When the Cowboys sent a first-round pick to the Raiders back in October for slumping receiver Amari Cooper, it was widely viewed as a coup for Jon Gruden, and one of the few transactions worth applauding during his tumultuous rebuild in Oakland. That perception has quickly begun to change.
The trade is looking more and more like not just a win for the Cowboys, but the turning point in the team’s season. In his first month in Dallas, Cooper has resuscitated his flatlining career and rejuvenated the Cowboys offense. The fourth-year pro has shed many of the issues that dogged him in Oakland—drops and inconsistency primary among them—and in the process has changed the way teams must defend this offense. Cooper’s renaissance has boosted Dallas’s run game, has been a boon for embattled quarterback Dak Prescott, and could make the Cowboys a dark-horse contender in the NFC.
Cooper was a Pro Bowler in both 2015 and 2016, posting a pair of 1,000-yard seasons in his first two years in the league. But the former fourth overall pick slumped in 2017, finishing with just 48 catches and 680 yards, and then continued his downward spiral of inconsistent play to start this season: He’d go off one game, like he did with a 10-catch, 116-yard performance in Week 2, then completely disappear in the next, as he did in Week 3 with just two catches for 17 yards. In six games with the Raiders this year, Cooper notched 22 catches (tied for 40th in that stretch leaguewide) for 280 yards (47th) and one touchdown. He earned a 63.4 receiving grade from Pro Football Focus (64th), collecting 14 first downs (tied for 41st), a 99.3 passer rating when targeted (62nd), and two dropped passes. He was unimpressive in every way, and a far cry from the offensive centerpiece he looked like early on in his career.
But the Cowboys committed to making Cooper the focal point of their passing game, and a blank slate has worked wonders for the 24-year-old pass catcher. Cooper has racked up 22 catches (eighth in the league since Week 8) for 349 yards (sixth) and three touchdowns (tied for fifth) to notch a 135.6 passer rating when targeted (12th). He’s dropped zero passes, has converted 19 first downs (third; fewer than only Julio Jones and Michael Thomas), and has graded out fifth (89.9) among receivers, per PFF. He’s looked like the missing piece in Dallas’s scheme.
Cooper’s route running has always been his primary strength, but for a variety of reasons—the way he was utilized in Oakland’s scheme, a waning chemistry with quarterback Derek Carr, or simply a lack of confidence—that skill hadn’t been a major factor in the past year and a half. With Dallas, though, Cooper is back to putting on route-running clinics to get open for his new quarterback. Cooper has given Prescott a reliable option on the outside against all types of coverage by drawing on quickness off the line, effective head and shoulder fakes, and top-tier stop-start acceleration.
Against both press or off-man looks, Cooper is adept at getting cornerbacks to “open the gate”—i.e., turn their hips and thus allow him to cut past them. He does that by either moving inside first before cutting outside, or vice versa, and keeps defenders off balance with staccato footwork and sharp cuts.
Cooper has also shown he can pick up yards after the catch, and turn quick slants and drag-route throws into first downs …
… And reminded everyone he can threaten a defense from anywhere on the field.
I mean, look at this route:
In a league in which it’s common for newly acquired players to face steep learning curves and long transition periods to learn a new team’s offense, Cooper hit the ground running. He’s already become Dallas’s go-to receiver and sees the ball come his way on 24.4 percent of his routes. That’s a huge jump from Oakland (15.4 percent target rate per route)—and highly impressive considering the Cowboys have drastically changed the way he is utilized. Cooper is lining up primarily on the outside, with his percent of snaps from the slot cut nearly in half (from 36.5 percent to 18.8 percent) from his time in Oakland, and his rate of targets at or behind the line of scrimmage has dropped precipitously (15 percent with the Raiders to just 3 percent with the Cowboys). Simple screens and hook/curl routes are no longer staples of his repertoire. Cooper is running longer, more complex routes for the Cowboys and he’s catching a higher rate of tight-quarter, contested throws. Cooper is famous for his bouts with drops, but he has thus far reined that issue in with the Cowboys, and has even shown he can catch tough passes in traffic.
Cooper’s presence on the field creates a trickle-down effect that benefits his teammates. As he draws double-teams and the focus of opponents’ best coverage defenders, opportunities come open elsewhere. Since the trade, Prescott’s tight-window target rate to his other pass catchers has dropped (24.1 percent to 11.6 percent) and his accuracy rate to those players has improved (63.1 percent to 72.6 percent), per NFL Next Gen Stats.
That shift has made life a whole lot easier for Prescott. In his first seven games this year, pre-Cooper, the Cowboys’ much-maligned signal-caller tossed eight touchdowns and four picks, ranked 23rd in passing yards (1,417), 28th in yards per attempt (6.9), and 26th in passer rating (87.4). In the four games since, he’s thrown five touchdowns, one interception, and ranks eighth in yards (1,010), tied for 17th in yards per attempt (7.8), and 16th in passer rating (102.4). Those improvements have manifested the most in one crucial area: on third down.
In weeks 1 through 7, the Cowboys were converting on third down just 31.9 percent of the time, third worst in that stretch leaguewide. In that stretch, Prescott had thrown for just 15 first downs (28th), with Cole Beasley as the primary go-to on those plays (grabbing eight first-down conversions). In weeks 9 through 12, though, Dallas is converting on third down at a 48.1 percent clip—tied for eighth best. Prescott has passed for 17 first downs (fourth) and Cooper is tied for the league lead with seven first-down catches on those downs. Cooper is helping his teammates get open, he’s helping to give Prescott easier throws, and he’s helping the team extend drives.
Dallas’s ground attack has taken off since Cooper’s arrival, too. Having a true go-to guy on the outside has helped provide balance between the pass and the run, taken some of the weight off of Ezekiel Elliott’s shoulders, and opened things up for the talented playmaking back. Elliott has posted 120-plus yards on the ground in his past three games and his per carry average has jumped significantly since Cooper’s arrival (from 4.69 in weeks 1 through 7 to 5.35 yards per carry in the past four games). The Cowboys have used a higher rate of three receiver sets in the past month (69 percent vs. 60 percent in the first seven weeks), which spreads defenses thin and gives Elliott more room to work in the middle of the field. The changes to Dallas’s offense have given Elliott more opportunities in the passing game, too. He’s caught 22 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown in the past four games after posting 25 receptions for 175 yards and a score in his first seven.
With an enhanced passing attack and a resurgent ground game, it should be no surprise that the NFC East–leading Cowboys have seen their bottom line improve dramatically in the past month. They’ve won three of four games, averaging 23.5 points per game along the way—up from 20.0 points per game through the first seven games.
NFL offenses are complex ecosystems and the quality of opponents varies, so the Cooper trade hasn’t been the only factor in the Cowboys’ offensive explosion. The offensive line has protected better of late and Prescott has made better decisions with the ball. But it’s clear that Cooper has been a major catalyst for the team’s turnaround—and that he makes Dallas an intriguing sleeper down the stretch. Cooper still must prove that inconsistent play and dropped passes are behind him, but his profound effect on the Cowboys offense has taken the sticker shock off that first-round price tag.