McLane: Cooks would fill big need for Birds

INDIANAPOLIS - If the Eagles were to trade for Brandin Cooks, they would be acquiring a wide receiver they first coveted three years ago at the draft and privately since the Saints leapfrogged them for the then-Oregon State prospect.

In fact, the Eagles tried to deal for Cooks before last season's trade deadline, NFL sources said. That courtship has continued this offseason. The Eagles have been identified as being interested in trading for the 23-year-old receiver, according to ESPN and other media outlets.

Shortly after that Thursday report, coach Sean Payton confirmed to his team's web site that the Saints had been approached. While he said that Cooks wasn't "on the trade block," Payton's acknowledgement of interested parties and his subsequent mentioning of compensation suggested that the receiver is actually available - for the right price.

"Certainly when a team calls, a team that's looking for a receiver - and we're looking to improve our defense - we're always listening," Payton said. "We think the world of him and his skill set. [Compensation] would have to be something real significant."

In other words, make us your best offer. The early leak - a trade couldn't be official until the start of the new league year Thursday - could drive the cost up for the Eagles. The Titans, who own two first- round draft picks but no second-rounder, are also reportedly in the mix for Cooks.

But the Eagles, who have a draft pick in every round and two in the fourth, should have enough to outbid Tennessee, especially if they include players such as Mychal Kendricks and/or Connor Barwin for the defense-needy Saints. A second-rounder, a third-day pick, and a player(s) could get it done.

Such a trade would almost seem too good to be true. Cooks would address the Eagles' desperate need for receiver help, and they would be getting a young, ascending No.-1- caliber talent who could potentially grow with 24-year-old quarterback Carson Wentz.

So why would the Saints part with their former first-round pick after two consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons? There is a narrative that Cooks began to grease his eventual departure when he publicly griped about the zero targets he received in New Orleans' 49-21 win over the Rams on Nov. 27.

"Closed mouths don't get fed," Cooks said after the game.

He also noted that the offense performed well without him and that as a competitor he just wanted to be more involved - showing he was not quite the diva some had portrayed him to be after his comments. But it had been known around the league for some time that Cooks wasn't pleased, as rookie Michael Thomas had become more the focal point of the passing offense.

Over the nine-game span that ended with the Rams victory, Thomas was targeted 73 times to Cooks' 57. If the Saints have identified the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Thomas as their future No. 1 receiver, how would a lesser role go over for Cooks, who has one year left on his rookie contract?

The Saints actually have three rising young receivers, if you include 24-year-old Willie Snead, and at some point all three are likely going have to be paid. Getting something for Cooks now would help New Orleans avoid overallocating at a position it long has felt benefited from Payton's high-octane, Drew Brees-led offense.

Still, Cooks' production makes it hard to argue that he is overrated. As a rookie, he caught 53 passes for 550 yards (10.4 average) and three touchdowns. In 2015, he elevated his game and finished with 84 catches for 1,138 yards (13.5 avg.) and nine touchdowns. And last season, as he lined up more on the outside, Cooks hauled in 78 passes for 1,173 yards (15.0 avg.) and eight touchdowns.

The Eagles would likely work out a contract extension with Cooks as part of the trade, but he makes only $1.65 million in 2017. If they couldn't agree on a new deal, the Eagles could pick up a fifth-year option worth $10 million in 2018.

If Howie Roseman can pull off this trade, it would almost be as if the Eagles and Cooks had come full circle after the then-general manager narrowly missed drafting the receiver. The Eagles had identified eight prospects they were willing to take with the 22d overall pick, and if none was available, they would trade back.

Cooks was one, but the Saints traded up to No. 20 and drafted him. The Eagles then moved back four spots and selected edge rusher Marcus Smith. After the draft, then-coach Chip Kelly confirmed that Cooks was on the Eagles' radar, despite his relatively small stature.

"We want to be bigger at the receiver position, but you would be crazy if you looked at Brandin Cooks and said we're not going to take him because he's 5-9," Kelly said then. "He's also a rocked-up 190 some-odd pounds and a physical player."

He also runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash and would be the vertical threat the Eagles have lacked since DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin left. But Cooks is versatile and would give coach Doug Pederson an underneath weapon to utilize in his multifaceted offense.

"This is a pass league and you need guys that can get open, whether that's a 6-foot-3 guy, a 5-foot-10 guy," Pederson said Wednesday at the NFL combine. "They all come in different shapes and sizes. . . . I don't necessarily look at size as much as I do how do they fit into our scheme."

There are, of course, options in free agency if the Cooks trade falls through. But the market will be steep for Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Terrelle Pryor, Kenny Stills, and Kenny Britt. The Eagles, though, are committed to upgrading at a position that bedeviled them in 2016.

"We need better production obviously out of that spot," Pederson said.

Jordan Matthews will return in the slot, and ideally as the Eagles' No. 2 receiving option, but Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham will be on short leashes, especially the latter, who would cost nothing against the salary cap to release.

"This offseason will be big for him," Pederson said.

As it is for the Eagles, who would go a long way toward addressing their needs if they could acquire Cooks. It might also lessen some of the sting from the forgettable 2014 draft.

jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane