Reception Perception: Amari Cooper Under the Microscope

Matt Harmon uses his Reception Perception methodology to shed light on what type of receiver Amari Cooper is.

 During the season here at Footballguys, I profiled receivers using my Reception Perception methodology. Now, that is officially draft season, we’ll turn our focus to the incoming rookies. In anticipation of the release of the 2015 Reception Perception Project, and the NFL Draft, I’ll be releasing prospect profiles using the Reception Perception methodology. First up, we have Alabama’s Amari Cooper

After quite literally a historic year for rookie wide receivers, the 2015 NFL Draft’s group has a very tough act to follow. Its highly unlikely the class will be talked about with such high regard, and nearly unthinkable the first-year players will make the impact their predecessors did. However, there are a few receivers who should garner attention as first round picks.

One of these players is Alabama’s Amari Cooper. The junior receiver was a sustaining and electric force for a Crimson Tide passing game that never featured jaw-dropping quarterback play. Through it all, Cooper made his presence felt. He declared his intentions to enter the NFL Draft after terrorizing the SEC last season.

Amari Cooper is widely projected to be the first receiver off the board, and thought of as a step above his peers. There are even some prognostications that have him going as high as fourth overall to team up with Derek Carr in Oakland.

It seems the draft community has seen enough from Cooper to believe he is the type of receiver who will not only translate to the pro game, but also lead and transform an NFL passing attack. In this space, we’ll use the Reception Perception methodology to decipher what type of player Cooper is, and whether he fits those criteria.

Disclaimer: usually a full season profile of Reception Perception works through eight games of a receiver. Unfortunately, with the scarcity of all-22 footage available on college prospects, that was not possible. For the purposes of this profile, we’ll be working strictly off Amari Cooper’s games against LSU, Ole Miss, West Virginia, Auburn and Mississippi State.

Alignment Data

Amari Cooper has been the featured part of the Alabama passing game for the last several years. He was A.J. McCarron’s preferred target in 2013, and helped Blake Sims make the transition to starter this season. Cooper also played multiple roles in the Crimson Tide’s air attack. 

As you can see by his alignment data, Amari Cooper lined up all over the field as a collegiate. In the games charted, his time on the line of scrimmage and off it was just under a 60/40 split. The coaches were comfortable giving with Cooper being one of the first players off the ball, or leaving him extra space to work with pre-route. Cooper was also asked to play multiple receiver positions. He took 37.9% of his snaps on the right side of the formation, and 47% on the left. That’s to be expected, but he is capable of doing a little more. There were plenty of times Cooper functioned as a slot receiver, where he played 13.6% of his snaps. Lane Kiffin seemed to have a hand in what was a more aggressive and creative utilization plan for Amari Cooper. The star receiver even saw a few snaps in the backfield, although it was only a small 1.5% in the games charted.

Looking at the numbers, Amari Cooper was most often used on the left side of the field, while starting on the line of scrimmage. Typically that speaks to a wide receiver playing the x-receiver, or split end, position. This archetype of receivers evolves in to the primary targets in a team’s passing game, and usually provides a physical presence.

It’s fair to wonder whether Cooper will translate to that position in the NFL. His physical profile (listed at 6’1 and just over 200 pounds), does not quite match up with the cornerstones of the x-receiver archetype. His combine numbers, while unknown at this time, are no guarantee to wow observers. However, we’ve seen that players who do fit the size/speed mold can fill the x spot. Many analysts compare Amari Cooper to Reggie Wayne or Roddy White, who have usually functioned at other positions than the x. Both of them are great players, and if Cooper approaches that level, he’ll have a fine NFL career, himself.

Target Data 

As mentioned, Amari Cooper essentially carried the Alabama passing offense. Under Nick Saban, the team has primarily been a ground and pound unit, which runs their aerial assault off the rushing success. However, the team also enjoys utilizing a strong number one receiver. Several years ago, Julio Jones was that player. Last season, there was no question Cooper was the guy.

Evaluators who place a high value on “market share” for a college receiver love what Amari Cooper did this season. It’s easy to see why when observing his Reception Perception target data:

In the five games charted for this study, Amari Cooper was targeted on 43% of the 165 qualifying routes he ran. That is an incredibly high number. I marked the most targeted player in the NFL this year, Antonio Brown, as being targeted on 31.8% of his 308 routes charted over an eight-game sample. Cooper exceeding that figure by over 10% is striking.

If I could take a minute to reflect on the process here, I think this is a good spot for that. As I use Reception Perception as a tool to evaluate college prospects, I believe we will continue to see inflated percentage of routes with a target figures. It is probably just a reflection of the differences in the college and professional games. While NFL number one receivers, like Brown, get fed targets, that phenomenon is even more pronounced at the college level.  While that won’t effect too much of the evaluation, it does provide another layer of context to these Reception Perception prospect profiles. 

For such a highly targeted player, Amari Cooper was quite efficient in the five games sampled. He caught a pass on 30.3% of his routes run, and maintained a catch rate of 70.4%. That figure is close to the catch rate of some of the best receivers from the 2014 season like Emmanuel Sanders (72.1%) and Odell Beckham Jr Jr. (70.5%). It’s easy to see why Cooper was so productive at Alabama.

While Cooper did boast a very good catch rate in this five game sample, he also had a drop rate that raises concerns. Cooper’s drop rate of 11.4% is on the high-end of the scale.

For comparisons sake, Kelvin Benjamin (a receiver known for catching lapses) had a drop rate of 13.10%, and Cecil Short posted a 11.67% in 2014—both per Pro Football Focuses numbers. Drops are a bit subjective, so that’s something to keep in mind when citing another sources’ numbers, but those players give us context for Cooper.

Most of the drops I observed for Cooper appeared to take place on routine plays. Several occurred on short, slant passes over the middle, where Cooper would just let the ball get away from him. Perhaps this speaks to a focus or concentration issues, since he was so efficient on most of his plays. It’s tough to know for sure what the root of a receiver’s drop issues are when you can rule out technique—as you can with this player. Drops can be a correctable issue in some cases, but more often than we want to admit a player just “is who he is” in this regard. There’s no doubt, making consistent clean catches has to be listed as a concern in Amari Cooper’s evaluation.

While he dropped his fair share of passes on routine ground based plays, Cooper also let a few get away from him whilst in the air. This leads to what is most likely the biggest hole in this highly touted prospect’s game. 

Contested Catch Success Rate

Coming into the 2014 season, the most popular critique on Amari Cooper was his ability to win at the catch point. Evaluators needed to see Cooper prove he possessed the ability to consistently bring down passes while playing off the ground with defenders near him. The narrative seems to be that he improved in this area as a junior. Perhaps those evaluators saw what they needed to see, as Cooper is now regarded as the top receiver in this class on a near universal basis. However, Reception Perception brings those concerns back to light:

In the five games charted, Amari Cooper went up for a contested catch on 12 occasions. He was successful on 50% of those attempts.

Cooper does not seem bothered by physical play, which can be one reason a receiver is not efficient in this area of the game. You saw with Marqise Lee last year that he had major issues with contact from defenders. He was easily bumped off his routes, and was not often in the right position to fight for balls in the air. Cooper does not appear to share those issues. It would be an exaggeration to say he has the overwhelming “my ball” mentality a great contested catches receiver needs, but it would also be an overstatement to say he shies away from those moments, as well.

The problem isn’t so much Cooper’s mindset; it’s just that he appears a bit too strength-deficient to finish the job. Just looking at Cooper’s frame, he’s not exceedingly well-built or rocked out to the point he can outmuscle defenders. He’s not slight or small, just a bit lacking in this department. The same can be said for his leaping ability. 

Some receivers are mavens at the catch point, even though they are smaller players. Those players usually succeed due to outstanding leaping ability, strength, and an elite “my ball” mentality. Amari Cooper appears to be less than outstanding in each category. It was those deficiencies that likely led to Cooper’s 50% contested catch success rate in the games charted.

This is the most concerning of all Cooper’s Reception Perception numbers. His issue winning contested catches figures to follow him to the next level. If they become even more pronounces against superior athletes, this deficiency will likely always be what limits his ceiling.

Route Analysis and Success Rate Versus Coverage Data

While this study has detailed some of Amari Cooper’s struggle when the ball arrives, its time to highlight how excellent he is before it does. Cooper’s finest work as a prospect is his movement mid-route. First, lets look at his Route Tree Percentage Chart:

In the five game sample charted for Reception Perception, Amari Cooper ran nine routes most often. Coming in at 19.4%, the nine-route was a common assignment for Cooper. This is a theme that is consistent with most NFL receivers. Nine of the 14 receivers profiled for Reception Perception at Footballguys this season had the nine-route as their most frequently run pattern. Cooper falling into this category is not surprising, for multiple reasons.

Offensive coordinators will frequently use their best wide receiver as a decoy to keep the opposing defense busy. One way to accomplish this is by sending that receiver deep down the sidelines, or seams on a vertical route. In addition to the diversion, it becomes quite easy to build combination routes off this setup. The Alabama offense was able to use Cooper to “clear things out” for their running game and short passing options by sending him vertical.

However, it also made sense for the Crimson Tide to send Amari Cooper on nine-routes because he was quite good in this area. Cooper was very productive running nines (more on that later), and tortured college corners deep. You can tell watching the defenders covering him that they were in fear of the man they were covering—often times corners just gave him space so he wouldn’t zip past them. The cornerbacks will be more confident, and the holes will get tighter, at the next level. Yet, some of Cooper’s deep threat ability should translate to the NFL.

Other than the nine-route figure, Amari Cooper boasts a very balanced Route Percentage Chart. The next most-frequently run routes are the comeback and curl, both coming in at 12.7%. Cooper’s quickness and intelligence, knowing when to time his breaks, makes him a natural at the execution of these two routes.

He ran a healthy amount of most every other pattern, outside of the dig and out routes. Those came in at 2.4% and 1.8% respectively, which is quite low. However, those sharp, 90-degree stemmed routes are the most difficult ones to run on the tree. It takes a perfect balance of timing, athleticism and technique to execute, and not all receivers can pull it off with proficiency. As such, its no surprise that college receiver would not be asked to run these routes often. 

In order to better understand just what Cooper does well as a route runner, we need to examine his Route Tree Success Rate Chart:

(SRVC denotes success rate versus coverage for each route. PTS indicates how many PPR fantasy points a receiver earned on each particular route)

Much like an NFL veteran, Cooper displays the understanding of the subtle jerks and twitches to make to get away from cornerbacks. He’s advanced in the art of gaining separation, and its reflected in his SRVC scores.

Cooper never comes in below 60% SRVC on any route on the chart. The majority of his scores fall between a 70% to 80% and better success rate. We observed that the nine-route was Cooper’s most frequently run, and as mentioned, he was quite good at them. His 71.9% SRVC on the go routes reflects very favorably on Cooper. It’s difficult to get open deep, and even the best receivers in the NFL struggle to get out of the 60 percent range. Cooper’s SRVC figure on nines, as a collegiate, paints an optimistic picture of his abilities to thrive as a threat in the deep areas of the field in the NFL.

Amari Cooper also ran curls and comebacks frequently. He also posted good SRVC scores on these routes, posting a 76.2% and 85.7% figure respectively. These routes are where Cooper can really show off his foot frequency. His breaks and hitches are so smooth, and his feet always on the same page, he can burst back to the quarterback very quickly.

None of Cooper’s SRVC scores raise a concern, he is very multi-dimensional as a route runner. In fact, he even posted favorable SRVC scores on the two routes he was not asked to run often (the dig and out). This is an important role that Reception Perception can play in college scouting. It would be easy to criticize Cooper for not running these types of advanced routes. However, when you juxtapose the Route Tree Success Chart with the Route Percentage Chart, you see that he succeeded in these assignments in limited reps. Reception Perception provides the context to itself, and can illuminate a small detail about a player. There should not be any question about Cooper’s ability to run the full route tree, as a long as he continues on his current path of development. 

The PTS figure represents the amount of PPR fantasy points a receiver amassed on a particular route. It provides an easy measurement of their production on each brand of route. Once again, the nine-route reigns supreme. Cooper totaled 40.2 PTS on these vertical routes. Again, this lends more credence to the thought of Cooper as a third level threat in the NFL. He was also quite productive on screens (17.2) and slants (23.1). Cooper acted as a sustaining piece of the Alabama offense. Blake Sims could hit him quickly, and let his number one receiver create after the catch.

Reception Perception also provides a measurement of not only a receiver’s success rate on each route, but against different brands of coverage:

In the five games charted, Amari Cooper faced a near even split of man and zone coverage. He posted solid SRVC scores when facing either brand of defense. Cooper was also adept at getting off of press coverage, in limited reps, at the college level. That’s encouraging, because as non-massive receiver NFL corners will certainly try to mix it up with him at the line. The junior receiver proved he could handle press coverage.

The one concerning figure is Cooper’s SRVC against double coverage. While, again, this is not a great sample size with 24 attempts, Cooper only broke free from multiple cover men 67% of the times he faced it. If Amari Cooper is indeed drafted high and asked to be his new team’s number one receiver, this could be a nagging problem for him.

Gaining optimal separation and winning on the ground are Amari Cooper’s biggest strengths as a prospect. His Reception Perception SRVC scores illustrate just how advanced he is in this field of receiver play. He’ll face a learning curve at the NFL level, but in due time, these numbers should translate to his professional career. 

Tackle Breaking Measurement

We’ve detailed an area of receiver play where Cooper is slightly below average (the catch point) and another where he is fantastic (gaining separation). Now, let’s examine a segment in which Cooper is right around the middle of the pack:

In this five game sample, Cooper had 32 open field attempts in which he was free to run with the ball in his hands. Out of those 32 attempts, he broke one tackle 50% of the time, but was dropped on first contact 37.5% of the time. The runs where he broke multiple tackles were few and far in-between—12.5% of his attempts.

While Cooper was a very good run after the catch threat in college, its fair to wonder whether he can become that at the pro level. When watching Cooper, he seems to lack the extra bit of creativity needed to project him as a dynamic ball carrier in the NFL. This likely contributed to his low percentage of open field attempts with multiple broken tackles. 

Translation and The Bottom Line

Reception Perception is still in its infancy as a project, and this is the very first edition covering a draft prospect. The truth is we cannot know exactly how these numbers, or this methodology will translate from the college to the NFL game. However, that is the nature of draft work. What Reception Perception does is illustrate exactly what a prospect does well, and sheds light on the type of player he is.

With very good SRVC scores, and the clear ability to earn separation on film, we know what type of receiver Amari Cooper is. He wins as a route runner, and a player whose quickness can overpower corners at all areas of the field. He also displays excellent intelligence, and timing that will suit NFL offenses—although no Reception Perception numbers can quantify that.

The strong bet is that Cooper will carry over strong SRVC numbers to the NFL. Through three years of experience, he’s gleaned the true art of defeating a corner in multiple ways, on numerous routes and at ever level of the field. Cooper is deceptive and quick in his movement, with the excellent foot frequency to smoothly glide away from corners.

However, his meager success against double coverage, 50% contested catch rate and high drop rate are major causes for concerns. At this time, Amari Cooper is not a strong receiver at the catch point when a defender is there to fight him. He does not have consistent success when asked to get off the ground, either. When the stakes are higher coverage-wise (multiple defenders and contested situation) Cooper’s odds of coming through for his team falls by a good bit. That raises questions about whether he can be the foundational piece of a passing offense.

After putting him through the Reception Perception process, I am quite confident that Amari Cooper will be a very good NFL wide receiver. His skills in the separation game are special. However, the results fall short of predicting a sure-fire number one receiver career path for the Alabama product.

That leads to questions about Amari Cooper’s true draft value. The popular comparisons for a best-case scenario for the soon-to-be-rookie’s career are Roddy White and Reggie Wayne. Cooper does seem to fall along that archetype of receiver, but he will need to work quite hard to become the craftsmen those two became. Cooper is a popular pick in the top five or ten pick in most mock drafts. Is a lesser version of Wayne or White really worth that sort of draft capital? Reception Perception at least raises questions.

However, as mentioned, the true intention of Reception Perception is to ascertain what type of receiver these prospects are. Amari Cooper looks to have a solid all-around skillset, with particular proficiency as a route runner. If he lands in a timing based offense with a precise quarterback, he could fall on the high-end of that Reggie Wayne scale. However, if he goes to an offense, with a risk taker at quarterback, that regularly asks its receivers to make contested catches, he’ll be unfairly labeled a disappointment.

Reception Perception largely paints a positive quantitative picture of the qualitative reality that Amari Cooper is a very good NFL receiving prospect. However, there are a few negative data points that bring into question those willing to label him the unquestioned top receiver in this class. Cooper’s landing spot will determine how much of his positive traits he can deliver on, and the team debating picking him needs to take that into account. If their offense would be better suited to a different type of receiver, perhaps there is another receiver they should select over Amari Cooper.

If you enjoyed this prospect profile, become familiar with Reception Perception and learn about the release of the first annual Reception Perception Project publication. Make sure to follow the series, and bookmark it to prepare for the release of the inaugural edition of the publication this summer.