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Can Amari Cooper fix Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense?

There’s reason to think Amari Cooper can have a major impact on the Cowboys.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Oakland Raiders Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC East flat blew up at the trade deadline with each team making significant moves:

The general consensus is Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington all improved their 2018 chances, but long-term events will decide the value of these trades. ESPN named each a trade dealine “winner” (with the Giants a loser):

Remember, the Cowboys kicked this whole thing off a week early when they traded a first-round pick for some badly needed wide receiver help in Amari Cooper. The Eagles, who tried to get Cooper but wouldn’t give up the first-rounder, pried Golden Tate away from the Lions on Tuesday for a third-round pick. And we were all set to list Washington among the “losers” here because it needed receiver help and didn’t get Tate or Demaryius Thomas, and the teams that did are both on its second-half schedule (including the Eagles twice). But then Washington swooped in at the deadline and added safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who’ll help at least limit the production of opposing receivers while Washington’s get healthy. Pro Football Focus’ top two graded safeties so far this year are Washington’s D.J. Swearinger and ... you guessed it, Clinton-Dix. As for the Giants, they’re in the other section.

Based upon Twitter and the comments on our own BTB site many Cowboys fans don’t share the same optimism regarding the acquisition of Pro Bowl wide-out Amari Cooper. After, all, they’ve seen this play before and past outcomes have left many with legitimate concerns.

There’s also, however, legitimate reason for optimism. A look at how the Cowboys’ passing game has performed in 2018 - and how Cooper could fit in - shows there was logic in the front-office’s decision-making.

The following bubble chart of the team’s top receiving targets shows three data points:

  • Horizontal axis shows receiving yards.
  • Vertical axis shows yards per attempt.
  • Bubble size indicates number of targets.

In general, this is an ugly chart. Only Beasley and “others” occupy the area you want to occupy. The others either suffer from a poor yards per target number (one of the best measurements of a passing attack) or their receiving yards are minuscule. When your second most prolific receiver in terms of yards gained is on pace for less than 500 yards - and your top receiver is pace for 800 yards - there are major problems.

That’s where Cooper could - and should - come in. Let’s add his 2018 numbers to the chart:

  • This looks a little better. You don’t have to squint too hard to see the makings of a legitimate NFL receiving corps: Beasley, Cooper, Gallup, Swaim. I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t become the consistent group in terms of snaps and targets. This makes sense if you look at targets (volume) and yards per attempt (efficiency):

This clearly shows how Beasley, Swaim and Gallup have been productive and the rest of the team not so much. These problems also show up:

  • Elliott is getting far too many targets. The schemed throws to Elliott are fine (think the screens that have proven deadly and the late game catch against the Lions). However, Elliott is frequently targeted as a last-ditch outlet on third-and-long, getting the ball near the line of scrimmage and asked to make 8-15 yards. These are killing his efficiency numbers.
  • Allen Hurns has been a complete bust and shouldn’t be on the field much moving forward.
  • The “others” benefit from a few big plays by Tavon Auston and Rico Gathers but there’s been no consistency from any of the individual players.

Let’s look at the same chart, with Cooper added:

Here we see how Cooper slots in well with the Cowboys’ other productive targets. Cooper has been averaging less than five targets per game with the Raiders. Considering his elite route-running skills, Cooper is likely to average more with the Cowboys. Those targets should come at the expense of Hurns and Elliott.

Specifically, Hurns isn’t going to be on the field. But more importantly, the expectation is that Cooper will provide the open receiver on those long third down plays where Dak Prescott is currently dropping the ball off to Elliott. If that happens, Elliott’s targets should decline and his efficiency should improve. Again, it’s not hard to envision the Beasley/Cooper/Gallup/Swaim/Elliott group being much, much more effective on third downs.

This would be a huge improvement as Dallas currently ranks 29th in the NFL with a third-down conversion rate of only 31.2%. This is a huge drop from 2016 when the team ranked ninth at 43%. If Cooper can help them team convert one more third down out of every ten attempts, suddenly the team is back in that top ten level. That doesn’t seem an outrageous expectation.

Let’s put all this in perspective by looking at Dak Prescott’s numbers. Here’s his performance for 2016, 2017 and 2018 compared to the NFL’s 2018 average:

One thing that’s hard to see is that Dak’s bubbles are just smaller than the NFL average. In 2018, Dak is averaging 29 attempts per game, seven less than the NFL average (36). At seven yards per attempt that means we would expect Dak to be throwing for 50 yards less per game than the NFL average.

And that’s right where Dak stands (208 yards per game versus 253 yards per game). That’s because Dak’s yards per attempt is almost identical to the league average (6.8 versus 7.0).

You can also see Dak’s 2018 is about the same as his 2017, but significantly worse than his 2016. Again, you don’t have to squint too hard to imagine Dak’s 2018 number migrating towards that 2016 mark with the addition of Cooper. Convert a few more first downs per game to keep a few drives alive and much of what ails this Cowboys offense would be fixed.

That’s the hope anyway. It may not prove successful. But when you look at all the various parts and where there’s room for improvement, Cooper sure seems like a well-thought out solution to the Cowboys’ offensive problems.

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