Brandin Cooks: The Texans’ Newest Target Hog? (Fantasy Football)

By The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson

As a collective, we’ve spent the better part of two off-seasons lambasting Houston’s HC/GM Bill O’Brien for his — let’s call them “interesting” — decisions. He doesn’t have draft picks for the next decade (figuratively speaking), and this off-season he traded away arguably the best player the franchise has ever had for — what amounted to — the second best D Johnson on the team, and a four-times-concussed-in-the-last-two-years wide receiver.

This isn’t a piece designed to rip O’Brien for poor decision-making. I want to talk about said four-times-concussed-in-the-last-two-years wide receiver — Brandin Cooks.

Cooks has only been in the league for six seasons and this will be his fourth team. At the rate his real estate agent is collecting commissions, you’d think Cooks was Terrell Owens doing sit-ups in his driveway for attention. But no, Cooks is just a receiver who, when healthy, produces. From 2015-2018, he never had a finish lower than WR16 (PPR, Weeks 1-16) and was twice a top 12 WR. As the chart below shows, Cooks never had fewer than 114 targets, 65 receptions, 1,082 yards, or five touchdowns.

YearTeamTargetsReceptionsYardsTouchdowns
2015NOS129841,1389
2016NOS117781,1738
2017NE114651,0827
2018LAR117801,2045

Cooks’ greatest skill has always been his speed and teams have used him in such fashion often. Over those same four years, he was top 11 in the NFL in receptions and yards on targets 20 or more yards downfield, per PFF. But if he were just a deep threat, he wouldn’t be getting paid like a number one receiver. Ranked eighth in the NFL among highest paid receivers, Cooks takes home $16.2 million per year. A closer look at his target shares over this same four year stretch proves that:

YearTeamTargetsTeam AttemptsTarget Share
2015NOS12966719.3%
2016NOS11767417.4%
2017NE11458719.4%
2018LAR11756820.6%

Aside from 2016, those numbers are indicative of a WR1. But just like in 2016, Cooks wasn’t the most targeted WR on his own team in 2018. That designation went to Rams teammate Robert Woods. This could actually help us understand why Cooks has moved around so much over the last four years.

When the Saints drafted Michael Thomas and he didn’t need a rookie learning curve, there was no need to pay Cooks like a WR1 so they traded him to NE, who needed help to offset the loss of Julian Edelman. Cooks helped the Patriots reach the Super Bowl, but a concussion knocked him out of the game. The return of Edelman the following year meant the team had no use for him. They then traded him to Los Angeles and the Rams featured him heavily due to their abundant use of 11 personnel. But that 2018 season also proved to be a bit of an outlier as Cooper Kupp missed half the season with a torn ACL. He came back productive in 2019 and teamed with Robert Woods to give the Rams a potent 1-2 punch. Cooks missed a couple games with two more documented concussions and saw himself on the outside looking in.

And then there was another trade.

(Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

The Fit in Houston

Brandin Cooks finds himself on a Texans team that usually has one play-making wide receiver and a bunch of scrubs. Since Bill O’Brien took over the team in 2014, the team’s WR1 has topped a 30% target share in four out of six seasons. 30 percent! And no, that’s not a typo.

YearWR1TargetsTeam AttemptsTarget Share
2014Andre Johnson14648530.1%
2015DeAndre Hopkins19261931.0%
2016DeAndre Hopkins15158325.9%
2017DeAndre Hopkins17452533.1%
2018DeAndre Hopkins16350632.2%
2019DeAndre Hopkins15053428.1%

Conversely, the WR2 on the team has only had one decent season — 2014 when DeAndre Hopkins outproduced Johnson.

YearWR2TargetsTeam AttemptsTarget Share
2014DeAndre Hopkins12748526.2%
2015Nate Washington9461915.2%
2016Will Fuller V9258315.8%
2017Bruce Ellington5752510.9%
2018Will Fuller V455068.9%
2019Will Fuller V7153413.3%

Seeing Will Fuller’s name up there is a nice segue.

The Watson-Fuller Connection

Over the last three seasons, we’ve seen some stat-sheet-stuffer games from these two. Deshaun Watson’s arm combined with Fuller’s track speed is something to behold. Just look at the first four games the two played together in 2017:

WkOppTargetsRecYardsTDsFPTSFinish
4TEN6435219.9WR6
5KC3257220.2WR8
6CLE5262114.2WR21
8@ SEA85125229.5WR3

From Weeks 4-8 in 2017, Fuller was WR3 (teammate Hopkins was WR1, for what it’s worth). After Watson’s ACL tear against Seattle, the Texans dovetailed and Fuller’s production fell off the map — no touchdowns and never above 44 yards receiving in any game.

Fast forward to 2018 and Fuller started the season hot. He missed Week 1, but from Weeks 2-8, he was WR14 (Hopkins was WR2). Fuller eventually tore his ACL and missed the remainder of the season.

The first season back from an ACL tear is always up or down. Some players bounce back quickly (Kupp, Adrian Peterson, Watson, etc.) but others take some time to get back into game shape. Fuller played the first seven weeks of 2019 before missing three games prior to Week 12 (he also missed Weeks 14 and 17). From Weeks 1-7, Fuller was WR17. (Side note: 53.7 of his 97.0 fantasy points came in Week 5.) From Week 12 to season’s end, he was WR56 on a points per game basis.

If you need further reason to get hyped about Fuller as the Texans WR to draft, here are some of his biggest games over the last two years:

YrWkOppTargetsRecYardsTDsFPTSFinish
20182@ TEN98113125.3WR6
20183NYG115101121.1WR10
20188MIA65124123.4WR9
20195ATL1614217353.7WR1
201912IND117140021.0WR10

Deshaun Watson and Will Fuller V may have a preexisting rapport, but Fuller’s unreliability could open a door for Cooks to usurp the WR1 role. (photo from https://houseofhouston.com/)

So who’s the WR1 in Houston?

Watson and Fuller have a preexisting connection, but availability has been an issue. Fuller averages 10.5 games played a season. Fuller averages 6.14 targets per game. If, and this is a HUGE IF, he can play a full 16 games, that would extrapolate to only 98 targets in a season, right on par with Fuller’s career high in a season and pretty typical of WR2s in Bill O’Brien’s offenses (when the WR2 isn’t always hurt, I should add).

Cooks on the other hand, averages 7.02 targets per game, which over a full season, comes out to 112 targets. That’s on the low end for a Bill O’Brien offense, but Watson isn’t a 600 pass attempts per season quarterback due to his ability as a rusher. At only 535 attempts, 112 targets would represent a 20.9% target share, right in line with what Cooks has done throughout his career.

If you’re worried about the pass-catching running backs stealing targets, don’t be. RBs have never accumulated more than an 18.4% collective target share in a Bill O’Brien offense. I’m not convinced that just because two quality options exist that O’Brien will suddenly deviate from history. However, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he abandons the TE position in favor of RB targets.

Conclusion

Both Cooks and Fuller have near identical ADPs — WR35 and WR36, respectively, according to FantasyPros — so it boils down to personal preference. The injury risk is baked into both of their ADPs, but for me, I’m taking the guy who has a longer track record of NFL production (Cooks) over the glorified deep threat with cantankerous hamstrings and suspect hands — Fuller has a career 60.5% catch percentage and six dropped passes on targets 20+ yards downfield just last year.