Futures: Alabama WR Amari Cooper
by Matt Waldman
Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper tries too hard. Think that's an odd criticism? Go watch Reggie Bush during his first few years in New Orleans or Robert Griffin III after his rookie year in Washington. They're poster children for Hero Syndrome -- a psychological football malady that seduces young players into thinking that they must make a highlight reel play with every touch.
Bush's manifestation of Hero Syndrome was the tendency to bounce too many plays outside, attempts to reverse field, or trying that one extra cut on a run. Bush had to learn that maintaining the original course may result in a small gain, but it keeps the offense in manageable situations.
Griffin, who displays this malady as both a runner and a passer, has a more advanced stage of the disorder: Savior Syndrome. When Griffin breaks the pocket he often launches himself into contact to finish plays. In the pocket, Griffin stares down the gun barrel of pressure and often waits until the last possible second to throw the ball. The kind of hits he took at Baylor and now in Washington would make Evel Knievel wince.
Combine Griffin's Savior Syndrome with his two ACL tears, the beating he took last year, and the dysfunctional relationship between the quarterback and Mike Shanahan, and as my friend Sigmund Bloom says, "Griffin looks like a baby fawn trying to run on a frozen pond."
It's a disorder that isn't often fatal to a player's NFL future. However, it can trip a player up who otherwise has excellent potential.
Cooper reminds me of a combination of Michael Crabtree and Roddy White. The Crimson Tide receiver is closer to White with his explosiveness, but he has the short-area quickness, footwork, and open-field power of Crabtree.
At this point, Cooper is only displaying symptoms of Hero Syndrome -- trying to do too much with and without the ball in his hands -- but if he doesn't correct these issues, his development could take a slower trajectory than many would expect from a prospect of his athleticism, physicality, hands, and effort.
Evidence of Cooper's Potential
Cooper is a physical player with good timing and comfort with physicality to win passes against tight coverage. Watch the four minutes of highlights in this game and note the use of Cooper's hands to frame his separation from the defender once he's downfield, and the timing and reach to leap and win the ball in traffic.
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As my colleague Bloom mentioned when we watched Cooper (and running back Melvin Gordon) together, Cooper appears to have a large wingspan for his height. What's undeniable on many of these plays is Cooper's skill to snatch the ball with his fingers rather than allowing the pass to ricochet off his palms.
A receiver's skill to control the ball in traffic in difficult situations is a strong indicator that has the potential to make consistent plays as a professional. All of these plays are highlights from Cooper's freshman year, which indicates these skills have long been strengths of his game -- strengths that often separate good college athletes from quality professional contributors.
Fast-forward to 2014. Cooper's performance against West Virginia in the Crimson Tide's opener is an illustration of a receiver developing his skills as a route-runner and showcasing his athleticism as a ball carrier in the open field.
This third-and-11 catch with 4:44 in the first quarter is a fine display of a receiver refining his skills against press coverage and gaining the proper depth to make a tough reception of a target thrown behind him.
Taking a closer look at this play, Cooper's three-step release with his feet gets the cornerback to open his hips outside. The receiver isn't as aggressive as he should be to get upfield and into the frame of the defender to guarantee the defender's turn to run downfield, but against this college opponent it works.
Note Cooper using his inside arm to swat the inside arm of the defender to avoid getting jammed in the chest. Then the receiver attempts to finish his release technique with a chop (bringing the outside over top). Because the defender is already out of position, the chop isn't necessary, but the effort to use the technique is a good sign.
The knowledge and execution of this type of technique -- and others -- is important for any college receiver's development as a future NFL contributor. If Cooper can develop multiple techniques to defeat press coverage and display the speed to earn separation downfield against NFL-caliber corners, his development trajectory could be closer to Roddy White than Crabtree.
Cooper is a "tough out" as a ball carrier. He's not Cordarrelle Patterson, but Cooper has good short-area quickness to make the first man miss like Crabtree, and Crabtree's strength to force defenders to make a technically sound effort to bring him to the ground.
The crossing route features a good decision by Cooper to angle deeper towards the flat after earning initial separation from the corner. The balance to run through ankle-biting tackles like the one from the initial pursuit and then follow up with a spin move to end the run is typically what Cooper will display when he's on an NFL field.
Cooper's tape also shows evidence of a receiver who understands how to work with his quarterback when the play breaks down. Here's Cooper working under a safety on an in-breaking route during a cornerback blitz. Once Cooper makes his break on the ball, he spots the quarterback leaving the pocket and charges upfield to create an open target for his teammate.
Nice diving catch with his hands under the ball on this low throw for the first down. Most of the work on this West Virginia tape is reminiscent of how NFL clubs use big slot receivers like Crabtree and Marques Colston. If Cooper displays skill to read zones and develop a strong rapport with a quarterback on more plays like the one above, he could be a fine fit in an offense that wants its primary option running routes in the middle of the field.
Here's another example of Cooper's potential as a runner in the open field. He makes this catch under the coverage in the left flat and dips outside the corner to set up a sharp cut inside, but he slips during the cut and only gains 6 yards on the play.
Even if he failed to execute this play, what he showed conceptually is an impressive display of the breath of his vocabulary as a ball carrier (see what I mean by "vocabulary" in my column on Ameer Abduallah last week).
Where Cooper falters is his effort to make big plays. While it occasionally shows up in situations like the play above, it often manifests as a run blocker. Part of the issue is Cooper's desire to be a hero, but it also stems from his difficulty anticipating good angles.
Trying to Throw Knockout Punches With Every Block
Here's a play where Cooper misses his lead block on a wide receiver screen because he stops his feet and sets up too early for the angle that the corner takes to the ball carrier.
Cooper's misjudgment of angles is a chronic issue. Either he approaches with the wrong angle and doesn't understand how to set up the defender, or he plants his feet too early.
A positive of Cooper's work as a blocker is his willingness to deliver physical contact. However, he tries too hard for the knockout punch, and if he fails there are a number of positive outcomes for the opponent. One example is this punch he throws against a safety, making contact, but this all-or-nothing style gives the defensive back time to rebound off the hit and make a play on the ball carrier.
Sustaining contact with a punch, hand and body position, and understanding of footwork and angles is often better than attempting the kill shot -- even if the one below generates a fun highlight (and likely a penalty in the NFL).
Here's a hit where Cooper gets in the defender's path, but it's the receiver who winds up on his back.
The block occupies the safety enough for the runner to work through the crease without the defender's pursuit as an obstacle. However, Cooper has to display evidence of more controlled efforts to sustain blocks.
The receiver has the chance to do so on this run by T.J. Yeldon, but Cooper fails to set up the block because of his poor feel for angles and he blocks the defender in the back, nullifying the gain.
Subtlety of angles is not Cooper's strength and there's reason for concern that he'll never fully refine this aspect of his game. At the same time, run blocking is a smaller aspect of playing the receiver position, and depending where a team uses Cooper, the need for the skill could be minimized.
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This is one reason why Cooper projects well as a player in the mold of Michael Crabtree: in addition to his skills as a receiver and runner, he's willing to slant inside and lay the wood to safeties and linebackers. There's a lot more with route nuances that Cooper must learn to approach Crabtree's skill as a viable "big slot" receiver, but the potential is there.
Cooper is a good, but not great, NFL prospect at his position. There's still potential for him to develop into a great NFL player, but he'll have to develop a lot more tools to his game that he hasn't shown yet at Alabama. Right now, he's a strong pass catcher and a good, but not great, athlete with developing route skills and a clear deficiency as a run blocker.
However, Cooper's intensity and effort is an underlying theme of his on-field work. If it translates well with his work ethic as a professional, he could transcend the limitations he has at this time. Don't count on NFL teams reaching too high in the draft to count on it.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece. Take a video tour of the RSP.