A few hours ago I was blissfully cruising east at about 31,000 feet above the earth, leaving a wonderful week in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine behind me. I was looking forward to a quiet Friday afternoon — and more than a few salads — before getting back to the daily grind.
Then I landed and checked my phone.
So much for best-laid plans.
However, this was not something that came out of left field. As has been reported and outlined in recent weeks, the Cowboys enter the off-season in a difficult financial position, and tough decisions lie in front of them.
Given the news, we can take some time and dive into what Cooper offers as a receiver, and some potential landing spots.
Attacking in the vertical passing game
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Before getting to Cooper’s biggest asset as a receiver, we can focus on one aspect of his game that is impressive, and that is his ability in the vertical passing game. Whether it is winning over the top of the defense, or making a tough adjustment at the catch point, Cooper brings to any offense the ability to create plays in the downfield portion of the playbook.
On this play against the Carolina Panthers, Cooper manages to separate downfield on an out-and-up route. The pace on this route is exquisite, as he shifts into a third gear coming out of the initial break, but so too is what Cooper does at the catch point, managing to shield the defender away from the football:
Perhaps the best example of what Cooper offers in the downfield part of the playbook comes on this completion against the Minnesota Vikings:
As Cooper works vertically along the boundary, the throw from backup quarterback Cooper Rush is left to the inside. Somehow, Cooper manages to beat the cornerback — who is playing with inside leverage — to the football. He initially juggles the ball but is able to secure the completion just before absorbing a shot from the safety rotating over to help.
Cooper’s ability to attack the football in the downfield passing game, and make difficult adjustments to help his quarterback, make him not only an asset to an offense, but also a QB’s potential best friend.
A route-running technician
(Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
An area where Cooper stands out as a wide receiver, dating back not only to his time with the Raiders but also his time on campus with the Alabama Crimson Tide, is his route-running. Cooper was the rare wide receiver prospect who offered a full route tree coming out of college — something I documented during his draft cycle a few years ago — and has only refined his craft over his time in the NFL.
Cooper is excellent at getting into and out of breaks, often using his full body to help sell defenders on routes. He will use his field of vision, his shoulders, or other means to convince defensive backs that he is doing one thing, setting himself up for getting separation when he actually runs his intended route.
Take this 41-yard completion against the New Orleans Saints, which finds Cooper operating as the middle receiver in a trips formation to the right side of the offense:
Cooper first bends his route towards the outside, but then pushes vertically, and it looks to Jackson as if the receiver is running an out-and-up. As Cooper gets vertical, he puts his eyes downfield, helping to sell the route. But he then jams on the breaks and sinks his hips, breaking back towards the football on a comeback route. That gets him more than enough separation from Jackson — one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks — for a completion.
Perhaps the best example of Cooper’s ability as a route runner comes on this completion against the New York Giants. The receiver starts on the left side of the formation, and is going to run a post route. What is important to keep in mind is the leverage of the cornerback. Rodarius Williams is aligned about two yards inside of Cooper, and is trying to force him towards the outside, taking away any route breaking towards the middle of the field:
Cooper is an impressive talent as a route-runner, with the ability to set up and manipulate defenders and get separation out of his breaks. Any team that values that in their receivers — i.e., all 31 other NFL teams — should be intrigued by this ability.
Why might Dallas move on, and where might he land?
(Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
So if Cooper is this good, why might the Cowboys be moving in a different direction?
While Cooper is talented, there are still some issues that might cause teams concern. One is what he does at the catch point. While he has improved on the amount of drops that he endured at the start of his career, there are still moments where his inconsistency at the catch point hurts his team. On this 3rd and 1 against the Denver Broncos, Prescott looks to punish a blitz by replacing it with the football, finding Cooper wide open on a quick in cut:
Instead of a fresh set of downs, the Cowboys are now staring at fourth down.
Of course, the biggest reason that Dallas might be moving in a different direction is financial. The wide receiver is $20 million in guaranteed money in just a few days if he is still on the Cowboys’ roster, and moving on from him would create nearly $16 million in cap space:
According to OverTheCap.com, right now the Cowboys are $13.4 million over the salary cap, meaning they have to start making some difficult choices. With tight end Dalton Schultz and wide receivers Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson Jr. all set to become free agents, the approach might be to move on from Cooper and look to bring two or perhaps all three of those players back, and then try and replace Cooper’s position in the receiver room via the draft in what looks to be a deep receiver class.
But a receiver of Cooper’s talents — and relative youth — does not become available often. Frankly, the list of teams that should be looking to trade for him, or sign him if he does get released by the Cowboys, should include all 31 other teams.
Still, here are some teams to watch.
(Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports)
Earlier this week, general manager Howie Roseman and head coach Nick Sirianni presented a unified front, making the case that the Philadelphia Eagles were determined to build around Jalen Hurts.
One way to help his development? Add a receiver like Cooper who can separate and offer a solid, steady option across from DeVonta Smith.
Shortly after the Cowboys acquired Cooper, Prescott started seeing improvement in his passing numbers. A receiver like Cooper who can separate and give his quarterback a bigger throwing window to target is a great way to help a young passer, and is certainly one way towards helping Hurts’ development get to where the Eagles need it to be if they are going to contend in the NFC East.
(AP Photo/John Froschauer)
The emergence of Amon-Ra St. Brown as a bonafide NFL receiver last season is a huge plus for the Detroit Lions offense. However, they still need to find that true WR1 type of player, allowing St. Brown to settle into that WR2 role and perhaps take advantage of favorable matchups against man coverage.
Cooper can be that player for Detroit.
Now, the Lions have a pair of picks in the first round, and could use them in a number of different ways. The recent rise of Malik Willis towards the top of the QB board has some wondering if the Lions would be willing to make him the selection at #2 overall. They could also be in play for a receiver at #32, or late in the draft.
Still, with the cap space they have, a chance to add a receiver like Cooper has to be appealing for general manager Brad Holmes.
New England Patriots
(Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)
Another quarterback who could benefit from some help around him is second-year passer Mac Jones. The New England Patriots have been doing their work on wide receivers in this draft class, and while the growth of Jakobi Meyers and the play from Kendrick Bourne last season with Jones gives the Patriots some options — as well as tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith — a go-to option on the outside like Cooper could work wonders for Jones and his own development.
While the Patriots have traditionally done a fantastic job at identifying talent at the slot receiver position with players like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman — leading some to believe receivers such as Skyy Moore and Slade Bolden could be on their radar — boundary receivers have been a tougher road for them. They have missed on draft picks at that spot, most recently N’Keal Harry, and addressing that position via a veteran might be a safer play for them as a franchise.
(Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)
Could Cooper do for Baker Mayfield what he did for Prescott a few seasons ago?
The Cleveland Browns have a growing need at wide receiver. In the wake of last year’s trade of Odell Beckham Jr., and the recent reporting that Jarvis Landry will be the next receiver to depart, there is a huge need in Cleveland to bolster that position. One of the easiest parts to doing any mock draft right now is to just slot a receiver to the Browns with their selection, and move on to the rest of the picks.
Cooper’s route-running and ability to adjust to throws, as well as what he can do in the vertical passing game, would be a good fit for both what the Browns do on offense, and what Mayfield needs on the other end of his throws.