Brandin Cooks’ emergence as the most dangerous wide receiver on the roster coincided with deep threat Will Fuller’s final fly pattern for the Texans.
When Fuller was suspended for six games for violating the NFL performance-enhancing drug policy, it interrupted a career-high season of 53 catches for 879 yards and eight touchdowns and it created a void in the offense that was primarily occupied by Cooks.
Because of Cooks’ elusiveness and 4.33 speed in the 40-yard dash, quarterback Deshaun Watson was able to connect with him on long spirals all over the field. The well-traveled wide receiver wound up catching 81 passes for 1,150 yards and six touchdowns on 119 targets.
Now, Fuller is with the Miami Dolphins after signing a one-year, $10.6 million free agent deal and transporting his rare speed to South Florida. Watson is dealing with 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct in the wake of his standing trade request. And the Texans will lean heavily on Cooks to provide explosiveness at the position for new veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor and, perhaps in the future, rookie Davis Mills.
“He’s a pro’s pro,” Texans coach David Culley said of Cooks, who's caught 483 career passes for 6,880 yards and 40 touchdowns. “He’s been in this league for a little while. He’s had success in this league. He’s a leader. He’s exactly what our football team needs moving forward.
“Looking forward to him not only being the kind of player that he’s been before, but even being better. Obviously, our young guys that are coming in here basically are going to learn how to do things quickly because he’s a pro’s pro.”
During the final three games of last season, Cooks caught a combined 24 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns. In the final game of a 4-12 season, in a loss to the Tennessee Titans, Cooks caught a season-high 11 passes for 161 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“For me, it’s one of those things that finishing strong and being able to show that just doing that game in and game out and having that confidence and letting the coaches know that’s just who I am,” Cooks said. “I ball when my number’s called and I’m going to be there for you, so let’s continue to do that. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to do it together with others around me and around one another. It’s not about myself, but it’s about all of us and what’s best for the team and just us going out there and trying to win games. How do we get that done, it doesn’t matter as long as we win.”
Replacing Fuller isn’t a one-man assignment. It will take more than Cooks, who’s embracing the mentoring of imposing rookie Nico Collins, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound third-round draft pick from Michigan who has 4.43 speed in the 40-yard dash.
The Texans also bring back Randall Cobb, who has recovered from a toe injury, and Keke Coutee. And they signed several wide receivers, including Chris Conley, Andre Roberts, Alex Erickson, Donte Moncrief, Chris Moore and Taywan Taylor.
“As we know, Will was an explosive player for us and I’m going to miss him, but at the end of the day, we’ve got guys that are going to be able to hopefully fill that void in Nico and Chris,” Cooks said. “I mean, I can go down the line. How I feel about Nico, I mean this guy doesn’t look like no rookie to me.
“You talk about a guy who’s out there that’s coachable and able to pick up things pretty fast. You love to see that from a young guy. The guy’s explosive, natural hands. I look forward to continuing to work with him and seeing him grow.”
A former Baltimore Ravens receivers coach, passing game coordinator and assistant head coach, Culley acknowledged that replacing Fuller is not a small thing. He expressed confidence in the receiving corps that Texans general manager Nick Caserio has assembled.
“Obviously, Will did a nice job for us the last year here,” Culley said. “That’s part of the business. This stuff happens. They move on and the next guy just steps up and we feel like with the group that we have here right now, that that production is here in our room. We feel like that same production will be there this year with the guys that we have.”
During the offseason, the Texans restructured Cooks’ five-year, $81 million contract that they acquired in a trade from the Los Angeles Rams.
They created $6.53 million in salary-cap space by paying Cooks a $10 million signing bonus, according to NFL Players Association documents. The Texans lowered Cooks' $12 million salary cap figure to $5.468 million with the $10 million signing bonus and he is due a fully guaranteed $2.5 million base salary in 2021.
They also added voidable years in 2023 and 2024 to spread out the impact of his signing bonus. The deal automatically voids if he's on the roster 15 days prior to the start of the 2023 league year, meaning he could become a free agent after the 2022 season when he’s due a $12.5 million base salary.
Beyond the contractual changes, Cooks is adapting to seismic change at the quarterback position. Watson is not expected to ever play for the Texans again due to his displeasure with the organization and his legal issues. A one-time Pro Bowl selection, Taylor is the designated QB1. Mills represents a potential future.
Cooks is concentrating on his job responsibilities: get open, catch the football and score touchdowns.
Cooks has grown accustomed to change and adapting to new quarterbacks. A former first-round draft pick from Oregon State, Cooks has previously been traded by the New Orleans Saints to the New England Patriots for first-round and third-round picks, to the Rams for a first-round pick and to the Texans for a second-round draft pick last offseason.
In his previous stops, Cooks caught passes from Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Jared Goff before building timing with Watson last season after a slow start. Now, it's time to get up to speed with Taylor.
“For me, it doesn’t matter who’s throwing me the ball,” Cooks said. “I’m going to get on the same page with you and figure out how you like things to be done. I put my spin on it and we’re going to go out there and ball. I think I’ve shown that time and time again over the years and whatever the case is, I’m going to continue to show that.”
Cooks has already seen some encouraging signs from Mills, a third-round draft pick from Stanford.
“You talk about a guy, right away getting in here, kid is smart,” Cooks said. “I mean, gosh, he went to Stanford. It doesn’t matter if you’re on scholarship or not, you’ve still got to go to school over there.
“He’s a smart kid, picking up the offense pretty fast. The guy can sling it and he’s confident and you love to see that from a young guy.”
Cooks grew weary of losing last season. Although the Texans have been projected for another losing record, football games aren’t played on paper. Cooks is determined to turn things around regardless of what’s being said.
“For me, every year is a new year,” Cooks said. “Obviously, last year didn’t go the way that we wanted to, but we turned that page, flipped the script and go back to work, put your head down and grind. You hope for better, but the only way that you can do that is just working harder, coming together as a team and I think that’s what we’re doing a great job of so far early in this offseason.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.