If there’s one thing Patriots head coach Bill Belichick appreciates as much as hard work and diced-up hooded sweatshirts, it’s consistency. He proved that Tuesday by agreeing to a trade that shipped 2017 offseason acquisitionBrandin Cooks and a fourth-round draft pick to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for first- and sixth-round selections.

Consider this:

Preseason 2006: Belichick trades Deion Branch, a fifth-year wide receiver coming off a 998-yard season and one year away from free agency for a first-round pick.

Offseason 2018: Belichick trades Brandin Cooks, a fifth-year wide receiver coming off a 1,082-yard season and one year away from free agency for a first-round pick.

In fact, this is somewhat of a pattern. The first move came in 2002 when he sent Terry Glenn to Green Bay after six seasons as a Patriot for the Packers’ fourth-rounder. In 2006, he dealt lightning-fast kick returner and occasional deep threat Bethel Johnson to the Saints for draft bust Johnathan Sullivan. Not even Randy Moss was safe once his on-field production began to decline and concerns about his expiring contract arose; he was traded to the Vikings for a third-round pick in 2010.

While the Patriots love young skill players on inexpensive contracts, they are loathe to pay them market value. There might have been more examples, except Belichick has rarely gotten good wide receivers on inexpensive rookie deals. Instead, we can search through a long list of New England deals that shipped established talent out of town either before a big raise was due or a contract standoff could ensue.

Notable Patriots traded for draft picks in the Belichick era

Year Player Years remaining on current contract Return
Year Player Years remaining on current contract Return
2018 Brandin Cooks, WR 1 1st, 6th round picks (Pats also shipped out a 4th)
2017 Jimmy Garoppopolo, QB 1 2nd
2016 Jamie Collins, LB 1 3rd
2016 Chandler Jones, DE/OLB 1 2nd
2014 Logan Mankins, OL 3 4th (and TE Tim Wright)
2010 Randy Moss, WR 1 3rd (Pats also shipped out a 7th)
2010 Laurence Maroney, RB 1 4th (Pats also shipped out a 6th)
2009 Richard Seymour, DE 1 1st
2006 Deion Branch, WR 1 1st
2002 Terry Glenn, WR 4 4th

Belichick is willing to pay for positions of need, but WR hasn’t been one of them

Cooks was expendable because New England’s motus operandi, save for a brief period in the Randy Moss era, has been to let Tom Brady elevate a deep group of wideouts rather than pay top dollar for depth chart-topping stars. In 2018, six WRs will make at least $1.5 million as Patriots, but none more than the $4.166 million due to Julian Edelman. In 2017, Danny Amendola made a shade over $3 million as the team’s highest-paid wide receiver. Those savings allowed the team to invest in tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has led the team in receptions in two of the last three seasons and is making an average of $9 million per year.

Since 2012, only one wide receiver on the roster made more than $5 million for a season’s work. That was Chris Hogan, whose $4.5 million roster bonus in 2016 was a contract quirk designed to pry him away from the Buffalo Bills. You’d have to go back to Wes Welker to find a player who was paid even a top 30 salary at the position.

Cooks was destined to break that streak. He was due a nearly $8.5 million salary this season after the Pats exercised the fifth-year option on his rookie contract shortly after acquiring him from the Saints. He’s only going to get more expensive from there. He recorded his third straight 1,000-yard season and proved himself a bonafide deep threat by averaging a career-high 16.6 yards per catch in his lone season as a Patriot. At just 24 years old, he still had the potential to improve, as well. That combination of potential and production makes him a candidate for an upper crust deal next offseason — something between the lines of the three-year, $42 million deal Allen Robinson signed with the Bears and the three-year, $48 million pact Sammy Watkins agreed to with the Chiefs.

Ultimately, the Patriots didn’t think he was worth that kind of investment.

One more note on Brandin Cooks: #Rams are getting an incredibly productive WR who Sean McVay has coveted. But #Patriots didn’t see him as a true No. 1 for them… and from what I understand, Tom Brady is not sad about this move. Despite his numbers, Cooks wasn’t a great fit.

— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 4, 2018

Brady has typically been able to elevate his cast of receivers, and New England still has a deep group of targets even with Cooks gone. Aside from All-Pro Gronkowski, the Patriots’ depth chart includes players like Edelman, Hogan, former Colts first-round pick Philip Dorsett, Malcolm Mitchell, Kenny Britt, and Cordarelle Patterson. Former Eagles’ top wideout Jordan Matthews was also seen visiting the club one day before Cooks was traded and could be the team’s next free agent signee. Pass-catching tailbacks like James White and Rex Burkhead also share the load.

Though the trade is a risk, it’s one the Patriots are equipped to handle. Especially if Mitchell can regain his Super Bowl 51 form and young vets like Dorsett, Britt, and Patterson can improve in their first full offseasons with the franchise.

Past results suggest the Patriots are right not to overpay Brady’s top targets — but Cooks is different

First things first; at face value, this deal is a victory for Belichick.

2017: Patriots trade the 32nd and 103rd picks to the Saints for Cooks and the 118th pick of that year’s draft.

2018: Patriots trade Cooks and the 136th pick to the Rams for the 23rd and 198th picks of this year’s draft.

In this exchange, the Patriots got one year of a game-breaking deep threat — in a season where leading WR Julian Edelman was lost to a torn ACL, no less — AND what Jimmy Johnson’s draft pick trade chart lays out as the equivalent of an extra early fourth-round, all for the burden of rostering Cooks for a season. The move also traded the young athlete before his salary was set to increase from approximately $1.5 million to just under $8.5 million.

But the history of New England’s wideouts and their failure to transfer their production to new teams may provide deeper insight into why the Pats weren’t likely to pay Cooks in 2018 or beyond. Targets like Branch, David Givens, Reche Caldwell, David Patten, and even Moss failed to live up to their New England standard once removed from Brady’s influence. That track record made it easier for Belichick to walk away after watching the Dolphins offer Danny Amendola two years and $12 million earlier this offseason.

Cooks, however, had already established himself as a dynamic young talent before even coming to Foxborough. He’d recorded back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons in 2015 and 2016 while teaming with another Hall of Fame passer, Drew Brees. His topline production actually decreased with the Patriots.

Now he’s going to team where he’ll be another weapon in an arsenal stockpiled with them. The speedy deep threat will fill Watkins’ vacated role in Los Angeles, teaming with Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods to give the Rams a dynamic triumvirate of receivers to support budding quarterback Jared Goff. They’ll spread opposing secondaries thin, and tailback Todd Gurley has the chops to prevent teams from delivering additional air support by clogging the secondary with defensive backs.

That could make this a win-win trade for both sides. The Rams got the receiver that could take them from NFC West champions to plain NFC champs. The Patriots held tight to the protocol that brought them five Super Bowl rings while earning additional draft capital in the process. There’s a lot to like here — even if it was the most Belichickian of Belichick moves.

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