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Cowboys about to pay Amari Cooper as a top receiver, but he isn’t ranked as one

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Is Amari Cooper underrated or is he just now coming into his own?

Wild Card Round - Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Ask any Dallas Cowboys fan and they will tell you that Amari Cooper saved the season in 2018. Before the trade of a first-round pick for the Oakland Raiders receiver, the Cowboys were going nowhere, stuck in a funk at 3-4 and struggling on offense in a major way except for an absurd blowout of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Cowboys went 7-2 after Cooper arrived, won the NFC East, won a playoff game and gave a decent showing in a loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round.

From Cowboys fans, there is an outpouring of appreciation for the player that Cooper is and the abilities he brought to the franchise. He’s a legit #1 receiver with none of the diva-like qualities usually associated with wide receivers in the NFL, he’s gone over 1,000 yards in three of his four seasons and has been to three Pro Bowls.

It’s all good. And the Cowboys are about to make him one of the top, if not the top, compensated receivers in the league.

So why doesn’t Cooper get the respect he deserves?

Many times this offseason various media organizations have done some kind of player rankings where Cooper is not considered a Top 10 receiver and in some cases not a Top 15 receiver, or worse. We get that these are subjective rankings and in the grand scheme of things mean absolutely nothing, but it is interesting how Cooper gets consistently overlooked.

Sports Illustrated recently did a podcast segment on the best wide receivers in the game and Cooper is absent from their Top 10.

1. Julio Jones, Atlanta, 79 points (2 first-place votes)
2. Antonio Brown, Oakland, 73
3. Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland, 72
4. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston, 70 (1)
5. Michael Thomas, New Orleans, 62
6. Adam Thielen, Minnesota, 56
7. Keenan Allen, L.A. Chargers, 52
8. A.J. Green, Cincinnati, 49
9. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay, 48
10. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh, 45

We recently discussed a CBS Sports article that listed the Top 100 players in the NFL and Cooper was missing from that. 17 wide receivers were mentioned in that article as either ranked or in the “just missed” category and there was no Cooper. That’s at least 17 wide receivers Cooper was behind!

ESPN recently did a segment about the Top 5 wide receivers where they picked from a list of 10 possible top receivers, and you guessed it, Cooper was nowhere to be found on that list.

The Sporting News did a ranking of receivers earlier this offseason and had Cooper ranked #19. That is after what he did at the end of the 2018 season, and in his first two seasons in Oakland.

At least in this Athlon Sports ranking of the top receivers heading into 2019, Cooper is number ten. Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News also ranked him 10th.

So why are the Cowboys ready to break the bank on a receiver that isn’t thought of as a top receiver? Some of it is timing. Cooper’s time for a new contract is coming and in the NFL the next guy up gets paid. It’s similar to what is happening in the quarterback contracts where Carson Wentz just cashed in despite having trouble finishing seasons and being outplayed statistically by some other quarterbacks (cough, Dak Prescott, cough).

The Cowboys also kind of locked themselves in when they traded a first-round pick for Cooper. You don’t do that unless you are prepared to pay what it takes to keep him. In that sense, Cooper has a lot of leverage.

But what do the stats say about Cooper? If you go back to the time he was drafted in 2015, he’s been outside of the Top 10 in many of the volume stats. He is 13th in total yards, 15th in touchdowns and 20th in receptions. Those numbers are in line with his playing time and opportunities as he is 16th in games started and 16th in targets over those four years. The one area where he falls down is in catch % where he ranks 70th. Of course, he was playing most of that time in Oakland with Derek Carr who has had accuracy issues.

One area that Cooper excels at, at least according to Football Outsiders, is yards after catch. FO has a measurement called YAC+ which they explain as:

YAC+ is similar to plus-minus; it estimates how much YAC a receiver gained compared to what we would have expected from an average receiver catching passes of similar length in similar down-and-distance situations. This is imperfect due to variations in YAC stemming from the routes the receivers run, but it does a fairly good job of telling you if this receiver gets more or less YAC than other receivers with similar usage patterns.

In 2018 Cooper was ranked fifth among wide receivers with a +1.2 YAC+ rating. Once he came to the Cowboys in 2018, his YAC+ number shot up.

Amari Cooper was at -0.2 in Oakland; that shot up to a +1.8 in Dallas... It should be noted that Dak Prescott and Matthew Stafford had higher YAC+ numbers than Derek Carr and Carson Wentz, so it does help to be paired with a quarterback with whom you have good chemistry, and to be allowed to run routes which maximize your chances for yards after the catch.

But before we write off his improvement to a new quarterback, or a new scheme, Cooper was also fifth in FO’s 2017 YAC+ numbers, so he’s done it two years in a row, once in Oakland and then last year with the Cowboys to finish the season. FO notes the skill is credited mostly to the receiver.

The fact that [Sammy] Watkins, Cooper, and [Golden] Tate appear on the list despite changing teams last season implies that this isn’t just an artifact of scheme; it’s a real skill that some receivers have, albeit one at least partially dependent on route selection.

So it’s a mixed bag in terms of stats for Amari Cooper. He’s been solid, but has never been electric, except for maybe what he did last year for the Cowboys. He’s never had a huge yardage year even though he’s topped 1,000 yards three times, and his touchdown numbers have also been okay but not great. He’s never had a double-digit touchdown year.

But maybe there’s something that just clicks between him, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys. Overall, he was the ninth-leading receiver over the period of time he was in Dallas last year. If you project what he did in his 11 games in Dallas (nine regular season and two playoff games) he would have a line of 93 catches, 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns. That would be career-best numbers for Cooper and if he produced at that level regularly, he certainly would vault up the subjective rankings of wide receivers.

In fact, projecting that 11-game performance over four seasons would give Cooper 5,212 receiving yards (which would rank him fourth since 2015 behind only Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, and DeAndre Hopkins) and 40 TDs (second behind only Antonio Brown).

Coopers’ slump in 2017 and the early part of 2018 have probably soured public opinion of him. As Cowboys fans, though, we have seen what he means to the team and just how good he can be. He arguably has played his best stretch of pro football in Dallas. When doling out money for a new contract, you pay on what you expect to happen, not on past performance.

The Cowboys are banking on Cooper continuing to perform at the level of his first 11 games in Dallas - and will pay him accordingly.

Would you?