By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots should be in the market for a premium pass-catcher this offseason, but they can't exactly pay for one.
Tom Brady reportedly wants the team to commit to bolstering an offense that tied for 12th in offensive touchdowns. Ideally they get bigger contributions from 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry, but banking on him as the biggest playmaker after a shortened rookie season would carry considerable risk. So they'll need to take a different route to add an instantly impactful weapon.
Their best opportunity to do that without committing too much money is to recreate the Brandin Cooks trade from 2017.
Three years ago, on the second day of the league year, the Pats sent their first-round pick (No. 32) along with a third-rounder to the Saints for Cooks and a fourth-rounder. The wideout turned in a fine season with 65 catches for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns, helping get the Pats to Super Bowl LII. Bill Belichick was also able to recoup a first-round pick the following year when he picked up Cooks' fifth-year option then sent him to the Rams for pick No. 23 in 2018, which they used to draft starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn.
The key to Cooks, though, is that he only cost about $1.5 million in 2017, followed by the no-brainer fifth-year option of $4 million. That made him an easy fit on the roster and valuable enough to get a first-round pick back in a later trade.
One could argue that the Pats offense missed having a player like Cooks over the past two years.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s kind of amazing that Cooks wasn't looked upon particularly favorably for what he produced. He wasn’t Randy Moss and he wasn’t playing particularly well in Super Bowl LII before having to leave with a concussion. So that must mean he sucked Mike!
Nooope. After laying witness to what Patriots receivers not named Edelman contributed in 2018, and especially in 2019, you’d most certainly take Cooks' speed and 2017 production on the roster.
That’s in the past, though. And the important thing is to learn from it. Now the Patriots have another opportunity to bring in an impact receiver while maintaining financial flexibility - if they can find a taker. Which, to be fair, is the biggest roadblock here. But in theory, the Patriots can spend their first on an established guy, get a good season out of him, then flip him the following offseason. Just like Cooks.
So with that in mind, who would make a logical and worthy addition for the 23rd pick in the 2020 NFL Draft?
If they take another jaunt down Cooks Avenue, they'll target a proven producer in the final year of his rookie deal. It's worth noting, though, that part of the reason the Saints traded Cooks to the Patriots in the first place is his own on-field frustrations plus the Saints' reservations about paying him. So it's unclear whether the Patriots' top potential targets and their teams are in similar turmoil. It doesn't seem that way.
The timing of the original Cooks trade is an important detail. If the Patriots want to make a similar move in part to show Brady the commitment he seeks, they may have to make it before the start of the 2020 league year on March 18.
But, based on what the Patriots would be seeking on their end, here's who fits the criteria.
Cooper Kupp, Rams
Kupp is particularly attractive for the Patriots because he plays the slot, and does it as well as anyone in the NFL. In 2019 he made 94 catches for 1,161 yards and also found the end zone 10 times, third-best in the league. The career year came after he tore his ACL in the previous season. Kupp still has the speed to get separation deep and isn't afraid to make plays over the middle of the field, either.
He's in line to get a pay bump to $2.1 million thanks to the league's proven performance escalator, which grants a raise to those who played at least 35 percent of offensive/defensive snaps in two of their first three seasons. Either way, Kupp is insanely valuable and let's be honest, there's not much reason for the Rams to get rid of him right now.
But ... L.A. does have some expensive contracts that they may be stuck with for the next few years. Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, and Jalen Ramsey are weighing them down, hurting their ability to potentially keep Kupp long-term. If they decide that it's best to grab a first-round pick while the 26-year-old's value may be at its peak, then perhaps they work something out with the Patriots.
Kenny Golladay, Lions
Like Kupp, Golladay is a former third-round pick who has greatly outperformed his draft stock. The 6-foot-4 wideout is as impressive as any in the NFL with his length, hands, and body control, which makes him a formidable deep threat and red zone target. He'd instantly be the Patriots' most dangerous downfield receiver.
However, the Lions already have the third overall pick in the 2020 draft and plenty of cap space to potentially lock up Golladay long-term. Picking up his fifth-year option would be a no-brainer if he keeps producing like he has.
So if Bill Belichick wanted to pry Golladay from Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn, he may have to part with more than just their first-rounder. (UPDATE: Apparently Quinn and the Lions are in "win now" mode. So this feels a lot less likely.) But he'd be getting a guy who's coming off a 65-catch, 1,190-yard, 11-touchdown season as he emerged as the Lions' No. 1 receiver. He'd be a good comp for the kind of asset Cooks was three years ago.
Chris Godwin, Buccaneers
Godwin took an impressive leap forward in his first season under new Bucs head coach Bruce Arians. Only two receivers with at least 100 targets (Michael Thomas and Tyler Lockett) caught the ball with more efficiency than Godwin's 71.1 percent rate. He also amassed the third-most receiving yards with 1,333 and scored nine touchdowns - in only 14 games.
The rising star wideout turns 24 years old on Feb. 27. Tampa is in great shape cap-wise, even with Mike Evans already signed. But would they commit big money to another receiver? And they're going to need a quarterback, with Jameis Winston headed for free agency.
If the Patriots could convince the Bucs to take the 23rd pick as part of a package for Godwin, they'd get one of the toughest, most sure-handed inside receivers in football. And they'd get him at a highly affordable $2.1 million.
Corey Davis, Titans
Davis is in a different category from the aforementioned names, because as the former fifth overall pick he comes at a higher cost on the books. In 2020 he would take up $8 million on the cap.
However, from the Titans' end that number may be too high for a receiver who hasn't lived up to his draft position. A.J. Brown looks to have passed him as the team's No. 1 after a great rookie year. They also need to find a quarterback or three with Ryan Tannehill and Marcus Mariota both headed to free agency. And GM Jon Robinson has other pending free agents to consider in running back Derrick Henry, cornerback Logan Ryan, and right tackle Jack Conklin.
So perhaps Davis can be had for less than the first-round pick. The 6-foot-3, 209-pound wideout has flashed the capability to be a star receiver if he showed more consistency. Patriots fans will remember when he dusted Stephon Gilmore in their matchup in 2018. Belichick would have to maneuver the money a bit, but Davis would still have potential for good value in terms of the lower draft capital they'd send to Tennessee.
Mike Williams, Chargers
Let's say this up front: if the Chargers are legitimately interested in courting Brady in free agency, then logically it makes no sense to trade what would be one of his most talented weapons to the team he'd be leaving. But if the Chargers' play is to target a quarterback in the draft and sign a cheaper veteran, then maybe the Patriots' No. 23 pick becomes an attractive asset.
Williams was low on efficiency in 2019. He caught 49 of 90 targets, just 54.4 percent. But he did lead the league with a whopping 20.4 yards per catch as the Chargers' big-play receiver to complement Keenan Allen. And Williams proved himself as a red zone threat with 10 touchdowns in 2018.
Clearly, the 6-foot-4 Williams has the potential to be a dynamic receiver at the top of a team's depth chart. He'd be a major factor in the Patriots' offense as currently constituted, and would help fix their recent red zone woes. The question is whether the Chargers would be willing to move on.
What Will The Patriots Do?
Assuming Brady really does value winning and weapons over getting the most money, Belichick would still have to improve the arsenal. Revisiting the strategy that brought him Cooks may be the right move.
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Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].