Solving the mystery of Amari Cooper’s disappearance

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 30: Oakland Raiders Wide Receiver Amari Cooper (89) goes up high to grab a pass while defended by Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (28) during an NFL football game between the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on October 30, 2016, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL . (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

Amari Cooper has established himself as one of the most beloved players on the Raiders roster.  His work ethic is unparalleled and Raider fans have enjoyed watching him grow.  However, there is a concern with Cooper’s performance that has largely gone unnoticed by his admirers.

Let’s preface this by saying that no athlete is free from criticism and every athlete can find a way to improve.  As a fan of Marcus Allen growing up I knew that he was the best all-around back in the NFL but he fumbled the ball a lot and that was his Achilles heel.   Allen is the Raiders all-time leading fumbler with 50 regular season fumbles.  Allen added 7 more in the postseason.  Fumbles was an aspect of Allen’s game that he sought to improve but as great as he once was it was frustrating to Raider fans when he did it.

Thankfully Amari Cooper hasn’t shown a propensity to fumble the football away.   After 32 career games and one playoff game he has only registered 3 fumbles.  But he does have a glaring weakness that has been evident over the course of those same 32 games.  

After week nine he seems to vanish from the Raiders offense.

First, Amari’s career numbers:

In 2015 Cooper caught 72 passes for 1,070 yards and 6 touchdowns.  He made the Pro Bowl and he set several franchise rookie receiving records.

In 2016, Cooper hauled in 83 passes for 1,153 yards and 5 touchdowns.  He was named to the Pro Bowl again, becoming the first Raider receiver ever to do so in his first two seasons.  He averaged just over 72 yards receiving a game in 2016, which was 10th best in the NFL and he finished 8th in receiving yardage.

So what is the problem?  He surely has proven thus far that he is no first round bust like Jamarcus Russell or Johnny Manziel.  What can anyone possibly complain about?  What can Amari fix?

The issue is simple: Amari Cooper virtually vanishes after week nine.  His receiving numbers take a dramatic drop in the final weeks of the season.  Is it a red flag for his entire career?  Probably not but it is a nasty trend that has haunted the first two years of Amari’s NFL career.

 

What proof is available?

  • 2015, games 1-9:  50 receptions for 732 yards and 3 touchdowns.
  • 2016, games 1-9: 58 receptions for 843 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Total, games 1-9 of both years: 108 receptions for 1,575 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Now to the bad part

  • 2015, games 10-16: 22 receptions for 320 yards and 2 touchdowns.
  • 2016, games 10-16: 27 receptions for 320 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Total, games 10-16: 49 receptions for 658 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Targets are not the problem.  During his 32 games in the league, Cooper has been target by passes 232 times (7.25 targets per game).  

Now an obvious flaw in my logic is that I am counting 9 games towards Amari’s totals (games 1-9) and only 7 games for his decline (games 10-16).  I get that but that is the whole point.  He starts off the first nine games of the year like a stat machine by hauling in 50 or more receptions during both seasons.  Then he fades away with just 49 receptions in 14 games (3.5 catches per game average) which aren’t terrible numbers but Amari is only averaging 47 yards receiving in those same 14 games. Most of his post week nine yardage and receptions occurred during two 2015 games (Packers & Titans) when he recorded the only two 100-yard receiving games of his career after week nine.

When you compare that to his games 1-9, two year average of 6 receptions per game for 87.5 yards things become awfully clear that Amari is fading as the season wears on.  

REASONS FOR AMARI’S SLIP IN PERFORMANCE

Scheme: After the 2016 season, head coach Jack Del Rio pointed out that scheme might be an issue with Amari getting more touches.  The team fired offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and one wonders if Amari’s lack of production had something to do with it.  Del Rio called out Musgrave a few times during the season for his game plans and following the playoff loss to the Texans he did the same thing.  

Moreover, in certain instances the team might have used the running game or other players who faced easier matchups than Amari faced in opponents defensive backfields.  Still, opposing teams tend to double team Amari with a safety over the top and a cornerback playing man to man coverage.  That can greatly impact Amari’s receiving numbers because breaking the double team is difficult for any receiver.

Injuries:  In 2015 Amari Cooper dealt with a quadriceps injury and a foot injury that limited his performance and could serve as an excuse for his late season fade.  Like a true trooper he battled the injury and started every game after initially being hurt.  In 2016, Del Rio stated that Amari had no injuries that would have limited him in games.  That is actually false.  This season, Cooper showed up on Oakland’s injury report with a back ailment for the Week 9 game, and for the final three games of the regular season and the playoff contest, Cooper was listed as questionable with a shoulder injury. He was shown as a limited participant in every Raider’s practice over the past month.

Quarterback: Derek Carr started all but three of Amari Coopers 33 career games.  During that time he received plenty of targets from the Raiders franchise quarterback.  However, passes can be missed, intercepted or thrown to other players depending on what Derek sees on a given play.  The Carr effect is further seen in the Raiders 2016 finale at Denver and the playoff game against Houston.  Oakland averaged 108 fewer passing yards per game without Carr under center.  That is only two games out of the 33 that Amari has played but there is no doubt that the poor quarterback play of Matt McGloin and Connor Cook impacted Amari’s numbers.  Still you cannot fault Cook for trying.  During the Texans game he fired 10 passes to Cooper but only two were completed for ten yards.

Strength of Schedule:  Cooper has faced some of the better defenses in the league during his time in the East Bay.  Statistically though he has fared well against these top defenses.  Cooper faces both Denver and Kansas City a grand total of four times during the season and both possess stellar defensive backs.  Still, Cooper has performed well against both teams by averaging nearly 5 catches a game against them but Denver appears to be his biggest hurdle.  Cooper averages just 35.5 receiving yards per game against Denver and he has only 14 catches in 28 targets for 142 yards.  Oakland played Denver in week thirteen in 2015 and week sixteen in 2016.  Amari did not catch a single pass in the 2015 game despite being targeted 8 times and in 2016 he recorded 4 receptions for just 39 yards.

Amari Cooper has done some amazing things in his career so far. During 2016, Cooper became the ninth player in NFL history with at least 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first two seasons.

He became the first Oakland player with back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons since Hall of Famer Jerry Rice in 2001 and 2002.  

He is the only Raiders receiver ever to post 1,000 yard seasons in his first two years in the league.  

He’s the only player in NFL history with at least 500 receiving yards in the first six games of each of his first two years in the league.

Pretty impressive!

It is hard to be too critical of Amari but he obviously has to find a way to improve his late season numbers.  With a new offense coordinator in Todd Downing one hopes to see change in the way Amari is used.  Downing previously served as the Raiders quarterback coach.  A new coach that has worked with Derek for two years should be able to find ways to get Cooper the ball more.

Amari Cooper possesses the athletic talent to destroy NFL defenses.  It is up to the Raiders, Todd Downing and Derek Carr to get Cooper the ball more and help the Raiders go beyond the success that they enjoyed in 2016.

 

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Raider Mike

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