Bill O'Brien lost the offseason. CBS credited him with the two worst transactions of 2020, the first his trade of DeAndre Hopkins for David Johnson and a second-round draft pick and the second his signing of Randall Cobb for $18 guaranteed million. Three days later, O'Brien made a third move that could have earned him such derision. He traded a different second-round pick for Brandin Cooks, whose star faded in a 42-catch 2019 season and yet has nearly identical cap hits in the next three seasons compared to the healthier, more complete Hopkins who he ostensibly will try to replace.
I cannot justify the finances of O'Brien's offseason moves. But if his intent is to split up Hopkins' former targets among several players with different niche skill sets, then Cooks can expertly claim the deeper half of them. Cooks has always been a deep specialist, but his exceptional efficiency on deep targets has at times tricked fantasy players into believing he could be a Hopkins type of No. 1 receiver, able to shift his contributions to fit with the strengths of his quarterback. That dissonance is understandable. Few deep threats routinely produce top-20 fantasy seasons. But interestingly, Cooks' move to the AFC South makes him a rival of the other best example of his sort of player, T.Y. Hilton. And after down seasons whose explanations get overlooked because of the heights of their previous successes, Cooks and Hilton should rebound in 2020 with new quarterbacks, whatever controversies their teams have invited with their broader strategies this offseason.
Since 2014, Cooks has four and Hilton has three top-20 seasons in non-PPR fantasy points per game. Most receivers with similar resumes built theirs with heavy volumes of short- and medium-depth targets, but not those two. Cooks only once reached the top 20 of short/medium fantasy points per game — classified here as points on passes thrown less than 20 yards in the air — and he barely did so with a finish in exactly 20th place in 2018. Hilton has crossed that top-20 threshold several times, but his career-best finishes of 15th, 16th, and 16th in short/medium points per game fall short of his peak seasons of third, sixth, and sixth in deep points per game.
|Brandin Cooks' Fantasy Points Per Game by Pass Depth, 2014-19|
|T.Y. Hilton's Fantasy Points Per Game by Pass Depth, 2014-19|
Deep threats are more volatile than other types of receivers from one game to the next. But I don't believe Cooks' and Hilton's skew toward deep production explains their year-to-year inconsistencies because their respective ebbs — 2014 and 2019 for Cooks and 2015, 2017 and 2019 for Hilton — and flows — 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 for Cooks and 2014, 2016, and 2018 for Hilton — perfectly coincide with their quarterbacks' aptitudes for deep passes.
|Cooks' and Hilton's QBs on their Deep Attempts, 2014-19|
|Brandin Cooks||T.Y. Hilton|
|Season||Primary QB||CTgt / Gm||Rk||Primary QB||CTgt / Gm||Rk|
|2014||Drew Brees||1.63||13||Andrew Luck||2.31||2|
|2015||Drew Brees||2.80||2||Andrew Luck||2.29||6|
|2016||Drew Brees||2.56||4||Andrew Luck||2.40||5|
|2017||Tom Brady||2.06||5||Jacoby Brissett||1.06||29|
|2018||Jared Goff||1.94||8||Andrew Luck||2.06||6|
|2019||Jared Goff||1.31||26||Jacoby Brissett||1.07||33|
|Rankings are of QBs with 200+ total attempts each season (33-36 qualifiers)|
Cooks may not have enjoyed extended runs with his quarterbacks to develop the best possible chemistry. But his former passers Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Jared Goff have all, at least at times, successfully thrown the ball down the field. When those passers finished in the top 10 in average catchable deep targets per game between 2015 and 2018, Cooks produced his best fantasy seasons. But when Brees in 2014 and especially Goff in 2019 had down deep-passing seasons, Cooks suffered substantial declines in his deep points per game that sabotaged his overall fantasy value.
Even compared to those two future Hall-of-Famers, Andrew Luck may have been the best deep passer in football. Since 2014, he finished sixth or better in catchable deep targets per game every season that he played. However, his injuries and unexpected retirement forced the Colts to rely on replacement quarterbacks Matt Hasselbeck and Jacoby Brissett, neither of whom had a substitute for Luck's deep ball. With just half of a season with Hasselbeck at quarterback in 2015, Hilton declined to a middling 19th in deep and 25th in overall fantasy points per game. And with the full Brissett experience in 2017 and 2019, Hilton fell dramatically to 28th and 69th in deep scoring that knocked him out of the overall top 30 both seasons.
Coming off bad 2019 seasons, Cooks and Hilton have depressed draft values heading into 2020. But if, as the timing of their poor seasons suggests, they succeed and fail on the strength of their quarterbacks' deep passing, they are poised to return to their peak productivity this season. With 2.32 catchable deep targets per game, Patrick Mahomes has predictably been the best deep passer among the expected Week 1, 2020 starters in recent seasons. But Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has been close behind him with a 2.18 average. And even while he has seen some of his other efficiencies slip as he nears his 40th birthday, new Colts quarterback Philip Rivers has continued to throw deep passes often and accurately. His 1.92 average from recent seasons nearly doubled Brissett's rate (0.97) and landed him in the top 10 of next year's likely starters.
|Current Starting QBs on their Deep Attempts, 2017-19|
|Player||Games||Att||Acc%||CTgt / Gm|
|30 of 32 projected Week 1 starters have 200+ total attempts since 2017|
The new KUBIAK system we implemented this offseason does not separately project short, medium, and deep targets for quarterbacks and their receivers. But it does project different quarterback accuracy rates to different receiver roles and then applies projected receiver rates of receptions, yards, and touchdowns per catchable target. To my thinking, that approach does a much better job of projecting the receivers who change quarterbacks and the quarterbacks who change enough of their receivers to fundamentally alter the likely efficiencies of their targets. And Cooks and Hilton provide evidence of that fact in their reception, yard, and touchdown rates per catchable target that less neatly align with their best and worst overall fantasy seasons.
|Cooks' and Hilton's Efficiences Per Catchable Target, 2015-19|
|Brandin Cooks||T.Y. Hilton|
Note that the table excludes 2014 because Sport Radar did not chart catchable and non-catchable passes until 2015.
Within their subsets of catchable targets, quarterbacks likely do have subtle effects on their receivers' efficiencies. By targeting their receivers when they are most open and by throwing precise passes, quarterbacks can lead their receivers to extra yards after the catch and better chances for touchdowns. But those subtle differences are more likely to be drowned out by the randomness of the small sample sizes of individual seasons than their volumes of catchable targets. And Watson (76.5% accuracy, 1st) and Rivers (69.6% accuracy, 11th) project to be standouts in their accuracy to receivers with Cooks' and Hilton's roles.
Catchable deep targets are not the full story. Even with improved quarterback play, Cooks and Hilton invite some skepticism based on their injury track records. Cooks has suffered four concussions in the last two seasons, and Hilton has had about as many hamstring injuries in his many seasons. But with poor deep passers in Goff and Brissett throwing them the ball, Cooks and Hilton may not have even had a chance to turn in top-20 fantasy seasons. Watson and Rivers provide them those chances, and as such, they mean much more to Cooks' and Hilton's fantasy prospects than the vague public preference for their passing would have you believe.