie—Cooks has had a phenomenal start to his career.

Unfortunately for fantasy, though, Cooks’ immediate place in the Patriots’ offense is sort of unknown. Because New England is so multiple and they now have another weapon, their passing distribution will be extremely hard to project on a week-to-week basis.

The Impact on the Patriots

For a starting place, here is how Brady distributed his targets in 2016:

Name

Pos.

Targets

Tgt Share

RZ Tgt Share

Julian Edelman

WR

160

29%

22%

James White

RB

86

16%

11%

Martellus Bennett

TE

73

13%

14%

Chris Hogan

WR

58

11%

14%

Malcolm Mitchell

WR

48

9%

16%

Rob Gronkowski

TE

38

7%

7%

Danny Amendola

WR

29

5%

9%

Dion Lewis

RB

24

4%

3%

At first glance, there really isn’t a lot of room to easily maneuver Cooks into a role. Martellus Bennett did take 13% of the Pats’ 2016 targets with him to Green Bay but Belichick replaced him with Dwayne Allen (via another trade). Cooks will undoubtedly be a big part of the Patriots’ offense but New England is just a completely different environment.

Although Cooks was phenomenal in New Orleans, he benefited greatly from an extremely pass-happy team. Over the past two seasons, the Saints have trailed on half of their offensive snaps while the Pats’ have trailed at an exceptionally lower rate (18%; lowest rate in the league):

Team

Pass%

Run%

Trail Rate

Saints

64% (5th)

36% (28th)

50% (13th)

Patriots

59% (18th)

41% (15th)

18% (32nd) 

At 22- and 23-years-old, Cooks finished as WR20 (2015) and WR9 (2016) in PPR points per contest in New Orleans. That’s phenomenal on it’s own merit, but it certainly helped that Drew Brees and Co. had to air it out a bunch.

In a dramatically less pass-heavy offense that doesn’t trail often and doesn’t have a ton of open opportunity, Cooks’ fantasy ceiling will be a hotly debated topic in the 2017 offseason. With Rob Gronkowski back healthy, Julian Edelman involved out of the slot, and the always-present pass catching back in New England, it’s hard to pigeonhole Cooks into a voluminous role. That doesn’t mean he won’t be productive, though. Cooks’ addition raises the ceiling of the Pats’ offense as a whole, but it will likely make each individual pass catcher slightly more volatile on a weekly basis.

As For New Orleans…

As weird as it may seem for a Sean Payton-led team, the Saints’ offense is a little bit easier to project than the Pats’ with Cooks out of town. New Orleans will definitely miss Cooks’ upside at a young age, but they did sign veteran speedster Ted Ginn Jr. in an attempt to fulfill Cooks’ duties as a deep target. There is no denying Cooks is more than just a deep-threat, but Ted Ginn Jr. is very quietly coming off an effective year of his own. Among qualifying receivers, Cooks finished the 2016 season fourth in yards gained per target on passes thrown 20 or more yards down field while Ginn was 12th-best (out of 62).

Cooks’ absence will definitely boost Michael Thomas and Willie Snead’s involvement, but the Saints’ offense needs to be put into context. Drew Brees notoriously loves to spread the ball around to the open man and he hardly, if ever, locks onto one pass catcher.

Over the past six years, the Saints’ leader in targets has not eclipsed 23% of the team’s share (Jimmy Graham, 2011):

Year

Saints' Target Leader

Tgt Share

Saints' No. 2

Tgt Share

2016

Michael Thomas

18%

Brandin Cooks

17%

2015

Brandin Cooks

19%

Ben Watson

17%

2014

Jimmy Graham

19%

Marques Colston

15%

2013

Jimmy Graham

22%

Marques Colston

17%

2012

Jimmy Graham

21%

Marques Colston

20%

2011

Jimmy Graham

23%

Darren Sproles

17%

 

Six-year Avg.

20%

Six-year Avg.

17%

If the Saints’ don’t add a receiver in the draft and they are done in free agency, Michael Thomas and Willie Snead will definitely enjoy 1-2 more targets per game. Snead was third on the Saints’ in target share in 2016 (15%).

However, unless New Orleans drastically changes the way that they operate on offense, Michael Thomas’ target share will likely hover somewhere around the 20% range while Snead, as the new No. 2 target in town, will see around 17% of targets. As the lid popping deep-threat, Ted Ginn Jr. will have a lot more variance in his target rate and will likely wind up being an all-upside pick in best ball (draft only) leagues once again.

All in all, this trade makes a ton of sense for both teams. Tom Brady, the never aging, greatest quarterback of all-time, gets one of the most productive young receivers in the league while the Saints get more ammunition to re-stock on defensive talent they so desperately need. The fantasy implications of the trade may be far and wide, but the Patriots’ ball distribution will undoubtedly be one of the major data points to monitor at the beginning of the 2017 season.