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Breaking down Amari Cooper’s recent struggles in Oakland

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Is the new Cowboys receiver’s struggles on him? Or is it something else?

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed it, Amari Cooper is a Dallas Cowboy now. The former standout wide receiver from Alabama was taken fourth overall in the 2015 NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders. He quickly became their best receiver, topping 1,000 yards receiving in his first two years. However, Cooper’s production has fallen off in the last two seasons, leading some to make assumptions that he’s not a good receiver anymore. Let’s take a look at what exactly happened in order to try and determine if Cooper can be successful again in Dallas.

Cooper’s first year in Oakland was also the first year for newly hired head coach Jack Del Rio. He took over a team that went 3-13 the year before and had averaged just 15.8 points per game. They had their franchise quarterback in Derek Carr, but nobody to throw to, so they took Cooper. He entered the draft from Alabama, where he had been an All-American and Heisman finalist in addition to winning the Biletnikoff Award and SEC Offensive Player of the Year. There was a lot of excitement around him, and former NFL GM Phil Savage compared him to Marvin Harrison.

In his rookie year, Cooper was installed as the top receiving target from the start. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave quickly developed the connection between Carr and Cooper, and took advantage of his rookie receiver’s talents. Cooper was targeted 130 times that year, and he caught 72 of them for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns. He averaged nearly 15 yards per reception.

In his second season, Cooper sought to become more efficient, and did so. He upped his catch percentage from 55.4% to 62.9% with only two more targets than his rookie year. He put up 83 receptions for 1,153 yards and five touchdowns. His yards per catch dropped to 13.9, which was to be expected after his impressive rookie mark. Cooper’s growth in his second season helped power the Raiders to a 12-4 record and their first playoff appearance since 2002, but an injury to Carr led to their loss in the Wild Card game. Still, Cooper was selected to the Pro Bowl for his efforts.

After the season, though, the Raiders made a head scratching decision in letting Musgrave go and promoting quarterbacks coach Todd Downing to offensive coordinator, his first time calling plays. As a result, the Raiders’ offense stagnated and Cooper’s involvement in the game plan was specifically diminished. Carr was also slow to return from his injury, and a number of his passing stats were down from the previous year, most notably that his quarterback rating was the worst since his rookie year.

As a result of all of this, Cooper’s targets dropped to 96, a 27% decrease in his targets from his first two years. Cooper was also less efficient, catching 50% of his passes for 680 yards, but he did increase his average yards per catch to 14.2. Cooper also set a career high in touchdowns with seven. Three of those touchdowns came in the red zone despite Cooper only being targeted on 18.9% of red zone pass plays. By comparison, the Miami Dolphins targeted Jarvis Landry on 30.3% of their red zone pass plays and he came up with nine touchdowns that year.

Despite his decrease in usage, Cooper was still one of the best after the catch. According to Football Outsiders’ YAC + ratings, Cooper was fifth in the league in YAC +, which seeks to estimate how many yards after the catch each receiver gained compared to the average receiver’s expected output.

Now in 2018, Cooper has another new offensive coordinator in Greg Olson, though head coach Jon Gruden calls the plays. And through six games, Cooper wasn’t used much at all. He only had three targets in the season opener, and only two total targets in his last two games. There were two games where he received double-digit targets: against Denver, where he was targeted 10 times and caught all 10 passes for 116 yards, and against Cleveland when he was targeted 12 times and caught eight of them for 128 yards and his lone touchdown of the year so far. On the whole, Cooper is catching 68.8% of passes thrown his way this season, which is higher than any of his previous seasons.

The Raiders have many other problems right now as well, particularly on offense. They’re only averaging 18.3 points per game and their rushing attack is 25th in the league. In 2016, Cooper’s best season, the Raiders had the sixth best ground game. That seemed to open things up more in the passing game, and an offense that prioritized Cooper as the top receiving threat allowed him to flourish.

Now in Dallas, he’ll find an offense that currently boasts the third best rushing offense despite being manhandled in that aspect of the game on Sunday. Cooper may not get as many targets as he did his first two years in Oakland - in fact, he almost certainly won’t - but he can become the go-to guy for an offense that lacks any such player. At the very least, Cooper’s presence can draw attention from defensive backs and open things up for the likes of Cole Beasley and Michael Gallup.

A lot of this depends on Dak Prescott’s chemistry with Cooper, but he has the route running ability to thrive in this offense and set the team back on track. As for his low numbers in Oakland, it seems that this was mostly due to coaches who decided to use their number one receiver significantly less than normal. It would seem that the Cowboys’ best bet to make this work is to do what Bill Musgrave did in 2015 and 2016: feed Amari Cooper.