The Case Against Amari Cooper
If we were to peruse Amari Cooper’s end of season (EOS) totals after a 16-game rookie season, we’d probably come away quite encouraged especially for a first year player: 72 catches on 130 targets 1070 yards and 6 TDs. He finished as WR24 in standard and WR21 in PPR leagues last year, a small drop from where he was being drafted with an ADP in the mid-4th round as the 19th WR off the board. Nevertheless, the sentiment that surrounds someone as talented as Cooper is that he will automatically improve upon their previous season and enter into elite WR territory.
This is a dangerous game to play my friends. I want to invite you to hear out why I believe Amari Cooper is a dangerous target in 2016. When we look at his fantasy output against divisional opponents in the AFC West, the hype surrounding the Raiders’ season, his major issues with drops, and his exorbitant draft day cost, I think you’ll see that Cooper is someone worth passing on at his current ADP.
Remember, those EOS totals may look shiny when we look back on last year’s numbers but they certainly don’t tell the entire story. While there were some definite weeks he starred for owners, Cooper was mostly nonexistent against AFC West opponents in 2015.
Aside from Week 7’s WR5 showing against the hapless Chargers, Cooper was positively putrid against the AFC West especially down the stretch for fantasy owners. His average weekly finish was WR66 in these six games. This was essentially making fantasy owners roll out the likes of Davante Adams each week, who finished as WR66 in PPR formats. Woof!
This division contains some of the league’s best cover corners: Denver’s Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, Kansas City’s Marcus Peters (who led the league in INTs), and San Diego’s highly-rated Jason Verrett. And yet Cooper did not always line up against them considering Michael Crabtree was blanketed by these elite defenders in most games. Fantasy drafters need to understand that these corners aren’t going away. In fact, you must pencil in 6 games against the AFC West and remember that this is almost half of the fantasy regular season.
Are you comfortable with 4-5 games of pitiful performances? Are you ready to surrender a mid-to-late 2nd round pick for a guy who put in some definite clunkers against opponents that are clearly once again on his schedule? I’m willing to pass and draft more relatively known and dependable pass catchers with much more proven track records such as T.Y. Hilton and Demaryius Thomas, who is going 7 picks later in ADPs.
A lot of Cooper’s 2016 WR1 projections are banking on the premise of the Oakland Raiders returning to relevance within the AFC West. They’ve been a trendy pick as a wild-card winner especially after an offseason in which they opened up their wallets and received “high praise” in signing OL Kelechi Osemele, LB Bruce Irvin to pair with the unblockable Khalil Mack, as well as former Kansas City Chief and rival CB Sean Smith. They also went defense-heavy in the draft with their first three picks addressing needs, including versatile safety Karl Joseph, the 14th pick overall.
They’ve been preached as a streamable fantasy defense to open the season and yet there’s not a lot of stats from 2015 that I can communicate to you about the Raiders being a stalwart defense allowing 24.9 ppg, 11th worst in the league. In fact, they were pummeled in the passing game (7th worst at 258.8 yards per game), famously jeered for their lack of coverage against TEs, and needed to address this in a big way during the offseason. The Raiders have some high turnover potential while also some volatility being an unproven commodity. Their opening season schedule looks promising against New Orleans, Atlanta, Tennessee and Baltimore… all winnable games.
To me, there seems to be just too many unknowns to jump all aboard the Raiders hype train. Are they a young, up-and-coming team? Yes. Did they make some improvements? Yes. But we aren’t basing our fantasy fortunes on mere sentiments but rather on a focused look at statistical trends, draft value, and projections that are within the realm of possible outcomes. Some will claim that all of these factors, such as the improvement of the offensive line, the improvement of the defense, the improvement of Derek Carr, the improvement of our nation’s economy.. blah blah blah.. will give Cooper a legitimate shot at “100+ receptions and double-digit TDs”. That’s too many “improvements” to bank upon for me and I’ll tell you why.
Bad Case of the Dropsies
When we break down the game film, it was clear that Cooper had some lapses in concentration throughout the year. According to Pro Football Focus, Cooper committed 20 drops on the season, bad enough to rank in the bottom 10 in the league among WRs with at least 20 targets. Cooper’s case of the dropsies was not a side issue as many in the organization were being questioned about their star rookie receiver’s struggles after a Week 11 stink bomb against the Lions: 1 catch on 4 targets and two drops. Coaches claimed they weren’t alarmed and yet Cooper would go on to drop 9 more passes over the final 6 weeks.
Some will claim that drop rates are peripheral statistics that don’t really give a good picture of a WR’s usage to his team and their value to fantasy owners. They’d argue that drops in one year don’t have much correlation at all with drops in the following year. But the simple fact is that drops kill drives, they kill team momentum, and they demoralized Cooper all year long. Ask Mike Evans owners last year the same question and they will certainly tell you of some of the frustrating weeks they had to deal with. However, scouts (WalterFootball.com) and NFL film analysts (Chris Harris) will tell you that they aren’t surprised by Cooper’s curious case of catchlessness. One of the few knocks on Cooper, despite all the production and Blitnekoff awards, was the fact that his “drops come in bunches”.
Despite dropping just eight of 132 catchable balls as a senior at Alabama last season, Cooper finished with a drop rate of 12.5% in 2015. To compare, his sure-handed, veteran teammate Michael Crabtree registered the best drop rate on the year dropping ZERO targets coming his way. In no way should we downplay Cooper’s overall targets in the offense nor demean the fact that he is an exciting, young, talented WR in a pass happy league. However, his extreme proclivity to drops should be yet another concern for prospective fantasy owners especially as we compare Crabtree and Cooper’s usage.
Red Flag with Red Zone Failures
This is one of the statistical oddities I uncovered when looking at Cooper this offseason which raised a giant red flag for me. Once again, I’m not a Cooper hater just interested in assessing what type of WR I’d be drafting if he were sitting next in my queue on draft day.
Amari Cooper had 3 less red zone targets than… teammate Seth Roberts? Seth who?
Yes, when you breakdown how the Raiders utilized Cooper inside the 20-yard line, it is a bit puzzling as others wrote even midway through last year. Despite seeing 21.86% of the team’s overall targets, Cooper saw only 13% in the red zone or only 2 more looks than TEs Clive Walford and Mychal Rivera. Roberts was actually extremely efficient converting his 11 targets into 5 touchdowns inside the 20. The Raiders instead regularly went to the sure-handed Crabtree as he lead the team with 15 looks, although his abysmal 20% completion percentage looks ugly. So what were the Raiders thinking?
I decided to look at on film how the Raiders split up their red zone snaps as they threw it 114 times while rushing it 46 times. Clearly throwing the ball inside the 20 was a priority. What I saw when looking at Cooper in the red zone was that he was routinely pressed at the line by corners who weren’t afraid to get physical with him. This was another strike from scouts when they assessed him out of Alabama: big, physical corners could knock him off his route as his size isn’t overwhelming near the goal-line.
At 6’1 211 lbs., Cooper wouldn’t be considered smallish by any means but certainly not a box-out type of WR. On PlayerProfile.com, he didn’t possess any efficiency metrics (catch rate, red zone catch rate, yards per target, contested catch rate, etc.) that rated higher than 40th at the WR position. In other words, Cooper was average at best in terms of efficiency… not something you’d like for your WR1 on your fantasy team. The Raiders could definitely transition their red zone looks in 2016… but 2015 is not an indicator towards any massive TD spike near the goal-line.
Currently, he’s being considered a low-end WR1 in most drafts being selected at 2.09. We have to take into account what type of production someone finishing with. Last year Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, in terms of per game average, finished with 17.1 PPR points per game, roughly the range a WR in Cooper’s current draft position. Cooper averaged just 13.3 PPR ppg in 2015.
Let’s look at the facts: Oakland called 631 passing plays versus only 366 rushes in 2015, making them the bottom 10 in the league with only 36.67% of their plays on the ground. Clearly, the Raiders value airing it out with Derek Carr’s 573 pass attempts last year in which Cooper saw 130 targets. In order to have his current ADP translate into the same final year finish as a WR1, Cooper would have to dramatically improve his catch rate (an astronomical jump to 66% from 55%) while seeing more than 26% of the team’s targets. We would need to Raiders to focus even less on running the ball, throw even more passes, and basically see little to no improvement in their heralded defenses. In other words, we’d be drinking the Kool-Aid that these Raiders become a top 3 offense in the league and reach unparalleled efficiency levels across the board. I’d rather bet against that happening.
Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to hear my arguments out on why I won’t be drafting Amari Cooper this year at his current draft price. I love Cooper more as an NFL player than as a fantasy option. On top of the Raiders resurgence hype train, Cooper’s struggles against the AFC West, his problem with drops, and his red zone worries all make me gladly pass on Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper in 2016.