The Dallas Cowboys didn’t get to make a selection in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. They’re okay with that though because in exchange for their Day 1 draft spot, they instead received a then two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper from the Oakland Raiders.
The decision to part ways with such a huge piece of draft capital was met with plenty of criticism. And it wasn’t because of Cooper’s ability as he was clearly a good player, but rather the idea that they gave up a new draft prospect that would come with an affordable cap cost over the next four, possibly five years. Cooper, on the other hand was nearing the end of his rookie deal, which meant the Cowboys would soon have to take on a significant cap hit when the team re-upped on him in the form of a contract extension.
Fast forward to now, and it seems pretty clear that the Cowboys made a great trade to land Cooper. Prior to Cooper showing up, the Cowboys offense was ranked in the bottom five in the league in total yards, including one of just four teams in the league who averaged less than 200 yards through the air. The addition of Cooper instantly bolstered the offense as the team won seven of their nine remaining regular season games after his arrival.
The offense continued to thrive the following season as the Cowboys churned out the most yards in the entire league in 2019, and they were right there at the top again through the first five games of the 2020 season. It was easy to see that the addition of Amari Cooper made this offense better.
Now that two seasons have passed, do we still feel good about the Cooper trade? Here are the players selected in the first round of the 2019 draft:
As you can see, there is no pick for Dallas because they got Cooper. And because of the success the team had with Cooper on the roster, it ended up pushing the Raiders pick in return all the way down to 27. It turned out to be a double whammy for Oakland, who not only lost a good receiver in Cooper, but then also saw that player contribute in lessening the value of that pick.
With two seasons in the book, let’s check out the progress of all those first-round draft picks and compare them to Cooper. To get a nice apples to apples comparison, we’re going to use the approximate value calculated by Pro Football Reference. For those unfamiliar, approximate value (AV) is PFR’s way to place a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position. This allows cross-comparison of players of different positions. One thing to note about approximate value is that playing time matters, so a player who misses time for any reason (say, Nick Bosa) will have an impact on his AV score. Here is how each of the first-round picks scored with Cooper added to the mix:
From strictly an AV perspective, Cooper finished as the third-best player when compared to others from the draft. Of course, he was already a seasoned veteran so that gives him a little bit of an advantage, but hey - that’s all part of the deal. The Cowboys paid for some proven ability, and they got it.
Not only did they get a great player, but they got a great player at a position where they needed help, and they had the foresight to see that same level of talent wasn’t going to be available in the upcoming draft. There were only two wide receivers selected in the first round of the 2019 draft with both guys coming off the board late on Day 1. Here are their numbers compared with Cooper over the same two-year span:
The Cowboys eliminated the risk of trying to find a good receiver in the draft by taking matters in their own hands. And now that two seasons are in the books, the decision to trade for Cooper keeps looking better and better.