Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

19 Oct 2017

Amari Cooper: Is This Michael Clayton Again?

by Scott Kacsmar

The Oakland Raiders are struggling through a four-game losing streak, but no single player may be struggling more than No. 1 wide receiver Amari Cooper. He has just 18 catches for 146 yards in six games in 2017. Typically, when a top receiver is putting up numbers that bad, we would look at how the quarterback position is faring, and Derek Carr (back) did suffer an injury that led to one missed start. However, teammate Michael Crabtree has been thriving and ranks first in DVOA (32.1%) among wide receivers this season. Cooper ranks 75th in DVOA (-41.9%) and next to last in DYAR (-88), so it's not that the offense is all-around designed poorly and the quarterbacks can't get anyone the ball. Cooper just isn't doing much of anything, as he has nine catches for 51 yards during the losing streak.

If this decline is permanent, then it may be the swiftest implosion for a young star since Tampa Bay's rookie standout Michael Clayton, a first-round pick who had 1,193 receiving yards in 2004. He never broke 500 yards in any other season, and while injuries did play a factor, he suited up for at least 12 games in each of his first six seasons. He just never could recapture that rookie magic.

But while Clayton had just one big year, Cooper had two after the Raiders made him the No. 4 pick in the 2015 draft. Cooper is one of nine players in NFL history to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

So how the heck is he on pace for 388 yards this year, and how rare would that be for a productive two-year receiver in his third season? I looked at the 29 players in NFL history with at least 2,000 receiving yards through their second season. I found how many yards they had in their third season, as well as their per-game averages in light of an injury (Julio Jones in 2013) or suspension (Josh Gordon in 2014). The following table is sorted by descending yards per game in the player's third season.

Receivers: Third-Year Production After 2,000 Yards in First Two Seasons
Rk Player Debut Team Rec Yrs 1-2 Yds Yrs 1-2 Year 3 GP Yards YPG
1 Julio Jones 2011 ATL 133 2,157 2013 5 580 116.0
2 Anquan Boldin 2003 ARI 157 2,000 2005 14 1,402 100.1
3 DeAndre Hopkins 2013 HOU 128 2,012 2015 16 1,521 95.1
4 Jerry Rice 1985 SF 135 2,497 1987 12 1,078 89.8
5 Randy Moss 1998 MIN 149 2,726 2000 16 1,437 89.8
6 A.J. Green 2011 CIN 162 2,407 2013 16 1,426 89.1
7 Gary Clark 1985 WAS 146 2,191 1987 12 1,066 88.8
8 Odell Beckham 2014 NYG 187 2,755 2016 16 1,367 85.4
9 Torry Holt 1999 STL 134 2,423 2001 16 1,363 85.2
10 John Jefferson 1978 SD 117 2,091 1980 16 1,340 83.8
11 Isaac Bruce 1994 LARM 140 2,053 1996 16 1,338 83.6
12 Mike Evans 2014 TB 142 2,257 2016 16 1,321 82.6
13 Bob Hayes 1965 DAL 110 2,235 1967 13 998 76.8
14 DeSean Jackson 2008 PHI 124 2,068 2010 14 1,056 75.4
15 Dave Parks 1964 SF 116 2,047 1966 13 974 74.9
Rk Player Debut Team Rec Yrs 1-2 Yds Yrs 1-2 Year 3 GP Yards YPG
16 Mike Wallace 2009 PIT 99 2,013 2011 16 1,193 74.6
17 Larry Fitzgerald 2004 ARI 161 2,189 2006 13 946 72.8
18 Calvin Johnson 2007 DET 126 2,087 2009 14 984 70.3
19 Joey Galloway 1995 SEA 124 2,026 1997 15 1,049 69.9
20 Marques Colston 2006 NO 168 2,240 2008 11 760 69.1
21 Sterling Sharpe 1988 GB 145 2,214 1990 16 1,105 69.1
22 Charley Hennigan 1960 HOIL 126 2,468 1962 14 867 61.9
23 Andre Rison 1989 2TM 134 2,028 1991 16 976 61.0
24 Josh Gordon 2012 CLE 137 2,451 2014 5 303 60.6
25 Sammy Watkins 2014 BUF 125 2,029 2016 8 430 53.8
26 Dwayne Bowe 2007 KC 156 2,017 2009 11 589 53.5
27 Andre Johnson 2003 HOU 145 2,118 2005 13 688 52.9
28 Amari Cooper 2015 OAK 155 2,223 2017 6 146 24.3
29 Bill Groman 1960 HOIL 122 2,648 1962 14 328 23.4

Cooper's average of 24.3 yards per game so far would stick out like a sore thumb in this group. The only player here to finish his third season under 50.0 receiving yards per game was Bill Groman (23.4 yards per game). Groman and teammate Charley Hennigan, who is also in the table, are arguably outliers since they played for the pass-happy Houston teams with George Blanda in the beginning of the AFL in the 1960s. Neither had a very lengthy career, and that third season (1962) was the year when Blanda threw 42 interceptions in 14 games. (Yes, include the backups' stats and a professional football team actually threw 48 interceptions in one season -- and still finished 11-3.)

Look at more modern examples, and Cooper just does not stack up well to his peers. The streak of rough games is actually seven games, since Cooper caught 2-of-10 targets for 10 yards in Oakland's AFC wild-card loss in Houston in January. Granted, rookie Connor Cook was the quarterback in that game. Cooper also failed to catch any of his eight targets against the stingy Denver defense in 2015, and had a game in Detroit that same season where he caught one ball for 4 yards. But even the greatest receivers have off-days.

The fall this season has been extreme. Cooper was force-fed 13 targets in Week 1, including several shots in the red zone, but he only caught five passes for 62 yards and a touchdown. That didn't set off any alarms, nor did a quiet four-grab day for 33 yards against the Jets in an easy Week 2 win. But in the next three games, Cooper had receiving yardage totals of 6, 9, and 8 yards. That is staggering stuff for any player coming off of back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Sunday, Cooper only had 28 yards on five catches against the Chargers.

In his 39-game career, Cooper already has seven games (17.9 percent) where he did not exceed 10 receiving yards. I looked at how that stacks up to the other players in the table above for their careers (including playoff games). Let's just say there really hasn't been anything like it.

I chose to leave out the pre-merger players from this table. I did not include Bill Groman and Charley Hennigan since they really played in a different era in the AFL. I did not include Dave Parks either, since he converted to tight end later in his career. He appears to have only had two games with a maximum of 10 yards in his first three seasons. Bob Hayes had 31 of his 147 career games with no more than 10 yards (21.1 percent), but it only happened three times in his first five seasons (1965-1969).

Receivers: Career Games With Fewer Than 10 Receiving Yards
Rk Player CarGP 0-10 Yds Pct. First 3 Yrs
1 Odell Beckham 48 0 0.0% 0
2 Larry Fitzgerald 217 4 1.8% 2
3 Mike Evans 51 1 2.0% 1
4 Julio Jones 90 2 2.2% 2
5 Calvin Johnson 137 4 2.9% 3
6 Torry Holt 183 6 3.3% 2
7 Marques Colston 156 7 4.5% 4
8 Anquan Boldin 217 10 4.6% 1
9 A.J. Green 95 5 5.3% 2
10 Sterling Sharpe 114 6 5.3% 5
11 Jerry Rice 332 18 5.4% 3
12 Andre Johnson 197 11 5.6% 2
Rk Player CarGP 0-10 Yds Pct. First 3 Yrs
13 Josh Gordon 35 2 5.7% 2
14 Isaac Bruce 232 15 6.5% 1
15 DeAndre Hopkins 73 5 6.8% 4
16 Sammy Watkins 43 3 7.0% 2
17 DeSean Jackson 139 10 7.2% 4
18 Randy Moss 233 18 7.7% 1
19 Gary Clark 181 14 7.7% 5
20 Mike Wallace 138 12 8.7% 2
21 Dwayne Bowe 127 13 10.2% 2
22 Andre Rison 194 21 10.8% 4
23 John Jefferson 107 14 13.1% 1
24 Joey Galloway 202 32 15.8% 0
25 Amari Cooper 39 7 17.9% 7

As the "First 3 Yrs" column shows, Cooper is the only player here who had more than five of these games in his first three seasons. There are plenty of interesting notes here, like how Odell Beckham Jr. has never dipped below 23 yards, or that Anquan Boldin had just one of these games in his first seven seasons. Remember, Cooper has done this four times in his last seven outings. Larry Fitzgerald has done it four times in 217 career games.

Many of the older receivers on this list largely accumulated these low-production games at the very beginning and/or end of their careers. Take Jerry Rice for example. He failed to exceed 10 yards just 18 times in his 332-game career, but three of those games came as a rookie in 1985, and nine more of them came in his final season (2004) when he was 42 years old. Joey Galloway was another player who accumulated a lot of these games later in his career, as he only had two such games in his first six seasons. Galloway joins Beckham as the only players on the list to not have such a game in their first three seasons, and Galloway actually didn't dip under 15 yards until his 50th game.

What if this is just a case of Cooper not actually being that great of a receiver? We see a lot of modern names in this sample, because receiving yards are at an all-time high in this era. Cooper's first two years aren't as impressive as the feats we see from Jones, A.J. Green, Beckham, or Mike Evans. No player since 2015 has more dropped passes than Cooper (18), and that includes four drops this season. We often see him just miss out on touchdowns in the end zone with Carr.

Cooper is a young, talented, but inconsistent player. He still has time to salvage his 2017 season, but with each passing dud he adds to his resume, the more likely he is shaping up to be this decade's Michael Clayton.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 19 Oct 2017

19 comments, Last at 29 Oct 2017, 12:12pm by JimZipCode

Comments

1
by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 10/19/2017 - 12:47pm

Wil reaf whole article later bht cooper ma have bug game tonight. So want to hold off on burying guy.

Is very strange though about WRs in geenral. Having heck of a time anymore projctijg college WRs to NFl. Think will gibe up on having opinions on college receivers. Personally havebetwr eye for RBs, QBs and some defenders

9
by BywaterBrat :: Thu, 10/19/2017 - 9:01pm

RaiderJoe is the man

14
by fyo :: Fri, 10/20/2017 - 2:38am

Nice call... 210 yards and 2 touchdowns is a lot of deodorant.

My question is, how has Cooper ACTUALLY played? Not just the stats, but the actual game tape? I haven't watched any of his bad games, so I just don't know.

I do know that dropped passes, much like QB pressure, is an incredibly inconsistent stat. I've watched it carefully for my favorite team for a few years now and it's just so inconsistently applied to be next to useless on small numbers. Plays where a receiver stands still in the endzone and has a nice ball hit him in both hands is NOT called a drop because a defender hits him from behind half a second later. Yeah, if you only watched it real time from a single angle, that might look right, but replays clearly showed the receiver dropped the ball before the defender, who the receiver never saw, hit. Or the receiver in the endzone that complete mistimes his uncontested jump for a high ball and basically punches it up in the air. And those two examples were just in a single half of one game.

On the other hand, an awkwardly placed ball to the back hip where the receiver makes a great adjustment under pressure gets called a drop in a different game.

Not unlike how a QB bailing from a good pocket and a defender he probably never sees hits him AFTER he gets his throw off cleanly gets "credit" for throwing under pressure, whereas the quarterback who has two defenders in his face after less than two seconds might or might not get credit, depending on what happens after the throw and who is applying the stats. Yes, I'm looking at you QBR.

18
by zenbitz :: Fri, 10/20/2017 - 2:48pm

everything is going right through his hands.

2
by MilkmanDanimal :: Thu, 10/19/2017 - 1:50pm

Man, that is a damning comparison, and I still haven't gotten over the Michael Clayton disintegration. Great as a rookie, and then showed up out of shape and allegedly more interested in cheeseburgers than football, and utterly vanished.

I did just learn thanks to Wikipedia that he's apparently attending a small and extremely religious college right up the street from my parents' house, which is great, as I can now be angry at that building every time I drive by it when visiting.

3
by billprudden :: Thu, 10/19/2017 - 1:52pm

If not injury, gotta be something off the field, no?

He is awful, awful, young...

Bill

4
by drillz :: Thu, 10/19/2017 - 4:46pm

Cooper had two after the Raiers made him the No. 4 pick in the 2015 draft.

5
by Raiderfan :: Thu, 10/19/2017 - 5:06pm

:(

6
by ChrisS :: Thu, 10/19/2017 - 5:34pm

Seeing the headline is was wondering how a George Clooney movie was relevant to Amari Cooper. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Clayton_(film)
I had forgotten the WR version.

7
by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 10/19/2017 - 6:07pm

I was actually going to mention that at the very end. Like, you still think of George Clooney first when you see "Michael Clayton" because the player didn't have the lasting star power to make you think of him instead.

19
by JimZipCode :: Sun, 10/29/2017 - 12:12pm

Awesome movie.

8
by RickD :: Thu, 10/19/2017 - 8:50pm

Cooper may have read this article.

He's finally having a decent game tonight. Though it certainly helps when the guy covering you falls down.

10
by milo :: Thu, 10/19/2017 - 9:02pm

Premature ejaculation?

11
by Will Allen :: Thu, 10/19/2017 - 9:37pm

No, it isn't Michael Clayton again.

12
by qckendall :: Thu, 10/19/2017 - 11:53pm

Raider Joe sez thanks for the bulletin board material

13
by dmstorm22 :: Fri, 10/20/2017 - 1:37am

Well this post ages really quickly

15
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Fri, 10/20/2017 - 7:23am

Scott Kaczmar reverse jinx? Or maybe Cooper is an FO reader, and this post gave him extra motivation!

16
by Will Allen :: Fri, 10/20/2017 - 8:50am

I will be interested to see how he shakes out in Quick Reads, perhaps in a comparison of other 200 yd, multi-td performances. I think he was targeted 19 times.

17
by Not Jimmy :: Fri, 10/20/2017 - 8:54am

I dropped him from my fantasy team this week out of frustration.

- Anything is possible when you have no idea what you are talking about.