After a flurry of offseason moves, the Rams begin the season with a remade roster that features newcomers in cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and receiver Brandin Cooks. Here is the behind-the-scenes story of how each was acquired, in the voices of the people involved. Part 4: Cooks.
April 3, Rams acquire Brandin Cooks and a 2018 fourth-round draft pick from the New England Patriots for a first-round pick and a sixth-round pick.
Coach Sean McVay: Your interest in potentially acquiring him goes back to last year , when you realize the Saints, I don’t know if they were shopping him, but you knew that you could potentially acquire him.
General manager Les Snead: It started at the [2017 NFL scouting] combine [in Indianapolis]. It was Sean’s first combine and we were at this point where we were flirting with New Orleans about [Rams cornerback] Trumaine [Johnson]. And it started with us trying to grab Cooks. Then New England beat us for Cooks.
VP of football and business administration Tony Pastoors: It was someone we explored prior to [trading with the Buffalo Bills for receiver] Sammy [Watkins].
Executive VP of football operations Kevin Demoff: Sammy was a big piece of our division championship team.
Pastoors: When we found out that he was going to leave in free agency [to sign a $48-million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs], it was “OK, let’s go on to what’s next.” First, in this draft, is there someone we can get at No. 23? Is there anyone in free agency?
Snead: I called the Patriots about Cooks probably the night that Sammy agreed to go to Kansas City [March 13].
McVay: When you end up losing Sammy, you’ve got some other avenues. You feel good about the guys in-house. But then when a player like [Cooks] is potentially available, and you look at the production he’s had playing in two different systems, and hearing the things you hear about the way he goes about his business, it was something we really felt good about if we were able to get it done.
Snead: It was really the only call I made because we needed a vertical threat. There’s a lot of good receivers out there. But in Sean’s orchestra we needed a certain instrument, and he fit. … With it being on his last year [in his contract] it might be viable.
Pastoors: You knew that number [$8.5 million] and how it would fit.
Snead: From [the Patriots’] standpoint, I don’t think it was something they were going to do right away. It probably kept us knocking on the door a little bit.
Demoff: After [receivers] Mike Evans [$82.5 million], Sammy Watkins [$48 million] and Allen Robinson [$42 million] signed [extensions or contracts with other teams], I think the Patriots’ calculus changed from “absolutely not” to “maybe” — based on some of those deals that came down and projecting what the price tag would be for Brandon if they were going to re-sign him.
Snead: When Sean went to Georgia for a clinic [that Patriots coach Bill Belichick also would be attending] it had tipped to where, “OK, maybe something could get done.” It had tipped to the stage of, “OK, this is a possibility.”
McVay: [At the clinic] it was really more of an exchange with coach Belichick of, “How you doing?” It was very quick because he was going somewhere after he finished speaking.
Snead: I had told Sean, “Y’all don’t just go talk football at the clinic. Make sure you get this thing pushed over the edge.”
McVay: We [McVay and Belichick] got a chance to connect and really talk on the phone and then we were able to kind of just go back and forth. It was pretty fun because you have so much respect and admiration for him as a coach.
Brandin Cooks: It’s one of those things until it gets serious, real serious, like a huge possibility, typically you don’t know about it because it might fall through.
Snead: The parameters of the deal were stuck between [Patriots director of player personnel] Nick [Caserio] and I. The closing of it, because Sean and Bill had struck up a relationship, I thought it was fitting they go close that deal. Let Sean get a little taste.
Demoff: The only fear you had, with Sean being the negotiator over a player he coveted, was that the Patriots were going to walk away with your next four first-round picks [laughing]. ... That was our fear. We didn’t tell Sean that he could sign the trade papers. He could negotiate the deal but he couldn’t sign the trade papers.
McVay: I wouldn’t say it was nerve-wracking. It was exciting.
Snead: He really just walked down the hall [to make the final call]. I told him, “OK, you’re going to talk to coach Belichick. We’d like to get it done for this but we know it’s going to take this.” The only thing we laughed about was the sixth-rounder we threw in there. There’s no way we’re telling coach Belichick we’re not [getting this done] because of a sixth-round pick, so just go ahead and give it to him.
McVay: It’s one of those moments where I think you feel so fortunate and blessed to be in this role. I am a fan of coaching, so when you get a chance to interact with coach Belichick, it was a pretty cool experience.
Cooks: It’s not like I found out on Twitter or something, which, you know, is huge. It seems so small but a lot of guys find out different ways. But such respect for coach Belichick for calling me. He didn’t have to do that, so I would say it was a couple hours, a little more than that, before it actually broke.
Snead: As soon as you get Cooks done, there is an element of relief. … Getting the veteran we initially sought, it takes a little bit of pressure off of the draft.
Pastoors: To complicate things, we were simultaneously working on finalizing Ndamukong Suh. So we had a lot of cap space and we suddenly have no cap space. You never want to say you can’t make it work because you can always make it work. It’s just, “OK, what are we willing to do? How do we actually do it?” For us that was parting ways with [cornerback] Kayvon [Webster].
Snead: The NFL’s a business … you don’t want to go through that. You have to do it sometimes and that’s what we had to do.
McVay: These are always tough decisions but ones that sometimes you have to be able to make.
Pastoors: That cleared some space. And then, the other thing to give us a little bit of breathing room … was going to the guy with the longest contract in the building, [punter] Johnny Hekker. He’s a captain for a reason. Just a call to his agent, “Hey I think we might be in a position where we might need to create some cap space. Would Johnny be willing to work with us and convert salary to signing bonus?” He said, “I’ll call Johnny, but I think we both know the answer to this if that helps you guys.”
Punter Johnny Hekker: I was at home and I got a call from my agent at about 8 o’clock at night. It sent me into a little bit of panic, but as soon as I picked up he reassured me it was for a good reason. He kind of told me what the intentions of the team were with the money freed up. It was really kind of a no-brainer.
Pastoors: It created enough space to get us to where we need to be to make all the corresponding moves and get everybody in and under the cap.
Snead: When [the offseason] was all said and done, we were like, “OK, we accomplished what we set out to do.” The sketch was, “Here’s what we need to do at certain positions,” but at no point were all of those names [on the list]. Because Brandin Cooks was a New England Patriot, Marcus Peters was a Kansas City Chief, Aqib Talib was a Denver Bronco, Ndamukong Suh was a Miami Dolphin. When you look back, I don’t think we could have ever predicted we’d end up with these players.
Demoff: With Sean and Les and Tony and, certainly [owner] Stan [Kroenke’s] mind-set, we’re never done. … You’re always looking at the big picture. As long as we keep doing that, you’re going to throw yourself into lots of different situations. I don’t think this team is ever done.