Rated R Miami

Opinion: As Rams’ retool continues with Brandin Cooks trade, Los Angeles could be in line for regression – USA TODAY

The Los Angeles Rams removed another once-crucial block from their foundation on Thursday, sending wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a future fourth-round pick to the Houston Texans in exchange for a 2020 second-round pick.

So continues the peculiar journey for Cooks, who despite topping the 1,000-yard mark four times in six years has now been traded three times, each time netting his former team rather handsome picks. The former Saints first-round selection has now been traded for two first-rounders (No. 32 overall from the Patriots in 2017 and No. 23 overall from the Rams in 2018) and now Houston’s second-rounder (57th). Cooks potentially could help fill the void created in the Texans’ passing game when the team shipped All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona last month.

For the Rams, however, so continues general manager Les Snead and coach Sean McVay’s aggressive retool following a season in which their team lost its hold on the NFC West.

The goal is to better equip their roster to compete in a fast-improving division. But Cooks joins Todd Gurley, Dante Fowler Jr., Cory Littleton, Greg Zuerlein and Nickell Robey-Coleman on a list of key contributors to the 2018 Rams squad that reached the Super Bowl who all departed this offseason. 

It feels like the Rams are working in reverse. In the present, they might be. Rebuilds, or whatever you want to call them, often feature difficult decisions that don’t produce immediate upgrades. The payoff may come down the road, but regression could come first.

But regression is what triggered this in the first place. 

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The Super Bowl hangover campaign in which Los Angeles went 9-7 and missed the playoffs coincided with dropoffs in production from numerous players, including Gurley and Cooks, two of the Rams’ most explosive weapons in 2018.

Gurley’s knee issues played a role in him rushing for a career-low 857 yards, and a pair of concussions (the third and fourth of his pro career) sidelined Cooks for two games during a campaign in which he registered a paltry 42 catches for 583 yards. 

The Rams parted with both while believing the decreased numbers represent the starts of downward trends for each player. The team’s willingness to incur a combined dead money hit of just more than $30 million to release Gurley and trade Cooks reflects their desperation to start fresh.

The pressure to remain competitive always weighs heavy in the NFL, but especially when opening a new stadium and still working furiously to win over a fickle fan base. Snead and McVay feel it. 

However, the exits of Gurley and now Cooks could wind up translating into even more pressure on quarterback Jared Goff. 

During his first two seasons under McVay, Goff thrived with Gurley serving as his do-everything security blanket. And Cooks’ addition to the offense in 2018 contributed to Goff’s career-best 4,688 passing yards and 33 touchdowns that season.

Just two years ago, Cooks and Robert Woods looked like the perfect wide receiver tandem, each eclipsing the 80 catches and 1,200 yards. 

But as Gurley’s effectiveness waned last season, so too did Goff’s. He threw for another 4,600 yards, but his completion percentage dipped (64.9% to 62.9%), interception total went up (12 to 16) and quarterback rating plunged (101.1 to 86.5). Woods posted another 1,000-yard season, and slot receiver Cooper Kupp, healthy again after an injury-shortened 2018 season, notched the first 1,000-yard, 10-TD season of his career. But neither pass-catcher boasts the top-end speed that rivals that of a healthy Cooks.

Now without the threat of either Gurley or Cooks, defenses may be able to focus even more intently on taking away Goff’s strengths.

It’s imperative, then, that Snead and McVay have a strong draft to help Goff, who already has struggled under pressure. 

The Rams have to find another speedster receiver to take the top off of defenses, as well as another well-rounded back with game-changing ability. 

Replacing Cooks could represent the easier task. His four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with three different teams reflect his talent. But he’s not considered an elite-level threat whose feats are impossible to replicate. Gurley’s skills will be harder to replace.

The Rams do, however, now have some flexibility when it comes to draft capital.  Houston’s second-round pick now gives the Rams two seconds, two third-rounders, a fourth, sixth and seventh. 

L.A. could now have the assets needed to move up into the first round to increase their chances of finding a top-flight difference-maker.

If successful in that regard, the Rams could look brilliant for moving on from these two offensive stars when they did. Ideally, the young replacements create immediate impacts. But growing pains are more likely, so with Gurley and Cooks and their fellow 2018 standouts now gone, 2020 could represent a step backward to ensure that the Rams get back to moving forward more quickly.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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