The Dallas Cowboys are drawing a line in the sand.
On one side is Dalton Schultz, who was believed to have played his last game wearing the star as he was set to hit free agency. After two strong seasons, it just didn’t seem like the “cap-strapped” Cowboys would be able to retain him. But they have. Schultz received the franchise tag on Tuesday and he appears to have a long-term deal coming sometime in the near future.
On the other side is Amari Cooper, who was once so highly-coveted that the front office allocated precious draft capital and stacks of cap resources to have him running routes for this offense. After playing out two years of his five-year deal, the front office appears to have other plans for this offense with Cooper not being a part of it. His release is expected to happen within the next 10 days.
Both these guys had exactly 104 targets last season, yet those numbers have such a different meaning for each of them. For Schultz, it shows how Dak Prescott has developed trust in his sure-handed tight end and the organization has decided to recognize that value with a longer commitment. For Cooper, it highlights a less-than-stellar contribution from a wide receiver who comes with greater expectations.
Taking a closer look at these targets and the Cowboys' offense in general actually paints an interesting picture that might help us understand why the team is doing what it is doing, and why it would be a mistake.
Prescott is not targeting Cooper
Over Cooper’s career, he has averaged 7.5 targets a game. During his first two and a half seasons in Dallas, Cooper was a big focal point of the offense, having eight or more targets in 60% of the games he played. But all that changed this past season. While the reasoning is not fully understood, we can safely say that Prescott is just not targeting Cooper as he has in the past.
As great as Cooper is as a player (and he’s great from the eyes of this fan), he can’t be valuable if the quarterback is not throwing him the ball.
When Cooper is targeted, the passing game rolls
The Cowboys have more options these days than they had when Cooper first joined the team. Schultz is a part of this now, 2020 first-round pick CeeDee Lamb led the team in catches and yards last year, and the “third wheel” Michael Gallup is such a great asset that the team is working on getting him extended. Surely, the team will be just fine without Cooper, right?
Well, maybe, but one thing we can say is that when Cooper got a good dose of targets last year, the passing offense was clicking. Four times Cooper had at least eight targets in a game last year (one of them was with Cooper Rush at quarterback), and in all four of them the offense put up over 300 passing yards.
When Cooper is fed, the passing game puts up good numbers. That is not the case with the other Cowboys receivers or their safety blanket tight end. Is this just a coincidence? Maybe. However, a weird thing happens when Cooper is not getting looks.
When Cooper is ignored, the passing game struggles
Not only does targeting Cooper help the passing game, but ignoring him hurts it. If you look at all 11 games where Prescott had fewer than 300 passing yards last year, only once was Cooper the leader in targets for the game. And in the four worst passing yard games from Dak, Cooper either missed it from COVID or finished outside the top two in targets.
The narrative that Amari Cooper has seen better days would be a lot easier to believe if the team’s passing game production wasn’t so closely connected to how many times Prescott looks his way. Cooper can’t be elite if he’s not getting his opportunities. And maybe that’s what this comes down to - opportunities. Because from my vantage point, Cooper is doing exactly what they’re paying him to do.