Brandin Cooks broke into his route, cutting sharply as he broke free for another long reception. After hauling in a pass from Houston Texans starting quarterback Davis Mills, the veteran wide receiver smiled during an organized team activity Tuesday morning.
Months after signing a two-year, $39.6 million contract that averages $19.8 million annually and includes $36 million guaranteed, Cooks held his son, Maverik, while reflecting on his decision to remain with a rebuilding franchise led by general manager Nick Caserio and head coach Lovie Smith instead of lobbying for a trade.
"It was huge, not just for my family and I, but believing in what this organization is trying to get done and what Nick and coach Lovie are building," Cooks said Tuesday in his first comments since signing his contract in April. "It's definitely a blessing. I'm glad we can put that behind us and get back to work."
Cooks' return provides a boost to the Texans' offense. For a team coming off a 4-13 season, he represents one of Houston's most accomplished and reliable players. He caught a team-high 90 passes for 1,037 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Cooks has recorded 171 receptions for 2,187 yards and 12 touchdowns in two seasons since the Texans acquired him from the Rams. The former New Orleans Saints first-round draft pick has caught 573 career passes for 7,917 yards and 46 touchdowns.
"Brandin's one of our best players, he produces," Smith said. "He's also one of our best leaders. He does it the right way, practices hard, reps our organization on and off the field the way you want him to. He says a lot that surprises me. That's who he's been all his life. He's that guy that I lean on quite a bit and the rest of our team does."
Cooks had been the subject of trade rumors this offseason, which was nothing new to a player who's been traded three times previously.
He was traded from New Orleans to the New England Patriots in 2017 (along with a fourth-round pick) in exchange for a first-round pick and a third-round pick. Then, the Patriots sent Cooks and a fourth-round selection to the Rams for first- and sixth-round choices. Finally, the Texans traded a second-round pick in exchange for Cooks and a fourth-rounder two years ago.
Now, he'll remain in Houston for the foreseeable future. One of the biggest reasons that Cooks wanted to stay with the Texans? Mills.
Cooks and Mills built timing and chemistry last season. Now, he wants to continue what they started.
"I just think his leadership and his confidence is really taking control in that huddle," Cooks said. "He's not that rookie anymore. He comes in, he knows that's his huddle, and that's what you look for in your quarterback and he's definitely doing that."
Even though this was a routine spring practice, Cooks attacked it with enthusiasm. He wanted to get some work in during the voluntary session. There's a level of excitement for Cooks and other players as they absorb new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's playbook.
"Times like this, being here, being able to get some of those live throws, and then summertime comes and be able to get the guys together and just keep that thing going before going into training camp," Cooks said. "As we all know, everything is just about reps.
"Pep, he is special and a great mind. I've got a lot of trust in him, and just trying to help him be right. We love going to work with him every day."
Having Cooks back for an extended amount of years allows Mills to have a dangerous, reliable downfield target to throw to and rely upon as the Texans try to upgrade their offense.
"That means a lot," Hamilton said. "I think that when you look at just the production that Brandin has been able to have over the last few seasons, but also over the course of his career, he brings a certain level of paranoia for our opponents.
"And that's going to open up the opportunity for us to balance out our attack. We have to improve our run game, but at the same time, we go out with the objection to score. We want to outscore the opponent every game we play."
Cooks has emerged as a team leader. The Houston chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America unanimously voted him the Texans' Most Valuable Player last season.
How does Cooks envision his role?
"To lead," he said. "Obviously, they look at me to be able to help lead in areas. If I'm not here, it's going to be hard. Obviously, there's been some time I'm away from my family, but when I can be here, I'm definitely going to be here to help lead and set that standard that we all are looking for for the season."
A year ago, the Texans restructured Cooks' five-year, $81 million contract, creating $7 million in salary-cap space. They paid him a $10 million signing bonus last year and added voidable years to the deal before reaching a lucrative pact this offseason to extend him.
Cooks took a hands-off approach to the negotiations between his agent and the Texans.
"I trust my agent, Ryan Tollner, to be able to do that," Cooks said. "I got full trust in him. For me, I just stay back and continue to work and let him handle that. I've got a lot of respect for the way that he does it and goes about his business. I'm blessed to be able to have great representation."
Cooks eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the sixth time in eight NFL seasons, making him the third player in franchise history to record consecutive 1,000-yard receiving campaigns and one of eight active NFL players with at least six 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
"Cookie is a special guy," Texans receivers coach and passing game coordinator Ben McDaniels said earlier this offseason. "He's a great pro. He's a special person. He's a leader in the receiver room. He's a leader in our locker room. He's a leader currently for the receiver room, a pretty young room, and really I would say, for all our young players, he really represents someone that they should watch and learn from.
"So, I'm grateful to be in the room with him. I enjoyed it a year ago getting to know him both as a person and as a player and have the utmost respect for what he has done and what he will continue to do."
Mills praised Cooks for being able to fill in for others when needed and explained how that had made such a positive impact on the offensive side of the ball.
"Cookie is reliable, and he can step in for somebody else at another position in the whole offense and execute somebody else's job if he has to get thrown into that spot," Mills said. "That kind of explains how he is for this team. Just extremely consistent and diligent in his work, and he's able to go out there, and he's played at a really high level at any position on the field receiver-wise because he knows the offense so well, can switch around spots.
"He's been great for this team, great for the offense, and I obviously love going and throwing to him out there because he's a true weapon. I don't think there's anyone on the other side of the ball who can stop him."
For a team still in transition after going a combined 8-25 over the past two seasons, Cooks struck an optimistic tone.
"Guys are bought in and believing in that message that coach Lovie is portraying," Cooks said. "He brings a lot of energy every day. I've got a lot of respect for him. He coached in this game for a long time, so we're all excited. As you can see, we're all excited and having fun. I think that speaks for itself for sure."
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and analyst and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.