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Amari Cooper made the Cowboys better, and the team did the same for him

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He came to Dallas with a reputation for low completion rates and dropped balls. Things improved immediately.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Shane Roper-USA TODAY Sports

As training camp in Oxnard draws ever closer for the Dallas Cowboys, the team still has a few things they would like to resolve. One of them is getting an extension done for wide receiver Amari Cooper, the man who saved the 2018 season. His looming deal has not created quite the heated discussion as that of Dak Prescott, but given how important the connection between the two was in overcoming the 3-5 start last season to climb into the playoffs, Cooper’s is very important.

Like Prescott (at least for some), Cooper also raises the question of just how good he is. His impressive performance down the stretch is going to be the biggest factor the team considers, given that it is both the most recent and best observed set of data. However, the clear success of the trade has somewhat buried concerns that had many questioning it at the time it happened. Cooper had a reputation with the Oakland Raiders for not being very good at catching the ball, especially for a high-first-round pick.

Calvin Watkins had a recent post at The Athletic delving into the drops Cooper has had in his career. He mostly focused on just how imprecisely defined the concept of a drop is, but there is another way to look at it. Rather than worry about what a drop is, his record catching the ball when it is thrown at him can be examined. Using the stats from ESPN, which includes what they deem to be passes where he was the target, yields the following.

Amari Cooper catch rates

Team Targets Catches Catch rate
Team Targets Catches Catch rate
Oakland 225 389 57.8
Dallas 53 76 69.7

The sample size with the Cowboys is of course smaller, but it is still large enough to be significant. Coming to Dallas led to Cooper having a completion rate on targets that was almost 12% higher. He didn’t just make the team better. He got better, too.

So what changed? The obvious variable here is the quarterback. It seems more than just coincidence that Cooper’s catch rate was very close to Dak Prescott’s completion percentage to all receivers, 67.7%. But Oakland QB Derek Carr had a better percentage than Prescott at 68.9%. That alone doesn’t explain the jump.

We are left having to consider two other factors, the intangible of chemistry and the scheme involved. Clearly, Prescott and Cooper hit it off in a big way for things to have gone so much better for the receiver. In that light, the reports from the OTAs of how they continue to build on things are encouraging. Now they will be able to further work on things in camp. (Don’t expect to see much of either in the preseason games, however, as the team will protect both, and has a bunch of other wide receivers it has to evaluate.)

But it may be that the scheme plays an even bigger part. Cooper himself has complained that he was not being used well by the Raiders. In an interview with Mike Florio of NBC Sports Pro Football Talk (quoted at Cowboys Wire), he said this.

“There are things that I wanted to do out there on the field during the games, certain plays that I wanted to be called and certain routes that I wanted to run that just weren’t a part of the game plan.”

While that is as close to sour grapes as we have heard from him (unlike, say, a slot receiver who left the Cowboys in free agency to join the Buffalo Bills), it also seems supported by the evidence. For whatever reason, Jon Gruden just did not seem to have a place for Cooper. That was to the Cowboys’ advantage, as it turns out. And now, Dallas is using a lot more of Cooper’s potential.

We still have to see if things continue going well this season. But for now, there don’t look to be any real problems with how well Cooper catches the ball. At least while he is wearing the Star.