Quick, pop quiz!
Name the sophomore wideout who averaged roughly 8.5 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues last season despite limited time, but following the departures of two of his team’s top offensive weapons now has the chance to lead his team in targets, receptions, and yards in 2015?
If you said Jordan Matthews, you would be correct.
And if you said Brandin Cooks, you would also be correct.
With both players generating a ton of buzz this offseason and with nearly identical rookie season outputs and sophomore year potential, both wideouts are going right after the other in fantasy football drafts.
And because of this, the question on everyone’s mind is, which wide receiver is the one to own for 2015?
The Argument for Jordan Matthews
How good was Jordan Matthews in his rookie season with Philadelphia?
In limited playing time last season (he was on the field for just 65.0% of his team’s snaps in 2014) only three rookie wideouts — Odell Beckham, Jr.(204.0), Mike Evans (177.1), and Kelvin Benjamin (152.8) — finished the season with more fantasy points than him.
As a member of perhaps one of the best rookie wide receiver classes of all time, when it was all said and done, Matthews tallied 67 receptions for 872 yards and 8 touchdowns on the year. Not too shabby for someone who had to compete with Jeremy Maclin for targets.
Now, with Maclin in Kansas City, all eyes are on Matthews to step up to fill the void and have a huge sophomore season in 2015.
A lot of Matthews’ success in the NFL so far has come as a result of him lining up at the slot position, where he has used his large 6’3″ frame to feast on undersized nickel corners. In fact, 92.4% of his routes came from the slot last season.
And once the ball was in his hands, there was little opposing defenders could do. As I wrote about in an article earlier this season, despite ranking 32nd in receptions with 67 last season, Matthews ranked 15th in the league in yards after catch with an impressive 416 yards — good for a 6.2 yards after catch average.
It therefore makes sense that all signs from Chip Kelly point to Matthews staying in his slot receiver role this upcoming season to take advantage of the same mismatches that has made Marques Colston — a similarly oversized slot receiver — a household name. What’s even more encouraging is that reports from OTAs suggest the team will also roll Matthews to the outside in red zone packages to take advantage of his size near the goal line.
While Matthews would rather work his tail off behind the scenes and let his play do all the talking, the praise for him this offseason has been constant with Jimmy Kempski from the Philly Voice saying Matthews has dominated in practice and has star potential written all over him.
Slotted to be the number-one target on an offense that’s expected to run a ton of plays, and with the physical advantages Matthews will have over opposing defenders at the slot position, everything is coming together for the Eagles wideout to have a breakout sophomore season.
The Argument for Brandin Cooks
Prior to the thumb injury Cooks suffered in Week 11 that shelved him for the remainder of the season, the Saints rookie wideout was on pace for an 85-reception, 880-yard, 5-touchdown season. This would have been good for 137.6 fantasy points, which would have just edged out the aforementioned Matthews to rank Cooks as the fourth highest scoring rookie receiver in 2015.
Rather than showing signs of slowing down, it seemed as if Cooks was just hitting his stride before the premature end to his season. Over his last four games as a rookie between Weeks 8-11, Cooks tallied 19 receptions, 272 yards, and 2 touchdowns on just 25 targets and topped 90 yards receiving twice during this time span.
Yet, for how good Cooks was over his first year in the NFL, everything looks even more promising for 2015.
With two of the Saints’ top three target leaders from last season — Jimmy Graham (125) and Kenny Stills (83) — traded to new teams earlier this year, Cooks has a prime opportunity to become Drew Brees’ top target this season.
To ensure this occurs, Cooks has already put in extra work this offseason, working out with Brees at his home in San Diego to build on the chemistry they established last year. Cooks has mentioned how this has already begun to pay dividends in camp saying: “(There have been) incidents in camp that I may line up and he may give me this look, and he won’t give me any type of signal, but I see what he’s seeing and we end up being on the same page.”
A testament to his intense work ethic, Cooks is looking to step onto the field a better athlete than he was in his rookie year, aggressively rehabbing his surgically repaired thumb and attacking the weight room. Despite already posting an amazing 4.33 40-yard dash time and the best 20-yard (3.81 seconds) and 60-yard (10.72 seconds) shuttle times in this decade, reports suggest Cooks will be in even better shape for 2015.
Cooks dominated in head coach Sean Payton’s CrossFit-inspired conditioning tests, with Payton calling his performance “outstanding” and dynamic running back C.J. Spiller admitting that he was “shown up” by Cooks in these drills. And given Spiller’s reputation for being an athletic freak himself, Cooks ability to outperform the former Bills’ Pro Bowler is no small feat.
From all this it’s clear that when the Saints call Cooks number this upcoming season, Cooks will be more than ready to put on a show.
Who Wins Head-to-Head?
If you’re looking for clarity in the Matthews versus Cooks debate by taking a peek at Matthews’ and Cooks’ rookie year numbers, good luck.
On the surface, both players were indistinguishable from one another.
Matthews averaged 4.2 receptions for 55 yards per game over 16 games, whereas Cooks averaged 5.3 receptions for 54.5 yards per game over his 10-game rookie stint.
And when we look at their numbers on a game-to-game basis to spot which player was more consistent than the other, we see that in terms of fantasy points and receptions, both players displayed similar ups and downs expected of a top-tier rookie wideout.
Yet, despite all this, when we take a deeper look we find that there are aspects of each player’s game and situation where one outshines the other.
Where Matthews Wins
Statistically-speaking, Matthews and Cooks were practically twins in their rookie seasons.
But when you look at their physical attributes and compare them head-to-head, it’s a whole different ball game.
At 6′ 3″ and 212 pounds with 10 3/8-inch hands, Matthews is pretty much a more agile Marques Colston.
As for Brandin Cooks?
Standing at 5′ 10″ and 189 pounds with 9 5/8-inch hands, there’s a reason Cooks recently sought out the advice of another undersized player that’s played the position with a chip on his shoulder in Steve Smith.
Despite both playing the slot position — which has led to fairly similar, but modest average depth of target numbers for Matthews (9.2 yards) and Cooks (8.5 yards) — this size discrepancy has led to advantages for Matthews in terms of yards-per-catch numbers. In this regard, Matthews’ average yards per reception of 13.0 trumps Cooks’ 10.3 by a decent margin.
This is thanks in large part to Matthews’ ability to shed tacklers once the ball is in his hands, with his superior yards after catch average of 6.2 per reception nearly doubling Cooks’ 3.2 figure.
Beyond this, this size advantage also bears out in the red zone. Matthews converted 16 red zone targets into 10 receptions and 6 touchdowns on the season whereas Cooks managed just 4 receptions and a lone touchdown on his 7 red zone targets.
All this has led to greater efficiency for Matthews as measured by our Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target. For those unfamiliar, NEP measures a player’s contributions to his team’s chances of winning above or below expectation. If he improves his team’s chances of scoring, he receivers a positive mark, and vice-versa for the opposite. You can read more about it in our
On this note, Matthews 0.77 Reception NEP per target was not only superior to Cooks’ 0.60, but whereas Cooks numbers were comparable to the likes of Harry Douglas (0.61) and Travis Benjamin (0.61), Matthews figure puts him in the same neighborhood as Jeremy Maclin (0.78) and Demaryius Thomas.
When you’re looking for a top-tier wideout it doesn’t hurt to look at someone grouped in that latter group and it certainly helps to look at someone that’s proven they can do more with less, especially in the red zone.
Where Cooks Wins
An argument can be made that while Matthews may be superior to Cooks at the intrinsic level, the external factors influencing Cooks success beats out that of Matthews.
If you listen to Sigmund Bloom on the Footballguys.com podcast, the Audible, (and if you haven’t yet, you really should) you’ve heard him say that we shouldn’t consider wide receivers in isolation, but rather should look at them as quarterback-to-wideout pairs.
Well, folks, if this is your measuring stick, then it doesn’t get much better than Drew Brees-to-(insert your favorite receiver name here). In fact, Brees has had at least two wideouts hit 900-plus yards in each of the past four seasons — including 2012 where Marques Colston (1,154), Lance Moore(1,041), and Jimmy Graham (982) all easily cleared this mark.
And Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills’ departures have left over 200 targets up for grabs for next season. And while some expect the Saints to go a bit more run-heavy this year, these same people would do well to remember that Drew Brees has averaged 4,854 passing yards on 628 attempts over his 9-year career in New Orleans.
Given the aforementioned chemistry Cooks has built with Brees, there’s no better candidate for all those looks than the second year man out of Oregon State.
On the other hand, despite the departure of Maclin to Kansas City and Matthews being on what is likely to be the higher-volume offense overall, there are still quite a few mouths to feed in Philadelphia. The Eagles have replaced Maclin by drafting his clone in rookie wideout Nelson Agholorwhile also signing two Pro Bowl-caliber running backs in DeMarco Murrayand Ryan Mathews.
So with a clearer route to the lion’s share of his team’s targets, Cooks holds an advantage over Maclin from an opportunity and volume standpoint.
The Final Verdict
Head-to-head, we see that Matthews may hold a physical advantage over Cooks, which allows him to win in the yards-per-catch and red zone departments. But Cooks finds himself in the better situation with an easier path to targets in a depleted New Orleans offense.
But as our own Joe Redemann discovered recently, when it comes to top-tier talent, quality counts a bit more than quantity. With this in mind, an argument can be made that the advantage Cooks holds over Matthews in terms of having a bit less competition for targets in the Saints offense shifts to Matthews and his ability to do a bit more on a per target basis over Cooks.
So when taking everything into consideration — while it’s an extremely close race to call — if I were a betting man, then I’d put my money on Matthews to make good on his potential and emerge the second-year wideout to own in this two-man competition.