New England

With Cooks and Amendola Gone, What's the Patriots' Pass Catching Plan?

With Tuesday's trade of wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the Rams and Danny Amendola's earlier departure to the Dolphins, what does this mean for the Patriots passing game?

Cooks was good and at times great with the Patriots in 2017, catching 65 passes for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns. It was the third-straight season Cooks eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark and he averaged a career-high 16.6 yards per catch – good enough for seventh in the NFL.

He teamed up with Rob Gronkowski to become the first Patriots teammates to surpass 1,000 yards receiving in the same season since 2011, when Gronk and Wes Welker accomplished the feat together.

The Patriots receivers are still a deep group – even with Amendola’s defection to the Miami Dolphins. Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell and Phillip Dorsett are still on the roster, as are Riley McCarron and Cody Hollister – practice squad players a season ago.

Nearly every player comes with question marks at this juncture, however, and that’s before even getting into Gronkowski’s status as a pass catcher. Hogan is about as close to a sure thing as it gets, but his contract is set to expire at season’s end.

Neither Edelman nor Mitchell played a snap of football in the 2017 regular season, and Edelman will be 32 in May. In 2016, Mitchell had the best rookie season by a wide receiver in the Patriots’ offense by almost any metric since Deion Branch in 2002. Will durability issues deprive him of developing the same way Branch once did?

Patterson, acquired from the Oakland Raiders on March 18, has never played with a quarterback with a fraction of the credentials of Tom Brady. Can he develop into anything more than an electrifying return man as he enters his sixth season in the league? Dorsett never quite gelled during his first season in Foxboro, catching only 12 passes for 194 yards after coming over just prior to the beginning of the regular season. Ditto for Britt, who granted didn’t show up until Dec. 13. Nonetheless, he only caught two passes in the regular season and was inactive for all three playoff games.

Trading Cooks now seemingly has more to do with his pending status as a free agent at season’s end than it does his production in New England. It feels odd to take away a valuable weapon from a quarterback that will be 41 years old during training camp, but the trade of Cooks is intertwined with the status of his contemporaries from the first round of the 2014 draft.

Sammy Watkins, for example, signed a three-year, $48 million contract ($30 million guaranteed) with the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason. Watkins, the No. 4 overall pick by the Buffalo Bills that year, was drafted 16 slots ahead of Cooks. And yet Cooks has 88 more catches and 891 more yards in his career than Watkins, whom Cooks is essentially replacing in Los Angeles after Watkins spent one pedestrian season there (39 catches, 593 yards, eight touchdowns in 15 games).

Mike Evans, the seventh overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has registered four straight seasons of more than 1,000 yards receiving to begin his career. For his efforts, Tampa gave him a five-year, $82.5 million contract extension with more than $55 million guaranteed.

And then there’s Odell Beckham Jr., who may or may not be on the move from the New York Giants. The No. 12 overall pick in 2014, Beckham caught at least 91 passes, amassed at least 1,305 yards receiving and scored at least 10 touchdowns in each of his first three seasons before injuries limited him to just four games last year. No player in NFL history began their career with three straight seasons of 90-1,300-10.

What if the trade of Cooks for additional draft capital this year is a precursor for a deal with the Giants for Beckham, who has one season left on his rookie contract but wants to be paid accordingly once he hits free agency? As fun as a scenario as that would be, a de facto swap of Cooks for Beckham puts the Patriots in the exact same position they would have been with Cooks: one year away from needing to break the bank at a position the team has historically shied away from doing so.

If Cooks is a very good player, Beckham is a great player. The ceiling of New England’s offense in 2018 would be higher with Beckham than with Cooks, assuming Gronkowski is back.

Which is exactly why Beckham-to-New England feels like a long shot. The Patriots should still be able to manage along the outside sans Cooks, but losing Gronkowski would be a devastating blow. It still feels as though a new contract to placate perhaps the greatest tight end to ever play the game is the best way to ensure that happens. New England freed itself of nearly $8.5 million against the cap by trading Cooks. That money will be used somewhere, and what better way to use it than on not only Gronkowski, but perhaps Brady himself.

After the Cooks trade, the Patriots have two first-round picks, two second-round picks and a third-round pick in this April’s draft. Holding onto those picks and trying to replenish the roster that way feels like a no-brainer after drafting only four players total a season ago.

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