by Scott Kacsmar
After a historic 2014 season for rookie wide receivers, how many more potential studs could college football have possibly produced at this position in 2015? Well, it was certainly a down year. Only one rookie wideout surpassed 750 receiving yards last year, and it was Alabama's Amari Cooper, the safest bet of them all as Oakland's No. 4 overall pick. It did not help that two other first-round picks, Kevin White (Bears) and Breshad Perriman (Ravens), missed their entire rookie seasons with injuries. The last first-round wideout to miss his rookie season was Yatil Green for the 1997 Dolphins, and he actually missed his whole second season as well.
What about the rest of the group? Tyler Lockett looks like a great pick by Seattle in the third round, but he doesn't have to be the leading receiver in one of the league's lower-volume passing attacks. The latter can be said about Devin Funchess in Carolina, especially with Kelvin Benjamin returning. Tennessee looks to be actively searching for reasons to bury Dorial Green-Beckham on the depth chart. DeVante Parker only started putting it together in the final six games of the season for Miami. Minnesota's Stefon Diggs stunned everyone as a fifth-round pick with at least 87 receiving yards in each of his first four games, but he only produced 327 yards in his final 10 games (including playoffs). The Vikings drafted Laquon Treadwell in the first round this year as an obvious attempt to enhance the passing game.
So with the rookie spotlight not having many places to shine last season, it was easy for Cooper to hog a lot of the attention. He was going to have a lot anyway as he was considered by most to be the best prospect in the draft. On the surface, he provided exactly the kind of spark he was expected to provide for young quarterback Derek Carr. Cooper's 1,070 receiving yards rank 11th in NFL history among rookies, and he is the first 1,000-yard receiver the Raiders drafted since Tim Brown, the Hall of Famer selected way back in 1988, ending the longest drought in the league.
But on the heels of the 2014 draft that has already produced eight wideouts with at least one 1,000-yard season, including the incredible debut by Odell Beckham Jr., you almost yawn over Cooper's season. Consistency was certainly an issue as Cooper had eight games where he was held under 50 receiving yards. He only scored two touchdowns in his final eight games, though we made note of Oakland's offense experiencing a second-half slump as numbers for Carr and Michael Crabtree also dropped. Oakland also reportedly considered shutting Cooper down in December with a foot injury, but for better or worse, he played through it.
Advanced stats were not enamored with Cooper's season. He ranked 37th in DYAR, 50th in DVOA, 77th (out of 81 players) in receiving plus-minus, and 31st in YAC+ among 2015 wideouts. Yes, the inexperience of Cooper and his quarterback, combined with injury and the challenges of being a No. 1 receiver, all play a factor in those numbers, but they paint a less rosy picture than the traditional stats do. In this era of high-volume passing numbers, it's important to distinguish between performance and efficiency as much as possible. There were also the dropped passes that went against Cooper's "polished" reputation from Alabama, but we'll get to those later.
Notes: screen caps are from NFL Game Pass at the catch point. Credit to ESPN Stats & Info and Sports Info Solutions for statistics relating to the game charting project.
Scouting Report and Catch Radius
Generally, I thought the scouting report on Cooper, ignoring some of the contradictory statements in the strengths and weaknesses, proved to be accurate last season. His routes are exceptional and that skill did more than raw speed to help him create separation at the pro level. He has a good feel for tracking the ball. When he brings his A-game, it's really impressive stuff, especially for a rookie.
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Cooper is elusive with the ball in his hands, and he was really good at making the first defender miss early in the season. According to our game charting, Cooper caused 10 missed tackles in Weeks 1 to 8, but only one the rest of the season. Some may attribute this to his foot injury, but Cooper looked electric against the Titans in Week 12. He did not appear on the injury report for the foot injury until Weeks 14 through 17, but even in the Week 15 Green Bay game he looked quite good. So only a small portion of his season was negatively affected by his foot. Oakland threw Cooper 15 screens, and it is a wise play call since he has the skills to break one like he did on his 52-yard touchdown against San Diego.
The weakest part of Cooper's game right now is catching the football, which is really the main focus in these catch radius studies. In which ways does the receiver use his whole body to catch the football? Cooper's catch radius was not cited in his scouting report, but I charted his season as I have done others in the past to see just how he catches the ball.
|Amari Cooper: 2015 Catch Radius|
|Type of Catch||No.||Pct.|
|Above the head||8||11.1%|
|Below the waist||3||4.2%|
|Diving to ground||4||5.6%|
|Over the shoulder||5||6.9%|
|Pass thrown wide||4||5.6%|
There is some really good variety here, showing Cooper is able to adjust to different types of passes. Deep balls often need to be tracked down over the shoulder, and three grabs below the waist is really impressive since I have found that to be the least-frequent type of catch in the NFL. Passes caught at the chest or eye level are considered to be in the sweet spot for a receiver; two-thirds of Cooper's catches fit that range, which is below average.
Here is how Cooper's season stacks up with the rookie seasons of six other recent standouts, as well as the averages for the data I have collected over the years on more than 3,400 catches. For a table of 45 different seasons that I have studied, see here.
|Catch Radius: Rookie Seasons of Recent Standouts|
|Odell Beckham Jr.||2014||NYG||71||91||41.8%||20.9%||22.0%||3.3%||3.3%||7.7%||62.6%|
Cooper will likely have to continue adjusting to passes since Carr's gunslinger ways have led to a lack of accuracy in his game. Among the 13 receivers Carr has targeted at least 20 times in his career, 10 have a negative plus-minus, and no one is lower than Cooper (minus-8.0).
As always, here is a visual aid to highlight some of Cooper's better efforts at the catch point in 2015.
Top left: Cooper's first catch in the NFL was a good job of snatching a ball thrown behind him to the wrong shoulder. He took a big "Welcome to the NFL" shot from Cincinnati's George Iloka on the play. Early in the season, Carr had some real accuracy issues with Cooper on quick passes, especially slants. These can lead to those big hits or even a fumble, like when Cooper lost the ball against Cleveland on another slant that was thrown behind him.
Top middle: Just a nice job of going low to the ground to fish out a pass that has no shot of being intercepted.
Top right: Cooper hauls one in with both hands at the eye-level, but his route left Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden touching the ground.
Middle left: While Cooper frequently took on the challenge of the opponent's best cornerback, he made little hay against Denver's stingy defense. In two games, Cooper caught 4-of-12 targets for 47 yards, including a 0-for-8 line in the rematch where he may have been most bothered by the foot. But in the first matchup in Week 5, Cooper caught two screens in motion out of the backfield like he was a CFL receiver. He made one catch against third corner Bradley Roby, and then this tough catch on a very short, inaccurate throw by Carr. Cooper never caught anything against corners Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. Cooper will have to step up against this defense, as well as many future divisional matchups with Kansas City's Marcus Peters and San Diego's Jason Verrett.
Dead center: Carr was rather high with a huge window to throw into, but Cooper pulled down the catch against Green Bay. Again, he was playing injured that day, but you could hardly tell with his 120 yards and two touchdowns. Cooper had four catches for 30 yards in his other three December games.
Middle right: One of Carr's best throws of the season was pulled in over the shoulder by Cooper for a 26-yard touchdown against the Bears.
Bottom left: Cooper went chest-high (both feet off the ground) for the only time all season to snag a 26-yard touchdown against Green Bay.
Bottom middle and right: I got spoiled on all the above-the-head catches the 2014 rookies had to showcase their height. Cooper did not have nearly as many, but his two deepest catches of the season, which were thrown 44 and 38 yards by Carr, were jump balls he won in very similar fashion against San Diego's Jimmy Wilson and Minnesota's Andrew Sendejo.
While much of this looks good, the dropped passes are the main reason Cooper's hands leave something to be desired. His scouting report referenced "focus drops" and that he had 13 drops at Alabama in his last two years. We won't refute that college total, but as always, drops can be subjective. When it comes to Cooper, drops can be controversial. While some reputable sources had 10 drops for Cooper in 2015, another came up with 18, a number so preposterous that it would take giving Limas Sweed at least 18 targets to match.
As you may have seen in Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, we too marked Cooper with 10 drops as a rookie. I hunted them all down.
Top left: Cooper dropped a bubble screen as he may have been thinking about the impending hit more than securing the ball.
Top middle: The contact by the defender helped jar this one out, though Cooper never looked to have a good grip on it.
Top right: Tracy Porter's swipe at the ball missed, but it may have thrown off Cooper's concentration just enough to cause the drop.
Middle left: Cooper may have heard the footsteps of David Harris and made a business decision with this short throw on second-and-4. The pass was not behind him.
Dead center: I'm not the biggest fan of calling this a drop as Carr's slant was behind Cooper and he looks like he only got one hand on the ball. But this really should have been an easy completion to convert a third-and-9. Darrelle Revis was pretty soft in the coverage here. The normal angle makes this look like more of a Cooper drop than the off-target Carr throw it was.
Middle right: Dan Fouts thought the ball was well thrown, but what do you expect from a former quarterback? Cooper had to reach down very low to get it, which led to a juggle and incompletion. He almost had it on the rebound, but not quite.
Bottom left: This was an ugly drop on a good slant pass at the two-minute warning of a tight game. Cooper may have had YAC in mind, but he still looks to be focusing on the ball here and drops it anyway.
Bottom middle (two): Wow, if there is a play Carr and Cooper needed to work on this offseason, it is the quick slant. The first slant came in hot to the face, so it's not too surprising to see a drop, but this is a play you would expect your best wideout to make frequently. The CBS broadcast noted this as the seventh drop of the season for Cooper, but we're at eight, so maybe there is good disagreement over that second one against New York. As for the second slant in this game, a game where Cooper finished with a 4-yard catch, Carr's throw was fine and Cooper just flat-out dropped it.
Bottom right: Guess what we had here? Yep, another quick slant, but now on fourth-and-2, and Cooper still dropped it.
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We also had 11 incompletions to Cooper marked as defensed. I felt that two of them (one each against Chicago and Tennessee) could have been a dropped/defensed where the receiver dropped it because he was hit. There was a close one against Adam Jones in Week 1. There was another close one against Chris Harris in Denver, but Carr nearly got Cooper decapitated on that play, so it's hard to call that a drop when the wide throw first hit one hand. We thankfully removed a pass defensed from Aqib Talib after he just mugged Cooper without drawing a flag in the fourth quarter of that game.
So in the worst-case scenario, you might be able to say Cooper let 14 passes fall incomplete that he could have caught, but there are some real stretches there of what constitutes a drop.
If there was a trend, it was that seven of the drops were quick throws, and mostly slants at that. None of the drops came in the last month when Cooper was injured, and it's not like his hands were hurting. I would not expect this to be a lingering issue going forward, but it is obviously something the young player will have to clean up if he wants to be better.
The fact that we just spent 2,200 words on an Oakland skill player that was not a recap of his career failing suggests things are finally moving in the right direction for this team. A player like Cooper will be heavily credited for the Raiders turnaround if it ever comes to fruition.