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Amari Cooper has been good for the Dallas Cowboys and they’ve been good for him

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Last year’s acquisition for the Cowboys is making the offense elite.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Amari Cooper’s arrival just over a year ago completely transformed the Dallas Cowboys’ organization. A previously inept offense that struggled to consistently move the ball or score points was suddenly a multi-faceted unit that threatened teams in a variety of ways. A team that was 3-5 and looked dead in the water has gone 12-5 since. The current version of the Cowboys bears no resemblance to that moribund pre-Amari offense.

The following shows the Cowboys’ 2019 ranks in a number of offensive categories compared to the 2018 pre-Amari version:

Now, the 2019 offense has a number of additions beyond Cooper. Travis Frederick is back at center and Jason Witten at tight end. Randall Cobb is the third wide receiver.

But there’s simply no question the number one reason the Cowboys’ offense went from skid row to Broadway is one Amari Cooper. The Cowboys’ front office deserves a ton of credit for making the daring move. Look how the team has improved in so many categories:

When the trade was announced last year, John Owning of the DallasNews.com accurately captured how Cooper’s skillset was a perfect fit for Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense (the story is no longer available):

Cooper has had his share of issues with drops and contested-catch situations. The drop issues are more of a concentration issue than a technical problem, and Cooper has shown improvement there this season with just two drops on 30 targets. His issues in contested-catch situations are mitigated by his ability to create separation with his routes.

The current crop of Cowboys receivers struggle to maximize throwing windows for Prescott, forcing him to make more tight-window throws than he is able to. Moreover, the Cowboys receivers who are able to create separation with their routes (Beasley and Austin) are diminutive in stature, meaning the throwing window is condensed given the separation created by the receiver.

At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Cooper doesn’t have this problem -- he has the size and route-running ability to maximize Prescott’s throwing windows, and his presence would make Prescott’s life easier since he doesn’t have to thread the needle in a tight window.

On top of his deep speed, Cooper’s ability to separate from coverage makes him a yards-after-catch threat every time he is targeted. He was 11th among receivers in receiving yards after the catch in 2017, per PFF.

Owning could not have been more correct. Cooper was the perfect cure what ailed the Cowboys’ offense. Last year early on, teams were content to let Zeke and the running game get theirs and dared the Cowboys to beat them in the air; the Cowboys couldn’t. Now? Teams have to choose their poison and whatever they choose the Cowboys now have an effective answer. There’s no question Cooper has been good for the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys have also been good for Amari Cooper

This is not, however, a one-way street. Just as Cooper has augmented the Cowboys, the Cowboys have propelled Cooper. In fact, Dallas Cowboy Amari Cooper is better than Oakland Raider Amari Cooper was at any time during his tenure there.

Each of the following charts shows a rolling 16-game total. Cooper has played exactly 16 regular season games with the Cowboys, so only the final point in each chart is a “Cowboys-only” number. Cooper, once the fourth pick in the NFL draft, had seen his value decline in the eyes of many NFL evaluators as his production had fallen from that of a number 1 receiver to that of a good (not great) number 2 receiver. He’s since returned to a high-end number 1 target.

Speaking of targets, lets start with them.

We see that early in his career Cooper was getting as many as 140 targets per season, which is a mammoth number (nearly nine targets per game). By the time of last year’s trade that number had fallen to below 100. There were a number of analysts who applauded the trade because they believed Raider’s quarterback Derek Carr simply wasn’t throwing the ball to Cooper. He has since seen his number of targets rebound to the current 126 number (right around eight per game) with the Cowboys. Those are true #1 wide receiver numbers.

Now, if you’re going to get that many balls thrown your way you better catch them. Boy is Cooper doing that. He was a 70-80 catch guy early in his career but the numbers had dropped into the low-50s by the time of the trade. Those are not number one receiver numbers. But we see the number of catches has exploded to over 90; that’s an 80% improvement from his final days in Oakland. It’s also, again, legitimate number 1 receiver numbers.

The targets have increased, the catches have increased at a higher rate. That means the completion rate must be improving, right?

Absolutely. Cooper is consistently catching nearly three of four balls thrown his way. That’s an astounding number and makes life extremely difficult for opposing defense. Cooper is getting a couple throws every quarter and he’s catching the vast majority. How do you defend that?

Getting more targets and catching more balls at a high rate means more yards as well.

Just look at the improvement. From 671 yards at his nadir with the Raiders to his current 1,348. That’s a 100% increase, which is phenomenal. That yardage number is significantly better than Cooper’s previous career-high (1,234).

Normally, a high rate of catches is associated with slot receivers and guys who work the shallow, underneath routes. That usually results in lower yards per target but we again see Cooper’s numbers topping his previous best. Cooper’s current 10.7 yards per throw tops his previous high with the Raiders and would have ranked eighth among eligible receivers in 2018.

Now, if we stopped here there’s no question all would agree Cooper has been a bigger contributor with the Cowboys than he ever was with the Raiders. Adding touchdowns, however, just makes one wonder what was going on in Oakland.

With the Raiders Cooper was never a double-digit touchdown player. He varied from four to eight scores per season. With Dallas that number has steadily increased and settled at eleven. Now touchdowns come and go but there’s no arguing that Cooper is simply producing more than he ever had before. His touchdown percentage reflects this:

What we have is a complementary situation where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. At the time of the trade we had:

  • A truly bad Dallas Cowboys offense that represented little threat to opposing defenses
  • A talented but relatively unproductive receiver who was seen by many as no longer elite despite being only 24 years old.

Now we have:

  • A dynamic offense that is able to attack teams both through the air and on the ground, combining quick-strike attacks and long, methodical drives.
  • A 25-year-old wide-out now rightly recognized as an elite receiver who has years of his NFL prime remaining.

All of this reflects how football is the ultimate team game. Dak Prescott benefits from having Amari Cooper on the field while Cooper benefits from having Dak Prescott throwing him the ball. None of it is possible without a solid offensive line, and without a punishing running game defenses could sell out to stop Cooper and the passing game.

It’s all complementary and shows the Cowboys brain-trust knew what they were doing when they pulled the trigger to surrender a first-round pick for Cooper. Remember, this trade was widely panned by the instant-take crowd:

The lesson, as always, is judging things without information generally doesn’t turn out very well. The Cowboys had a pretty good idea what they were getting with Cooper. But the move was still a risk and 12 months later I doubt anyone could have predicted the move to turn out as well as it has.

Now, let’s get Amari extended and he can join Bob Hayes, Drew Pearson, Michael Irvin and Dez Bryant as Cowboys’ wide receiver royalty.