New Cowboys WR Brandin Cooks can’t explain why he has been traded NFL-record 4 times. Past colleagues, however, weigh in
Wideout's vertical threat abilities continue to attract suitors
Brandin Cooks said it once.
He said it twice.
Before he concluded his answer, he had echoed his “I don’t know” refrain a fitting four times.
Why has the now-Dallas Cowboys receiver been traded an NFL-record four times?
“I really can’t answer that, honestly,” Cooks said Monday by phone. “You ask my teammates, any coaches I’ve been a part of, I would think they would say I’ve been one of the best teammates they’ve had.
“I’ve really never gotten upset because obviously that means someone out there wants me to be a part of their group to forego some great draft picks. … I didn’t get to free agency because people are jumping the gun to get me before I get there.”
Validity shadows Cooks’ admittedly rosy take: In a league where the average career span is about three years, Cooks is set to earn $18.5 million in his 10th NFL season. In six of his first nine pro seasons, he has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards.
“I like to think [that] you put my numbers up with anybody else,” Cooks said Monday, “they’re right there with them.”
New Cowboys WR Brandin Cooks says he's "really never gotten upset" any of 4 times he's been traded.
"Obviously that means someone out there wants me to be a part of their group...it’s special because it means I didn't get to free agency, (teams) jumping the gun to get there."
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) March 20, 2023
Players without sufficient value are more likely to get cut than traded. Yet, NFL teams tend to cling to their best players, sometimes beyond what sound business principles would recommend.
As one high-ranking NFC executive told Yahoo Sports by phone when assessing Cooks’ journey: “If you’re wired the right way and you’re that talented, no one’s ever letting you out of the building.”
So what has prompted NFL front offices to trade away and for a player with Cooks’ talent and productivity four times? Does that history-making measure speak more to Cooks’ value or detriment, and does it most reflect the player, the teams he has played for or the broader wide receiver landscape?
Yahoo Sports consulted sources from each of Cooks’ four prior teams to better understand. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss their organizations’ philosophies, wove a narrative as complex as the tapestry of Cooks’ career jerseys.
A well-traveled history packaged around draft picks
Before dissecting why Cooks has relocated so frequently, let’s re-establish where he has been.
To make a very long story, well, shorter:
The New Orleans Saints drafted Cooks in 2014 with the 20th overall pick. He played three seasons, surpassing 1,100 yards each of the latter two — before the New England Patriots traded first- and third-round draft picks in exchange for Cooks and the Saints’ fourth-round selection.
In New England, Cooks immediately caught 65 passes for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns as the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl. (They lost to the Philadelphia Eagles.) Then the Los Angeles Rams dealt first- and sixth-round picks for the speedy wideout and the Patriots’ fourth-rounder.
The Rams signed Cooks to a five-year extension worth $81 million with $49.5 million guaranteed. Cooks caught 1,204 yards and five touchdowns in the 2018 regular season, again helping his team advance to the Super Bowl. Cooks contributed a team-high eight catches and 120 yards in the biggest-stage loss to the Patriots.
After the 2019 season, the Rams traded Cooks and a 2022 fourth-round selection in exchange for the Houston Texans’ 2020 second-round pick. In his first two years in Houston, Cooks compiled 2,187 yards and 12 touchdowns. By 2022, under Houston’s third head coach in three years, he became the latest Texans player to vocalize his desire to bolt. The Texans and Cowboys conferred at the trade deadline but ultimately were stuck on his hefty salary.
When talks rekindled in free agency, the Texans agreed to shoulder $6 million of Cooks’ $18.5 million salary. The Cowboys dealt a 2023 fifth-round pick and 2024 sixth-round pick. Dallas welcomed a speedy, vertical threat on the outside to complement wide receiver CeeDee Lamb’s playmaking on crossing routes and physicality from the slot.
Cooks was excited to rejoin a contender after years amid a rebuild.
“The last three years, it is what it is,” Cooks said. “Better late than never.”
As Cooks ‘works his ass off,’ trades reflect player more than person
Amid that expressed hunger lies a player whose exits have resulted from different circumstances.
Cooks left the Saints following frustration with his role in the offense and head coach Sean Payton’s principles about ball distribution in three straight 7-9 seasons, said one executive with knowledge of the team’s thinking at the time. Cooks left the Patriots as his post-rookie contract value was set to balloon and left Los Angeles after his productivity didn’t match a contract fit for a No. 1 receiver. Houston’s rebuild wasn’t what an almost 30-year-old Cooks sought, and thus he arrives at contending Dallas.
Coach and personnel executives from each of the four teams agreed: Cooks’ off-field character has not prompted these moves. Former colleagues described a “great human” and "very grounded dude” who “works his ass off” and “takes his craft serious.” Perhaps his New Orleans frustration reflected a player not fully self-aware of the limitations of his skills relative to that iteration of scheme, one executive said — but the Houston trade demands were “out of character,” another felt, while a third said they “really don’t think this is any sort of reflection [of] him not being a good teammate or his personality.”
BRANDIN COOKS FILM STUDY (this won't take long). Six plays from the last 18 months that should tell you all you need.
A little drag that matches you up with a LB and the juice. pic.twitter.com/SdaMQWLjXw
— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) March 19, 2023
On the field, Cooks was lauded for his speed and vertical threat. He’s most likely to win on first and second down, relayed one past colleague, noting that extra creativity would be necessary for Cooks’ 5-foot-10, 183-pound slight frame to fully flash in third-down and red-zone opportunities.
That dilemma appears to have complicated the mega-contract Cooks was awarded. With great financial power came great financial responsibility. Cooper Kupp (1,161 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns) exploded for the 2019 Rams, while receiver Robert Woods collected 1,134 yards and two scores. Cooks averaged more yards per reception than the trio, but caught just 58.3% of targets compared to his colleagues' 72+ percentages. And thus, Houston valued him more highly.
“He’s probably a No. 2 who has been paid as a No. 1 for most of his career,” one executive told Yahoo Sports. “He’s a complementary piece, one of [the] best in [the] NFL. But people who have acquired him likely viewed him as a primary threat which he isn’t.”
Are Cowboys bucking trend or falling into same pattern?
What prompted the Cowboys to trade for Cooks is clear: He’s a productive player whose skills differ from those of Lamb and receiver Michael Gallup.
The Cowboys have admitted they didn’t properly fill the void that trading away Amari Cooper created last spring. The Cowboys didn’t want to pay Cooper’s $20 million salary and sought a more vocal receiver, among other factors. The front office and coaching staff believe quarterback Dak Prescott’s league-worst 15 interceptions were not unrelated to the limits on his pass catchers. Lamb developed into a bona fide WR1, but the passing game wasn’t versatile enough in key moments including a divisional-round playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
So as the Cowboys return one of the league’s best defenses, and Dallas throws its chips behind head coach Mike McCarthy play-calling in a hotter-seat year for him, they executed a trade operating on a principle not unlike the Patriots and Rams: Win now.
New Cowboys WR Brandin Cooks has already talked with Mike McCarthy, Stephen Jones, coaches. And...
"As soon as Dak found out, he reached out to me," Brandin tells us.
Dak told him he's excited to have him as part of group. Can’t wait to get to work. Lot of respect for his game.
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) March 20, 2023
“Everyone believes they are a vertical player away from unlocking their offense,” an executive who overlapped with Cooks said. “The concept of a player like Cooks is always going to be valuable and always going to get you a return in a trade situation so it’s worth taking that chance.”
“When you look at all of these situations,” the executive continued, “they found out that it was a low-percentage throw for those QBs and not worth the investment financially.”
Cooks’ chemistry with Prescott is thus worth monitoring.
The Cowboys will be looking to validate less of an investment than some of their counterparts as they traded both the lowest-value picks for Cooks and left $6 million of Cooks’ payment responsibility across the state in Houston.
Still, their hope is Cooks will replicate the road he traveled in New England and Los Angeles — to the Super Bowl, or at the very least the NFC championship game that has eluded the Cowboys since the 1995 season.
Cooks is eager to prove he will.
“Man, I tell you, I couldn’t be more hungry,” he said. “Stepping into a locker room like this [with] those three years under your belt like that, that fuel is definitely fueling the fire and that hunger to be able to come out here and just show up and help my team win.
“I can’t wait. I truly can’t.”