Amari Cooper is Safer Than You Think - Footballguys

A detailed look at Amari Cooper's fantasy prospects for 2018

Don't Call It A Comeback, He's Been Here For Years

Amari Cooper will finish the season as a top-10 fantasy wide receiver and has his best chance yet to finally join the position’s elite.

It’s a bold proclamation to make as we enter 2018 fantasy drafts, yet it didn’t raise an eyebrow when many analysts made the same prediction at this time last year. We owe the change in perception to Cooper’s awful 2017 campaign, combined with fears Jon Gruden’s antiquated coaching philosophies will doom the entire Raiders offense. Not only are both concerns overblown, but it’s also more likely Gruden’s presence will help Cooper to a career year than do him statistical harm.

The reasons Cooper -- who has never finished higher than WR14 in his three previous seasons -- will put last year’s disappointment behind him and have a career year are numerous:

  1. Cooper's talent didn't suddenly evaporate after one down season
  2. Derek Carr played poorly through a broken back last year and should rebound
  3. Cooper's target share figures to increase with Michael Crabtree's departure
  4. Jon Gruden has a long history of favoring the offense's No. 1 receiver

Talent like Cooper’s Doesn’t Suddenly Evaporate

Cooper was a top-4 pick in the NFL draft, who was widely compared to Marvin Harrison coming out of Alabama. Through two seasons, he was undeniably on a superstar career trajectory. No matter how you slice it, Cooper’s first two NFL seasons place him in a rare historical cohort.

  • He is one of only six wide receivers ever to accumulate at least 2,000 yards in his first two seasons, before turning 23-years-old. The others are Josh Gordon, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Larry Fitzgerald, and DeAndre Hopkins.
  • Cooper is one of 10 receivers to ever post back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons in each of his first two years, placing him in the same company as Randy Moss, A.J. Green, and Odell Beckham Jr Jr., among others.
  • Cooper, Beckham, Marques Colston, and Michael Thomas are the only players to ever open their careers with both 70+ catches and 1,000+ yards in consecutive seasons.

Drops happen. Injuries occur. Defenses figure things out. Offenses struggle. All of these factors can contribute to good players having bad seasons, but guys with Cooper’s pedigree don’t just mysteriously lose it at 23-years-old.

What Happened in 2017

“He will never tell you, and he’ll never even talk about it, but that man was out there playing on one foot. He’s out there trying to give it his all, even though he could barely get out there and do it. That’s the kind of guy I want to play with. That’s how I know we’re going to be just fine.” - Derek Carr in a February interview on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Radio

It’s never been made clear whether Carr was suggesting Cooper played hurt the entire season, or if he was referring to the period following Week 11 when Cooper suffered a concussion and high ankle sprain that caused him to miss two games. Regardless, Carr’s quote sparked the narrative Cooper was dealing with a significant injury in 2017 and many have been quick to accept it because why else couldn’t he get open or hold onto the football?

It’s understandable if you refuse to buy Carr’s excuse, especially if Cooper burned you last year, but let’s examine some facts:

  • Cooper injured his knee in training camp, forcing the Raiders to manage his practice reps for the first seven weeks last season. The injury was considered minor, but Cooper was held to single-digit yardage in three of his first five games, compared to just one occurrence in his previous 32 games played.
  • In total, he appeared on the injury report in 11 out of 16 games.
  • The knee injury slowed Cooper down for more reasons than one. He had bulked up in the off-season due in part to a desire to become a more reliable target for Carr in the red zone (more on that later). But according to Cooper, he always gets bigger in the off-season and works off some of that weight during camp. Due to the knee injury limiting his ability to practice, Cooper was forced to play bigger (and slower) than he was accustomed to, which contributed to his early-season struggles breaking free from press coverage at the line of scrimmage.
  • First-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing was in over his head. Downing lined Cooper up almost exclusively on the outside and had him run a predictable route tree. When Downing finally got creative and ran Cooper from the slot on a season-high 35% of his routes in Week 7 against the Chiefs (not coincidentally around the same time he was finally healthy), he exploded for 11 catches, 210 yards, and 2 touchdowns. 95 of those yards and a touchdown came from slot routes. Inexplicably, Cooper would only exceed a 35% slot route percentage in two more games the rest of the season (more on this later too).
  • The Raiders entire offense regressed under Downing, not just Cooper. Oakland scored 18.8 points per game in 2017, down from 25.3 the year prior -- a decrease of over 25%.
  • Cooper returned from the Week 11 head and ankle injuries displaying glimpses of his previous quickness en route to 3-66-1 and 3-115-1 receiving lines in the Raiders final two games.

Carr Was Hobbled

It's fine if you don’t want to excuse Cooper for last season due to a murky injury and poor play-calling. But there’s no denying Derek Carr played most of the season hurt. A candidate for league MVP in 2016, Carr’s banner year ended with a broken fibula. He was still recovering to begin the season, played mostly well during Oakland’s 2-1 start, then suffered a transverse process fracture in his back in Week 4.

Despite reports he could be out up to six weeks, Carr missed a single game. The man broke three bones in his back, took a week off, and made it through the next 11 games. Should we be surprised his completion percentage, adjusted yards per attempt, and the rest of his counting stats dipped?

Plenty of blame should be laid on Cooper for his disappointing 2017. But given the number of low percentage routes he was asked to run and the attention he received from opposing defenses, Cooper needed all the help from his quarterback he could get -- and it wasn't there.

It Wasn’t All Bad

Besides the aforementioned stellar stat line he hung on Kansas City in Week 7, there was at least one other silver lining in Cooper’s otherwise dismal third season. The knock on Cooper entering last year was his inability to score touchdowns, which was puzzling considering his dominance on goal-line fade routes at Alabama.

Cooper caught 11 combined touchdowns through two seasons, with only two of those scores coming from inside the opponent’s red zone. Michael Crabtree was Carr’s most trusted option in scoring situations, combining for 35 red zone targets to 22 for Cooper from 2015-2016. Cooper wasn’t even the No. 2 red zone receiving option during his first two seasons. Seth Roberts received 31 red zone looks over the same span.

Last year, we witnessed a shift. Cooper scored more red zone touchdowns (three) than he had in his previous two seasons combined. This was despite Oakland tying for last with 2.1 red zone scoring attempts per game (a 38% decrease from 2016). From Weeks 1-10 (prior to getting hurt in Week 11), he was even leading the team with seven red zone targets to Crabtree’s six. All told, Cooper scored a touchdown on 7.3% of his targets, a marked improvement over his previous career rate of 4.4%.

Why should we expect an outlier year to become closer to a new norm? Michael Crabtree left for the Ravens. He takes with him nearly 25% of the Raiders red zone targets since 2015. Newcomers Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant (assuming reports of a looming suspension are false) will command a significant portion of those vacated scoring opportunities, but the pie gets bigger for Cooper as well. It should allow him to at least maintain his touchdown total from last season (seven) and as Carr’s only familiar wide receiver, it’s not unreasonable to expect a modest increase.

Target Hog

If we assume Cooper can meet or exceed last year’s seven touchdowns, this is where things get interesting. By now you’ve probably heard Jon Gruden refer to Cooper as the "headliner," "focal point," and "main vein" of his offense. Few are more prone to hyperbole than Gruden, but he has has a long history of coaching No. 1 fantasy receivers.

Tim Brown
Tim Brown
Tim Brown
Tim Brown
Keyshawn Johnson
Keenan McCardell
Michael Clayton
Joey Galloway
Joey Galloway
Joey Galloway
Antonio Bryant

Some takeaways:

  • A Gruden offense has NEVER failed to produce a 1,000-yard receiver.
  • In 11 years as a head coach, Gruden’s top wide receiver eclipsed 130 targets nine times.
  • Michael Clayton’s 2004 season was one of the best ever for a rookie wide receiver.
  • With the exception of Hall of Famer Tim Brown, Cooper is in the same class as Gruden’s previous No. 1s from a talent perspective.
  • Gruden’s career-average WR1 would have ranked eighth in wide receiver PPR scoring last season.

With Crabtree off to Baltimore, a team-leading 22.5% of Oakland’s targets over the last three seasons have been vacated. During Cooper’s healthy seasons, he could be counted on for about 22% of the team’s targets while alternating with Crabtree as the team’s top receiver. This year, we should expect Cooper’s market share to increase to at least 25%.

The other names on Oakland’s depth chart inspire little confidence. Jordy Nelson has name recognition going for him at this stage of his career, but little else. It was telling Nelson failed to top 35 receiving yards in a game after Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 6 last year-- especially since Davante Adams was able to maintain top-20 numbers with Brett Hundley at quarterback. At best, Nelson has mid-round PPR value as a possession receiver if he inherits most of Crabtree’s red zone targets, but it’s a stretch to think he can replicate Crabtree’s role as 1A to Cooper’s 1B in the pecking order.

Martavis Bryant was acquired in a trade during the NFL Draft. He remains a tantalizing talent who hasn’t done anything of consequence on a football field since 2015. Rumors of a pending suspension appear to have been misguided, but serve as a reminder Bryant can’t be trusted for reliable production.

Assuming he does play the full season, Bryant -- who runs routes strictly outside the numbers -- should afford Cooper additional opportunities to line up from the slot, where his quickness, speed, and route-running ability can be put to best use. Last year’s Week 7 breakout game wasn’t a random occurrence. Per Pro Football Focus, Cooper has averaged over a full yard more per slot route run compared to his other routes. He's also caught seven touchdowns on just 291 slot routes vs. 11 touchdowns on his other 1,324 routes throughout his career.

Final Thoughts

Let’s assume Oakland has at least the same number of pass attempts this season they did last season (558). A 25% target market share puts Cooper at 140 targets -- well within the range of possible outcomes considering Gruden’s history. If his catch rate splits the difference between 2015 and 2016 (about 59%), we’re looking at 83 catches. At his career average of 14.3 yards per reception, those catches would go for 1,187 yards. If he catches the same seven touchdowns he did last year -- not unreasonable considering his projected target volume and Crabtree’s departure -- Cooper would finish as a top-10 receiver.

As of this writing, his ADP is WR16 and falling.

Those projections don’t account for Oakland fielding a much better offense than they did last year while Carr was playing with a broken back. They don’t assume Cooper can replicate his per-target touchdown efficiency from 2017 on more targets. And they don’t assume a marked improvement on his career catch rate, average yards per reception, or the possibility he exceeds 140 targets -- all of which are possible for a blue-chip talent entering his fourth season.

At worst, Cooper is properly valued at his ADP. But target volume should propel Cooper to an easy top-10 finish, with room for more if he takes the next logical step forward in his development and the Raiders bounce back closer to their 2016 form.


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Phil Alexander

Thoughts From the Footballguys Message Boards

There was some terrific debate in The Shark Pool on Cooper's 2018 value. Thanks to all who contributed.

barackdahouse is also optimistic about more than just a  bounce-back season from Cooper:

"I don't see how he doesn't get 140 targets or more. Honestly who else is getting them? I can't stop drafting him in the late 3rd round. The only point I would be hesitant to draft him is late 1st-early 2nd, which will not be happening anywhere. His risk is not baked into his price, in my opinion, and I think he will push for mid-WR1 numbers if healthy. I see him as a potential league winner. 

2017 was an injury plagued-anomaly. The way I heard it was that he roughed it out and played when many others wouldn't have."

But Wise Old Owl thinks Cooper hasn't earned his standing as an elite, young wide receiver:

"This is what I find so interesting about Cooper -- the perception he's already arrived. His best year in non-PPR is WR13 when Crabtree was WR12 on the same team. Is that an elite wide receiver? His first two years, while good, are significant because of the idea receivers with Cooper's level of early-career production become Beckham/Green/Jones types. It makes sense -- the track record for top-7 wide receiver draft picks not named Tavon Austin is very strong.

Why should we believe Cooper is going to be force fed like those top tier guys? There is going to be someone in every league that thinks they are getting a top-5 upside guy and will overpay for Cooper. I wish them the best but he will not be on any of my teams this fall."

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