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Comparing all rumored receivers of interest, was Amari Cooper the right choice for Cowboys?

Does statistical evidence back up Cowboys trade for Cooper or were there better options?

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys have been riding a wide receiver carousel dating back to the beginning of the offseason. Here is a quick reminder of the Cowboys’ timeline of transactions at the receiver position:

March Transaction
3/23 Sign D. Thompson
3/26 Sign A. Hurns
April Transaction
4/13 Dez Bryant released
4/27 Draft M. Gallup (3rd)
4/28 Trade for Tavon Austin
4/28 Draft C. Wilson (6th)
July Transaction
7/31 Place C. Wilson on IR
Sept. Transaction
9/2 D. Thompson Cut
9/3 Re-sign D. Thompson
9/4 Place N. Brown on IR
9/18 Sign B. Butler
Oct. Transaction
10/6 Place T. Williams on IR
10/22 Trade 2019 1st for Amari Cooper
10/22 B. Butler released

Before Dez Bryant was released or Allen Hurns was signed, the Cowboys had rumored interest in Sammy Watkins. Stephen Jones has stated that this was an attempt to go after a potential WR1 before eventually deciding on a committee approach. Watkins signed a three-year deal worth $48 million with the Chiefs. This past Sunday, the Cowboys were reportedly shopping around for receiver help after watching their passing offense rank 29th in the NFL through seven games:

Whether or not any of these names are on Cowboys fan’s shortlist, they were being discussed within the organization. So, out of Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin, DeVante Parker, and Amari Cooper, did this team make the right choice? Would they have been better off keeping Dez Bryant? Well, let’s examine these four receivers’ careers from 2015-present to find out. We’ll start with how each receiver is currently doing this season:

2018 Games/ Starts Targ/ Rec. Yards YPC TD Catch % YAC/Rec. EYAC EYAC +/- Avg. Separation Targ. Share %
Amari Cooper 6/6 32/22 280 12.7 1 70.9 5 5.3 -0.3 3.8 15.02%
Sammy Watkins 7/7 33/22 272 12.4 1 65 7 7.7 -0.7 3.4 16.59%
Kelvin Benjamin 7/6 32/10 146 14.6 1 37.8 2.8 3.4 -0.6 1.7 18.34%
DeVante Parker (Quad) 2/1 4/2 40 20 0 50 - - - - 13.28%

Both Cooper and Watkins are on pace for over 80 targets and close to 60 receptions for around 750 yards give or take. What stands out about newly acquired Amari Cooper based on the above? Well, separation is very important at the position and the average separation for an NFL receiver is set at 2.77 yards. Before the signing, Cole Beasley was the best receiver with 2.5 yards of separation (98th in the league). Cooper is averaging 3.8 yards of separation (ninth-best), which was very much needed in the Cowboys passing game. After 2016, Matt Harmon of Next Gen, rated Cooper fourth in total separation behind Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., and Terrelle Pryor:

Out wide separation: 2.42 (86 percent of plays)

Slot separation: 3.21 (13 percent of plays)

Air yards per target: 10.3 (from Carr)

It was a strange second season for Amari Cooper. He had a number of explosive outings with six games of 70-plus yards and three of 130-plus. Yet, he also finished with less than 50 yards in six games, four of which came in the last month and half of the regular season. His involvement in the offense seemed to come and go in waves, without any true explanation. The good news is that his best skill, running pristine routes and separating from coverage, remained intact. Cooper averaged 2.71 yards of separation on his targets overall, and a whopping 3.21 yards on his looks from the slot. It remains to be seen if Cooper’s usage changes next season, but his ability to get open is not in question.

Next Gen also shows Cooper in the Top-20 in WR catch rate at almost 71%, which is a welcomed sight as only Tavon Austin and Cole Beasley are over 70% in this WR room. This season is just a small sample size, let’s compare these receivers stat lines over the last three seasons. Keep in mind that Next Gen doesn’t have stats available for 2015:

2017 *Pro Bowl Games/ Starts Targets/ Rec. Yards YPC TD Catch % YAC/Rec. EYAC EYAC +/- Avg. Separation Targ. Share %
A. Cooper (52) 14/12 96/48 680 14.2 7 50 6.6 4.9 1.8 2.6 17.33%
S. Watkins (64) 15/14 70/39 593 15.2 8 55.7 5.2 4.5 0.2 2.5 13.80%
K. Benjamin (49) 14/14 78/48 692 14.4 3 61.5 3.3 3 0.3 2 4.13%
D. Parker (53) 13/12 97/57 670 11.8 1 59.4 4 4.4 -0.4 2.3 16.40%
2016 *Pro Bowl Games/ Starts Targ/ Rec. Yards YPC TD Catch % YAC/Rec. EYAC EYAC +/- Avg. Sep. Targ. Share %
*A. Cooper (8) 16/14 132/83 1153 13.9 5 62.9 5.5 5.4 0.1 2.6 23.43%
S. Watkins (112) 15/8 52/28 430 15.4 2 53.8 1.1 3.3 -1.9 2.5 10.65%
K. Benjamin (31) 16/13 118/63 941 14.9 7 53.4 3.5 3.8 -0.3 1.8 20.88%
D. Parker (54) 15/8 87/56 744 13.3 4 64.4 4.3 4.4 -0.1 2.3 18.43%
2015 *Pro Bowl Games/ Starts Targ/ Rec. Yards YPC TD Catch % YAC/Rec. Targ. Share %
*A. Cooper (20) 16/15 130/72 1070 14.9 6 55.4 5.5 21.86%
S. Watkins (22) 13/13 96/60 1047 17.5 9 62.5 2.1 21.26%
K. Benjamin IR ACL -- -- -- -- -- -- --
D. Parker (91) 15/4 50/26 494 20 3 52% 3.8 8.92%

The numbers in parenthesis are where each player ranked in receiving yards that season. Kelvin Benjamin had the best season of the group last year but he’s struggled this season, where he’s caught only 10 of 32 targets. Cooper’s target share has dropped to 17% last year, where he’s typically in the 20+ percent range. Cooper remains the best separator in this grouping and also has more consistent production overall. This next chart will show what their career average expectations looks like based on their production over this same time period:

Avg. Output Games/ Starts Targ/ Rec. Yards YPC TD Catch % YAC/Rec. EYAC EYAC +/- Avg. Sep. Targ. Share %
Amari Cooper 16/14 111/65 912 14 6 59.80% 5.7 5.2 0.5 3 19.41%
Sammy Watkins 16/12 112/66 673 15.1 6.3 58.90% 3.8 5.1 -1.3 2.8 15.57%
Kelvin Benjamin 16/11 70/34 593 14.6 5 48.50% 3.2 3.4 -0.2 1.8 14.45%
DeVante Parker 16/9 68/38 517 16.3 3 56% 4 4.4 0.4 2.3 14.25%

It’s pretty clear that Amari Cooper is the most consistent of the options that the Cowboys were looking at. Sammy Watkins may have more upside as far as touchdown catches but only by a small margin compared to Cooper. One thing of note about Cooper’s 19 career touchdown catches, 11 have been from 20+ yards. Kelvin Benjamin just hasn’t been a consistent enough catcher to really consider though his quarterback situation isn’t great either. DeVante Parker misses ample time and has shown flashes in the past, just not enough to give you a reliable top target.

There is one more part of this equation of comparisons and that’s former Cowboys receiver, Dez Bryant. How does his last three seasons size up compared to these other guys?

Dez Bryant *Pro Bowl Games/ Starts Targ/ Rec. Yards YPC TD Catch % YAC/Rec. EYAC EYAC +/- Avg. Sep Targ. Share %
2017 - (27) 16/16 132/69 838 12.1 6 52.3 4.4 3.7 0.7 1.8 27.45%
2016 - (51)* 16/13 96/50 796 15.9 8 52.1 2.5 3.7 -0.8 2.4 20.16%
2015 - (121) 16/9 72/31 401 12.9 3 43.1 - - - - 13.85%
Three-Year Avg. 16/13 100/49 678 13.6 6 49.2 3.5 3.7 -0.25 2.1 20.48%

It certainly looks like the Cowboys made the right choice in trading for Amari Cooper over any of these options we’ve looked over. Cooper is only 24-years-old, younger than every other receiver in this exercise. Dez Bryant’s total yards average is higher than everyone except Cooper and Dez was showing some improvement. At the same time, Bryant fits too closely with Kelvin Benjamin and that’s not a compliment. Bryant’s target share is the highest but he’s also got the second-worst catch rate at less than 50%. Dez is also second to last in separation and dead-last in yards per catch.

The Cowboys have a lot of knowledge on Amari Cooper though you can’t trace him back to any of our previous leaked draft boards. He also wasn’t among the Cowboys 2015 pre-draft visitor’s list. It’s most likely because the Cowboys knew that picking 27th in the 2015 Draft was not going to allow them to sniff Cooper plus Bryant was coming off his best season of his career. With that said, Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan are both disciples of Nick Saban, who told the coaches that Cooper needed out of Oakland. It also turns out that tight end coach Doug Nussmeier was Cooper’s offensive coordinator at Alabama for the 2012-2013 seasons and previously coached under Linehan in St. Louis.

At least, for now, the statistical evidence says that the Cowboys made the right acquisition but not everyone is content with the price. A first-round pick is a high price around here because of how successful the Cowboys have been in the first-round compared to other rounds. However, don’t worry about that $13.9 million price tag as the front office views it as a two-year plan of sorts. Cooper’s making $790K this year and $13.9 million in 2019 under the fifth-year option trigger pulled by the Raiders. That $14.69 million over the next two years is still much less that they would have paid for Sammy Watkins ($16 million average per season).

In the Cowboys’ front office’s mind, they were resigned to spending a first-round pick on a receiver either this past draft but also most-likely in 2019. The Cowboys feel like they have spent a first-round pick on a premier player that will strengthen a receiving corps that desperately needed playmaking potential:

In the previous three drafts, Amari Cooper is the only first-round receiver to show WR1 potential.

There are talented options upcoming in this class but none would give you what Cooper does right now. Plus, receiver just so happens to be one of the hardest transitions to make in the NFL though Calvin Ridley looks to be on his way on pace for over 800 yards.

After seven weeks of watching this offense struggle mightily in the passing game, the Cowboys are betting that Cooper can be a difference-maker. He not only could potentially save their season but also give them a better opportunity to evaluate Dak Prescott and the coaching staff. After browsing the market of potential suitors at the position, the Cowboys admitted a previous mistake by aggressively fixing it with the best option available. We can’t fault them for that.

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