(Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire)
WR Amari Cooper is an enigma that has tantalized and vexed football fans since he broke into the league in 2015. After two stellar years to begin his career, Cooper has been plagued with inconsistency and a failure to meet lofty expectations both last year and this year. Despite this, the Dallas Cowboys sent a 1st round pick, meeting the Raiders’ exorbitant demand, to Oakland to acquire the wideout this week. There are many pros and cons to this deal, as well as the question of whether Cooper is worth what Dallas gave up for his services.
In this Going Deep piece, Paul Ghiglieri and Alex Silverman debate the merits of Cooper to the Cowboys in both real and fantasy football terms.
(Dallas and Cooper will reap the rewards)
Is Amari Cooper worth a 1st round pick?
First, it’s important to qualify the cost the Dallas Cowboys paid to get WR Amari Cooper – a 1st round pick. In April of 2016, Falcons’ GM Thomas Dimitroff was asked by Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio about drafting in the first round, and Dimitroff offered some observations about the uncertainty that surrounds unproven, young players coming out of college:
“According to our most recent statistics that we drew on the first round, it’s less than 60 percent of those players that are starting,” Dimitroff said. “I think it may have come in at 56 percent. So point being it’s not an exact science, we know that. There are so many other things that are involved in it. The first step is finding out whether that player has the adept skills on the field, of course. Many other areas that we’re looking into to make sure they’re fits in the organization. [Do] they have the mental capacity, they have the character capacity, and the team element that a team is looking for? Again, you’d better have a plan for the guys who are a little bit wayward in their approach. That’s always been a big discussion point as well.”
Barely more than half of the players drafted in the first round turn out to be starters in the NFL, let alone high-end, All-Pro players. In addition, a study was done in 2012 that analyzed every draft pick over the previous 50 years to determine the average chance an NFL draft pick will be a bust. A “bust” player was defined as a”marginal role player that has limited game experience and contributes little to no value to an NFL franchise.” For early 1st and 2nd round players expected to do more than just contribute, a “bust” was defined as a player who “starts for less than one year or plays less than 40 games in their career.” According to the study, players drafted inside the Top 8 to 15 picks contained a 15% to nearly 30% bust rate. That number climbs to about 40% by the end of the first round and tops out at an only 50% chance of finding a starter with a pick at the end of the second round. Finding a Pro Bowl-caliber player is even harder.
So what does all this have to do with Amari Cooper?
If the draft were held today, the Cowboys would have the 8th or 9th overall pick in the draft. In a wide-open NFC East, Dallas is going for it with this trade for Cooper, and they fully intend to win more games than they lose. For argument’s sake, let’s assume the pick Dallas sent to Oakland falls somewhere between pick 8 and pick 15, with the pick more likely to sit closer to 15 than 8. Forget Pro Bowler – if the Cowboys opted to take a receiver with that pick, a position they sorely need to infuse with top-end talent if they want to compete, then there’s an almost 30% chance they won’t even find a starter with that pick. Bucky Brooks, a former pro player and scout, tweeted out after the trade that Amari Cooper is better than any WR prospect coming out next year and “there is not a Top-10 worthy WR in the next class.”
The Cowboys need a receiver, and the draft may not produce an elite one. Amari Cooper is a proven commodity who has experienced high levels of success at the NFL level. He’s only 24 years old with 3 years of pro experience, two of which he made the Pro Bowl, and he’s still just six months older than Falcons’ WR Calvin Ridley who was just drafted this year in the 1st round by the Atlanta Falcons. Amari Cooper has already demonstrated the ability to return on the investment of a 1st round pick, which is better than hoping Mystery Player X drafted in 2019 pans out. And in a pass-first league where offense drives the game, a true #1 receiver’s value has never been higher. There were rumors that the Eagles were going to offer a 2nd round pick. Other teams were likely involved at that price as well, perhaps with picks that would fall higher in the round. Nevermind the fact that seeing Cooper in Philadelphia would have been crushing for Dallas. The 1st round pick ensured they got their guy.
Is Amari Cooper really a number 1 receiver?
Consider these facts:
It’s been said in more than one place, historical records will show, that there are only 9 receivers who have ever posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to start their careers. Cooper is one of those 9. In fact, he’s just one of 3 receivers in league history to post 70 or more receptions and 1,000 yards in his first two years, so it’s not like he just got lucky with the deep ball. The only other two receivers to do that are former Saints’ great Marques Colston and Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. – that’s some elite company. The idea that he isn’t a “proven commodity” doesn’t hold water. He’s performed at a high level, not just one year, but two years. And he did it during his first two years in the league, a time most receivers are slowly getting more acclimated to the league. In his third year, which admittedly paled in comparison to his first two, Cooper still managed to secure 7 TDs, a career-high, despite the low catch and yardage totals. Yes, his struggles have continued into this year, but he’s playing in arguably the most dysfunctional franchise west of the Cleveland, and he’s had three offensive coordinators in three years. Last season, QB Derek Carr battled a back injury and Cooper dealt with an ankle injury of his own. There were also scheme issues. These are not excuses – just evidence that the down year and a half has some context. When playing in a more structured environment, like he did at Alabama for HC Nick Saban or even in Oakland during HC Jack Del Rio’s first two years before everything began to unravel, Cooper has shown the ability to dominate at a younger age than most.
At 6’1″, 225 lbs with 4.4 wheels, Cooper is a complete package at the receiver position. He was drafted as a Top-5 pick for a reason. Furthermore, Cooper’s production has always been tied to his targets. If you feed him the ball, he will produce like a number 1. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), “there is a clear trend between his targets and level of productivity. Cooper has 19 games where he has 30 or fewer receiving yards, but he averaged 4.15 targets per game in the 19 poor performances as opposed to a 9.1 target average (more than double) in the other 32 games.” In the two games where Cooper was actually targeted frequently this year, he produced the following stat lines:
Week 2 @Denver: 10-116
Week 4 vs Cleveland: 8-128 and 1TD
Those are WR1 numbers.
But what about the drops last year?
Sure, Cooper seemed to struggle with concentration last year. But it sure seems like a far less egregious fact when you realize WR Keenan Allen dropped more passes in 2017 than Amari Cooper did. That should put the drops into perspective a bit.
Is Dallas really the right fit?
The Cowboys believe they have their franchise QB. They have an elite RB and one of the better O-lines in football (PFF has them graded as #11 through the season’s first 6 weeks). Their defense has played well, ranking in the top 12 in most metrics. Owner Jerry Jones is in his twilight, and he has shown a seeming reluctance to fire HC Jason Garrett and remake his franchise. They are only 1 game behind the Washington Redskins in the NFC East. They’re probably a 7 or 8 win team without Cooper, and adding him could make them a 9-7 team, and that record might be good enough to win a weak division.
It can be argued that the one thing the team most needs is a viable receiver to help what has been to this point an absolutely dreadful passing attack. Cooper can help open up the offense more, and he gives QB Dak Prescott a legitimate number 1 option rather than relying on the likes of rookie WR Michael Gallup, veteran possession WR Allen Hurns, and slot maven WR Cole Beasley. Amari Cooper should easily command 20+% of the target share, albeit still likely less than 60 targets given to Zeke, and Gallup and Beasley should be the same mediocre options with Beasley unlikely to have any more spikes in production. If nothing else, Cooper shouldn’t have any games moving forward where he’s literally targetted just one time like he was in Oakland. For fantasy purposes, that should help make him more consistent than the boom-or-bust WR3 he was in Oakland, especially with a better schedule in which he faces mostly mid-to-bottom tier pass defenses the rest of the season. His value will likely increase slightly each week as he learns the playbook and builds a rapport with Prescott.
That being said, learning the playbook and establishing chemistry take time. Fortunately, the Cowboys are on a Bye in Week 8, which gives Cooper two weeks to integrate himself into a new offense. Plus, the concussion he suffered in Week 6 will have been given 3 weeks to heal.
Ok, but what about the financial implications?
Ah yes, the cap hit argument. Well, Dallas is only on the hook for about $700,000 remaining on Cooper’s contract for this season, the final year of his rookie deal. Moreover, the Raiders already exercised his 5th-year option, at $13.9 million. Thus, Dallas can choose to either try and sign Cooper to a long-term deal if the results are promising this season, or wait until another year to evaluate further. Either way, he’s under team control for at least another season. Their hope, obviously, is that he’s on the Cowboys for years to come. And it’s a much better gamble than free agency, where this offseason’s top wide receiver signing was WR Sammy Watkins to the Chiefs commanding $16 million a season coming off a year where he caught only 39 passes. Cooper will be a bargain compared to the cost of talent on the market next year. According to Spotrac’s Free Agency Tracker, the top wideouts scheduled to be free agents next year are WRs Larry Fitzgerald, Golden Tate, Josh Gordon, John Brown, Devin Funchess, Tyrell Williams, Kelvin Benjamin, and Dallas’ own Cole Beasley. Amari Cooper is younger and possesses far more upside (and less liability, in some cases) than all of those receivers, and he’s likely signed for less than what it will cost for some of them next season. Getting Cooper in the building better enables Dallas to determine his worth. A 1st round pick is far less an “overpay” than what teams have to give up in free agency for lesser or older talent with much less upside than what Cooper provides. If Dallas succeeds in signing Cooper long-term, then they essentially got him for a year and a half extra at a discount, with the cost being a first-round pick that almost certainly would not have produced a better talent at the same position. The price was a premium, but the return is also a premium.
(The return on investment will not justify the deal)
Short-term gratification at the expense of long-term planning?
The trade in which Dallas sent a 1st round pick for Amari Cooper can be described as only one thing for the Cowboys: short-sighted. The Cowboys acquire a top-end talent at the position they seem to need it most, but at what cost? For a first-round pick, the Cowboys will get a mere 1/2 season of Cooper on the 4th year of his rookie deal, half of which will be spent acclimating to his new team, and a 5th year option costing a whopping ~$14 million. Considering the Cowboys’ decision to presumably pay Cooper $14 million for the second year of his services in Dallas, it is fairly safe to assume they will follow a similar path as the Rams did with their acquisition of WR Brandin Cooks last year, meaning they will resign him. With WR Sammy Watkins commanding a bloated 3 year, $48 million contract this past offseason, Cooper’s deal promises to be a significant portion of the Cowboys’ salary cap. Why is this a problem? Well, 2019 will see two of the Cowboys’ biggest defensive stars, DE Demarcus Lawrence and DL David Irving, entering free agency at a time when DL Khalil Mack commanded just south of $23 million per year for his services. Needless to say, Dallas will now likely part with one of them if not both as they devote $14 million to Cooper. But wait, how then does 2020 look with, let’s say, 1 of those two inked for about $18 million per year, in addition to a possible $25 million Dak extension, a $15 million Zeke extension, and a $16 million Cooper contract? Well, the roughly $125 million cap figure the team has shrinks to a bit above $50 million, and that’s before resigning key RT La’El Collins, or ILB Jaylen Smith.
What about the Amari the player?
The guy posted relatively efficient numbers on an inflated target share, and as his target share waned in the past two years, so too did his production. That two-year decline has also been characterized by nagging, if not significant injuries. While any NFL player is going to get hurt, as well as produce less when given less opportunity, it means Cooper’s status as a true #1, despite being only 24 years old, is in question. Again comparing the acquisition to that of Brandin Cooks, both the Patriots and the Rams received a known commodity: a lightning fast player with more skill deep than almost anyone in the league. Though Cooks’ profile isn’t that of a prototypical #1, his effects on the offense around him, and his production outright, left both the Patriots and Rams without any qualms. That withstanding, Cooper could very well rediscover his 2016 form, but the uncertainty attached to him as a player, especially when framed by the recent Cooks deal, only further clouds the prospects of this acquisition for the Cowboys, albeit much less so than the financial components of the trade.
Why were the Cowboys so impulsive then?
You see, it all equates to Mr. Jerry Jones, the team’s much-maligned owner, and lest you forget, GM, neglecting his terminal short-sightedness. At second in the now putrid NFC East, the Cowboys are not, by most measures, a WR away from contending. Maybe they’re a WR away from a Divisional Round exit in the playoffs, but surely not from contending. In spending a 1st round pick for Amari Cooper, despite his undeniable talent, Jerry Jones once again refuses to acknowledge the truths in front of his eyes. This is not a new phenomenon, mind you: The Cowboys 2018 salary cap holds a $30 million + dead money anchor attached to it thanks to Mr. Jones ill-fated extensions of both Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, just as the team was reaching a rebuilding point. Of course, much of this criticism is thanks to hindsight, but when one digs deeper into the long-term implications of the trade and presumed signing of Amari Cooper, one sees the makings of another time bomb laid deep into the financial framework of “America’s Team.”