Think about the top wide receivers in the NFL.
DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones, obviously. Michael Thomas and Mike Evans, no doubt. Antonio Brown and Tyreek Hill, even with the off-field questions. Odell Beckham Jr., A.J. Green, T.Y. Hilton, Davante Adams, Adam Thielen, Keenan Allen and JuJu Smith-Schuster often enter the conversation as well.
But what about the forgotten man? Someone who's played in back-to-back Super Bowls, eclipsed 1,000 yards in four straight seasons and has twice been traded for a first-round pick?
What about Brandin Cooks?
He's one of just four players with an active four-year streak of 1,000-plus yards, along with Brown, Jones and Evans. Among those players, Cooks is the only one to accomplish such a streak despite playing for multiple teams. Since 1990, of the 35 players with at least four straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, Cooks is one of just two players to play for three different teams during the streak, along with Brandon Marshall, who had seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for the Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears from 2007 to 2013.
Since Cooks entered the NFL in 2014, he ranks fifth among receivers in Pro Football Reference's approximate value statistic with a total of 51, behind Jones (74), Brown (70), Hilton (54) and Hopkins (52). The 5'10", 183-pounder is also ahead of all three receivers drafted before him at No. 20 in 2014: Sammy Watkins (33), Evans (46) and Beckham (45), as well as second-round pick Jarvis Landry (40).
Somehow, though, Cooks has become a forgotten man among the league's elite receivers. He's never made an All-Pro team or a Pro Bowl. He's never even been on the NFL's Top 100 Players list.
Everybody wants to be appreciated, but perhaps Cooks is the receiver best equipped to handle being overlooked.
All the early-morning film sessions and late-night workouts in college, when he'd skip parties to run in the sand, prepared him for the NFL, but as was the case in Corvallis, Oregon, he doesn't need accolades to prove his value.
"He never feels like he has to kind of promote himself ahead of the team," says Sean Mannion, Cooks' quarterback at Oregon State and his teammate with the Los Angeles Rams last season.
During the offseason, Cooks spoke with close friend and college teammate James Rodgers about the upcoming season.
"I told him before this year, 'Maybe we should set some goals,' and he said, 'No, because that's me putting myself before the team,'" Rodgers says. "Those were his exact words: 'I don't want to be worried about personal goals when it's a team sport.'"
On this high-powered Rams offense, it will be hard to set individual goals because coach Sean McVay will continue spreading the ball around to Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and others, but Cooks has posted impressive numbers in such schemes throughout his career.
The Rams will host Cooks' first NFL team, the New Orleans Saints, on Sunday. In three games against them since he was traded in March 2017, he has 15 receptions for 258 yards and a touchdown. His friends say Cooks doesn't want revenge against his former team, but he has another chance to remind the Saints why they picked him in the first round in 2014 and how he's become one of the NFL's top receivers.
"He just puts his head down and goes to work, and he says he's going to control what he can control and let the rest of the world decide what they want to decide," says Brent Brennan, Cooks' wide receivers coach at Oregon State.
For all of the memorable moments Cooks had during his three years with the Saints, including scoring the franchise's longest offensive touchdown at 98 yards, one of his former teammates remembers something that seemed a bit out of character for the quiet wide receiver.
"He'll give you a random scream that would wake everybody up just at the most inopportune times," Saints left tackle Terron Armstead says. "He would just yell, man." Armstead recalls Cooks screaming probably once per game, and even though his teammates would laugh at him or tell him the yell didn't fit the moment, Cooks kept doing it.
"There was some stuff that would just kind of get him ready to play that was unique," Saints quarterback Drew Brees says.
Former Oregon State running back Storm Woods recalls the screams from college practices, too. Sometimes they would be religious; sometimes, the words to a song; other times, they would be a funny phrase.
"You never know what you're going to get with the guy," Woods says. "Things have to be going well for the loud guy to come out. Otherwise, the one that's silent, laser-focused will be there."
The Rams and McVay have known for years that they could use that speed. When the Saints discussed trading Cooks ahead of the 2017 season before ultimately sending him to the Patriots, the Rams were among the teams that expressed interest. It took another year, but they finally added Cooks and quickly gave him a five-year, $81 million extension to ensure he would be a key cog in the offense for years to come.
"He's the epitome of being a pro," McVay said earlier this year, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. "You talk about a guy who is detail-oriented, locked in, loves the game, takes his preparation seriously and then he has the talent to match it."
Back in high school, Cooks made a decision that helps explain why he's been so successful. In June 2010, he committed to UCLA, but by November, he had changed his mind and wanted to play at Oregon State instead because of the Beavers' pro-style offense.
"He called [then-wide receivers coach Jay Locey] and basically said, 'I've been watching the games, and I think I'm a better fit for what you guys do at Oregon State than I am at UCLA," says former Beavers head coach Mike Riley.
The decision also shocked Brennan, who became Oregon State's wide receivers coach in 2011, a few months before Cooks arrived. Brennan had followed Cooks closely in high school when he coached at San Jose State, which is about 80 miles from Cooks' hometown of Stockton, California.
"Even then he was just such a forward thinker," Brennan says. "He was like, 'I want to play in a pro-style scheme. I want to have a chance to play as a freshman.' He had a plan, and from the first time I met him, he said to me, 'I want to start as a freshman, and I want to leave after my third year.' And I said, 'Great, let's get to work.'"
That was the first time Brennan had heard a player express his plans to leave college after three years in such matter-of-fact terms, but it didn't take long to see Cooks truly had the potential to follow through on his statement.
Woods, who was Cooks' roommate in college, remembers that first fall camp as freshmen. He says Cooks would butt in line ahead of teammates to get more reps, and in the second week of camp, there was an unforgettable moment that signaled the arrival of a receiver with sky-high potential.
According to Woods, defensive backs coach Keith Heyward saw one of his cover men taking practice lightly, so the coach wanted him to line up against the freshman. Cooks had just finished running a deep route about 70 yards, but Heyward called him back to the line.
"He comes back huffing and puffing, and it looks like Brandin is going to be tired," Woods says. "Well, he ran a comeback and made the guy fall. ... We were all going crazy, but the coaches sort of huddled up, and their eyes got big, and they knew what they had at that moment."
However, Cooks had lackluster production as a freshman, hauling in 31 receptions for 391 yards, so he told Brennan he wanted help understanding coverage. He would show up at the coach's office at 7 a.m. nearly every day, and he would sometimes be watching film by himself while Brennan was drawing up play cards.
"It was totally common for me to walk into my office and for him to be holding a position meeting with two or three other receivers," Brennan says.
Cooks sat in the first row for every position meeting, and sometimes during film study, he would be upset because he saw how he played in previous games.
"He would sometimes turn around and ask me to turn off the tape because he didn't want his teammates to see him like that," Brennan says.
Then there were the extra workouts. Riley says Cooks would do his own two-a-days in the summer. Woods also remembers him skipping parties to go work out. Cooks' mother, who raised him along with his three brothers after their father died when he was six years old, worked multiple jobs and sometimes as late as midnight. So, Woods says, Cooks thought he could imitate his mom's work ethic by training at 2 a.m.
"He's insane in the best kind of football way you can imagine," Brennan says.
All that extra work helped Cooks run the second-fastest 40-yard dash—4.33 seconds—at the 2014 combine, and he used a $100,000 prize from Adidas to buy a Mercedes for his mother, an upgrade from her 1999 Saturn. A year later, he helped her move into a new house, something he told ESPN's Jeff Darlington in 2017 felt better than being drafted.
"I'm really proud because he was that special boy that he'd seen what mama was going through and didn't want to put her through the same thing," Andrea Cooks told ESPN.
While driven by his desire to help improve his immediate family's life, Cooks also treats many people from his football life as family. Brennan's son went to elementary school close to campus, and the coach says Cooks would occasionally suggest going to the school to surprise the class, leading to about 25 kids screaming with excitement each time.
Then, in spring 2016, when Brennan's father-in-law was dying from cancer, Cooks sent him a minutelong video of well-wishes.
"Brandin Cooks is magic in every way possible," says Brennan, now the head coach at San Jose State. "The dude is amazing. I love that guy. We have this awesome relationship, and, I mean it, I was so fortunate to coach him and so fortunate to be a part of his life, and it's a relationship that will last forever because of who he is. He's just tremendous."
Cooks' over-the-top caring attitude helped endear him to Brees in New Orleans, too. As teammates, the pair would work out together in San Diego during the offseason, and Cooks still uses some of the quirky practice habits that Brees has used during his Hall of Fame career.
Cooks mimics making a play in practice even when the ball isn't thrown to him, pretending to catch a ball, tuck it and run to the end zone. On the Jugs machine, he takes every catch and tucks it in each arm because he'll have to choose one or the other when he makes a play in a game. His boring diet also catches his teammates' attention.
"He knows his body is basically a Lamborghini, and if he puts in regular gas, it's not going to perform well, so that's how he treats his body," Patriots receiver Phillip Dorsett says, recalling their time together in 2017.
Cooks is the only player to twice be traded for a first-round pick in recent memory. Even Randy Moss didn't produce that much of a return in his two trades. Some marquee players have netted a team two first-round picks in a single deal, but those guys often stay with their new team for more than a year.
The two trades involving Cooks have been wildly successful for all parties involved. The Saints used their top pick from the trade (the 32nd overall in 2017) on offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who has started 31 of 32 games the past two years. The Patriots, meanwhile, got 65 catches for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns from Cooks in 2017. He kept pace with tight end Rob Gronkowski as the team's top threat and filled a key hole while receiver Julian Edelman missed the entire season with a torn ACL.
Then, the Patriots flipped Cooks for a first-round pick from the Rams in 2018, and they spent the 23rd overall selection on Isaiah Wynn, who is now their top left tackle. Last year in L.A., Cooks had 80 catches for 1,204 yards and five touchdowns and was one of quarterback Jared Goff's most reliable targets, along with Robert Woods.
In July 2018, the Rams gave Cooks a new contract with an average annual salary that ranks seventh among receivers behind only Jones, Thomas, Beckham, Hill, Evans and Hopkins.
Really, the only downside of the two trades is that it has led some to think Cooks is an undesirable player, a thought that persists among fans in New Orleans.
In Week 12 of 2016, the Saints steamrolled the Rams 49-21, but for the first time in his nearly three-year career, Cooks finished the game without a catch. In an out-of character, thinly veiled expression of displeasure, he posted on Instagram and Twitter: "They tell you it's a business. Well I guess I have to turn into a businessman."
Asked about the post days later, Cooks said he had to express what he wants because "closed mouths don't get fed." When New Orleans traded him to the Patriots, there was speculation about his selfishness, even though it was clearly a trade that benefited the Saints significantly: They received a first-round pick they turned into Ramczyk, who helped them return to the playoffs in 2017.
Armstead doesn't even remember Cooks' comments, and the idea that he was somehow not a team-first guy is contrary to everything his friends say about him.
"He doesn't care about anything else but the team, and he puts the team first. That's who he's always been," says Rodgers.
Team success evaded Cooks in New Orleans; the Saints finished 7-9 in all three of his seasons. In the two years since, Cooks has played in back-to-back Super Bowls, but he lost both games and had to exit early against the Eagles in Super Bowl LII because of a gruesome hit that resulted in a concussion.
Perhaps if the Rams are as good as expected in 2019 and return to the Super Bowl, the third time will be the charm, and maybe, just maybe, a championship will help people recognize one of the most underappreciated talents in the NFL.
"He's going to finish in [the Pro Football Hall of Fame] for sure," Storm Woods says. "Everything he said in college has happened. He was going to leave in three years, he was going to be a first-rounder, he was going to go for 1,000 every year. The last thing to happen is getting multiple Super Bowls and going to Canton."