In the latest battle of Bill O’Brien versus any conceivable or feasible notion of draft pick value, the Houston Texans fired off one of their last remaining selections to not solve their self-created problem, trading for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Even if Cooks returns to his prior form, the Texans seem to operate in a vacuum in which there is no concept of what the other 31 teams are doing or thinking. This trade is an admission of failure from the Los Angeles Rams. It’s a flailing response to failure for the Texans.
It’s easy to understand why the Rams made this move, although it’s the end to yet another disastrous contract extension for general manager Les Snead. In the summer of 2018, I cautioned that the contract extensions handed to Cooks and Todd Gurley were poorly structured. Less than two years later, neither player is on the Rams’ roster.
Rams grade: B
Texans grade: D+
Cooks was under contract in 2018 for $8.5 million and could have been franchised in 2019 for $16.8 million, meaning the Rams could have theoretically gone year-to-year and paid him $25.3 million for his first two seasons in Los Angeles. Instead, his new contract paid him $42 million over its first two years. By waiting until after March 15 to trade Cooks, the Rams also triggered a $4 million roster bonus for him, which they’ll owe him on the way out. Los Angeles will have $21.8 million in dead money on its cap for Cooks in 2020 and more than $33 million in dead money between the failed deals for Cooks and Gurley.
All of that is a sunk cost, though, and given the Rams’ current situation, it’s easy to see how trading Cooks makes sense. Los Angeles was in a desperate cap situation and down its first-round picks in 2020 and 2021 after the Jalen Ramsey trade. Jared Goff‘s passer rating and QBR both declined without Cooks on the field. But as the team tried to find a Plan B for the 6-1 defensive front it saw early in the season and changed its running game, it began to seem like the Rams might operate best out of 12 personnel, which would put Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett on the field and force the Rams to leave one of Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods on the sidelines.
By trading Cooks, the Rams don’t have to make that choice. Even if they don’t go to 12 personnel as their primary offensive grouping, they’re not going to be in 11 personnel with three wideouts on virtually every single snap, as they were during the early days of the Sean McVay era. L.A. will likely want to bring in a wide receiver to replace Cooks, but it just acquired a second-round pick in a ridiculously deep wideout class. ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay’s most recent mock draft has 12 wide receivers coming off of the board by the end of Round 2. I suspect the Rams will use one of their two second-rounders on a replacement for Cooks.
Of course, the Texans could have done the same thing with the second-rounder they just sent to the Rams for Cooks and chose not to do so. I can think of two arguments why they preferred to make this move in lieu of just drafting a wide receiver. Neither of them rings true enough to make this deal work for Houston.
One tossed around in the hour or so after the trade is that the Texans are better off going after Cooks than they would a rookie because the world is currently under quarantine and the practice schedule for the upcoming summer is uncertain. It seems unlikely that the league will be able to go through the typical OTA schedule in advance of preseason, which will make it tougher for rookies to catch up with the speed of the NFL game.
I agree that rookies are going to have a more difficult time in 2020, but I’m not sure the Texans are in a position in which they should be focusing solely on what’s going to happen this season. They were 19th in the league in DVOA last season and were one of the league’s most obvious candidates to decline. They were arguably outplayed in their home playoff win over the Buffalo Bills and then were embarrassed by the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round.
If 2020 was such a pressing concern for the Texans, they probably shouldn’t have traded away their superstar wide receiver for a second-round pick before using a second-round pick to acquire a less impressive wideout. If they had Drew Brees or Tom Brady at quarterback, that would be one thing, but the Texans have 24-year-old Deshaun Watson. They shouldn’t be going all-in.
The other argument is that Cooks is likely to be a better wideout over the next several years than whomever the Texans would have drafted in the second round. Leaving the money element aside, I absolutely agree. Cooks was one of the most productive receivers in the league from 2015 to 2018, racking up four 1,000-yard seasons with three different teams. I’ve seen people speculate that he isn’t a great locker room presence because he has now been traded three times, but as ESPN Texans reporter Sarah Barshop pointed out, Cooks appears to be a great teammate by all accounts.
Concussions wrecked his 2019 season, though, and they’re a serious concern for his long-term future. The former New Orleans Saints first-rounder suffered two brain injuries in 25 days last season, and he has five known concussions across his six pro seasons, including the one that knocked him out of the Super Bowl. No one can project the likelihood of Cooks suffering another concussion in 2020 or over the next several seasons, but it’s impossible to pretend that he is just another talented receiver in the prime of his career.
The other factor you have to consider in comparing Cooks versus a rookie wideout is money, and that’s a meaningful difference. Even with the Rams bearing the initial brunt of the Cooks deal, the Texans are paying him meaningful money. Houston owes him $47 million over the next four seasons. While only $8 million of that is guaranteed, the Texans are realistically making this trade expecting to pay Cooks $20 million over the next two seasons.
That’s not awful, but I don’t think there was a huge market for his services at that price, in part because the league sees just how many talented wide receivers are going to be available in this year’s draft. The free-agent wide receiver class was dead on arrival, with most guys being forced to settle for one-year deals or one-year guarantees. Even Amari Cooper took home only two years of full guarantees. Sammy Watkins, whose representation insisted wouldn’t take a pay cut, did just that because they saw the unfriendly market.
The Texans giving up a second-round pick to acquire a wide receiver in this market doesn’t make much sense. It’s even worse when you consider just how much they need to invest on the defensive side of the ball, how much is coming due to Watson and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, and what precious little draft capital they have left. There aren’t going to be any cheap, talented players on this roster two years from now, which is the exact problem the Rams faced this offseason. Getting a fourth-rounder back in 2022 isn’t going to solve that problem.
In a vacuum, if I told you the Texans replaced DeAndre Hopkins with Cooks, that wouldn’t be a disaster. Where this really goes off the rails, though, is with another O’Brien mistake. The one non-Cooper wideout to get a significant guarantee over two years in this draft class is Randall Cobb, who received a three-year, $27 million deal with $18 million guaranteed from Houston. Based on the rest of the market, Cobb’s value was realistically somewhere around one year and $5 million.
The Texans will pay Cobb and Cooks $38.7 million over the next two seasons, or an average of $19.4 million per year. Hopkins reportedly wanted a contract extension worth between $18 million and $20 million per season. I haven’t polled every team, but my suspicion is that about 28 or 29 of the 32 NFL teams would rather pay Hopkins that much money over the next couple of seasons than they would the combination of Cobb and Cooks.
The Texans also have Will Fuller and Kenny Stills under contract in 2020 for a combined $17.1 million, meaning that Cooks is nominally coming in as their fourth wide receiver. I suspect they could cut Stills, which would free up $7 million, but that would be getting rid of a player they gave up draft assets to acquire in the Tunsil trade last year just to accommodate the player they gave up draft assets to acquire this offseason.
To have this all make sense, you have to believe that the difference between having Cobb and Cooks on your roster as opposed to Hopkins and Stills is less than what the Texans needed to do to make that change. Houston sent the 57th pick and 131st picks out in those two deals and got back the 40th selection to go with fourth-rounders in 2021 and 2022. It also had to absorb the contract of running back David Johnson, who has a minimum of $12.3 million guaranteed due over the next two seasons. There was no market for Gurley, who has been a dramatically more productive player over the course of his career. Most teams would insist on getting a pick just to absorb that Johnson contract.
There’s no way to make this all add up, and while I try to keep each of these trades and decisions separate in evaluating deals, you can’t escape the specter of the Hopkins and Cobb deals in evaluating what the Texans are doing here. To spite one of their best players for wanting a contract extension too soon, they have made three disastrous decisions. We’re going to look back on this offseason the same way we look back at the decisions the Rams made during that summer of 2018: in total disbelief.