Dwain McFarland’s RSP Film And Data: Is Amari Cooper Worth It?


Dwain McFarlands RSP Film and Data examines Amari Cooper’s value with the Dallas Cowboys. 

Amari Cooper has been dealt to the Dallas Cowboys for a first round pick in the 2019 NFL draft.  The Cowboys’ track record isn’t good on previous similar moves (i.e. Roy Williams and Joey Galloway) and the fan base is obviously nervous.

I have personally advocated not making this move for a first-round pick but trying to get a deal done for a second or third.  However, that wasn’t specifically an Amari Cooper thing, it was more about the Cowboys being prudent and not overpaying by outbidding themselves.  To be honest, I don’t know if this was the case – I don’t know what other teams were offering.

At this point, none of that matters.  What is done is done.  Even if the Cowboys outbid themselves the only thing that matters now is if Amari Cooper can bring first-round value.  The point isn’t to contemplate how Cooper stacks up against all the different ways Dallas could have used the pick.  The focus will be on the value he can bring as a wide receiver (i.e. can he do the things we expect a first-round receiver to do).

We are going to look at the current challenges Dallas faces at the position and contrast it with what Amari Cooper brings.  Cooper brings a strong draft pedigree with him (fourth overall pick in 2015).

What do the data and the film say?

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the fundamental components that are intrinsic to a receiver being successful in the NFL.

  • Separation and route running
  • Receiving
  • Yards after the catch (YAC)

Separation and Route Running

Over the course of this season, the Cowboys’ receivers have struggled to gain separation. According to NFL.com Next Gen Stats they currently rank as follows:

  • Allen Hurns: 98 of 98 at WR (1.7 yards)
  • Michael Gallup: 98 of 98 at WR (1.7 yards)
  • Cole Beasley: 74 of 98 at WR (2.5 yards)
  • Deonte Thompson: 67 of 98 at WR (2.6 yards)
  • Geoff Swaim: 2 of 29 at TE (4.0 yards)

As a point of reference, Dez Bryant posted 2.4 yards of separation in this same offense in 2017.

Some of this can be attributed to Dak Prescott struggling to deliver the ball to receivers when they make their break and are most open. His late deliveries are a driver to this statistic since separation measures yards between the defender and receiver at the time of completion or incompletion.  I previously discussed that here if you want to learn more:

How do Cooper’s separation yards compare to the Cowboy’s receiving unit?

  • 2016:  54 of 96 at WR (2.6 yards)
  • 2017:  49 of 93 at WR (2.6 yards)
  • 2018:  6 of 98 at WR (3.8 yards)

Not all separation yards can be treated the same.  In some cases, separation yards are driven by formation.  For example, receivers who operate out of the slot versus receivers who line up mostly outside enjoy higher average separation:

  • Greater than or equal to 70% of routes from slot average separation:  3 yards
  • Less than or equal to 30% of routes not from slot average separation:  2.5 yards

In other cases, separation can be driven by other scheme driven tactics such as “rubs”.  Separation against zone at times can be more impacted by play design and coverage than the actual receiver’s ability to get open.  Many play designs are centered around the quarterback reading certain defenders such as the safeties to determine which route has the best chance of success.

For example, a slot post and outside corner route combination against Cover 2 may create space for the slot.  The same play against Cover 3 may create space for the corner.  Below is an example of this with Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson:

There is a type of separation that is very dependent on the wide receiver, however, and that is against man coverage — especially press concepts of man.  This is something coaches desire in all wide receivers, but an ability at least one or two on the team need to have.  The 2018 Cowboys’ receivers have struggled mightily at this.  Fortunately, for them, this is an area Cooper exhibits great strength.

Short outside separation

Short inside separation

Intermediate outside separation

Deep separation

If you listened to the videos above you heard me talk about Cooper’s ability to “drop” or “sink” his hips.  You also got a feel for how well he uses his “plant” foot to create separation.  These are skills he has been displaying for some time.  Coming out of Alabama, Matt Waldman had Amari Cooper ranked as the best route runner in the 2015 class.  This is what Matt had to say in the 2015 Rookie Scouting Portfolio (RSP):

Where Cooper has a chance to separate himself from (Kevin) White and (Dorial) Green-Beckham is route running. He’s already the best route runner in this class and has potential to build on it. If Cooper wants to maximize his skills, it’s the most important part of his game to address.

One thing I love about Cooper’s game is that he plays fast. His timed burst is good and it translates to the field, especially when setting up releases, stems, and breaks. He displays suddenness as a route runner when using release technique and turning on speed breaks.

At the same time, Cooper understands that when you have speed as a tool, the value of varying tempo is an underrated skill. He’ll vary the pace and length of his stems to set up defenders and incorporate head and shoulder fakes at the top of stems.

Equally important to beginning a route with intensity is learning how to stop the route on a dime. Cooper can drop his hips into breaks and make hard lateral cuts to earn separation as a receiver or ballcarrier.

The data and film suggest the Cowboys have upgraded their receiving corps by adding a talent that can separate and run routes better than the current cast.  The 2016 and 2017 separation data tells us Cooper is marginally better than the league average, but the 2018 separation data and film tell us he has untapped upside in that department.  Matt’s film study from college also points to this upside.  Cooper’s ability to separate versus man and press are areas his presence will be felt quickly.

Receiving

In the aftermath of the week seven loss to the Washington Redskins, some of the blame lays at the feet of the Dallas receiving corps who failed to haul critical passes.  For the season, according to Pro Football Focus, here are the Cowboys’ drop rates (drops / catchable targets) and Cooper’s (versus all receivers with more than twelve catchable targets):

  • Michael Gallup:  94 of 100 (17% drop rate)
  • Deonte Thompson:  86 of 100 (14% drop rate)
  • Allen Hurns:  50 of 100 (7% drop rate)
  • Cole Beasley:  24 of 100 (3% drop rate)
  • Amari Cooper:  59 of 100 (8% drop rate)

Cooper has battled issues with drops over his short career.  In two out of three full seasons, Cooper has posted drop rates well above the league average for wide receivers (8% NFL average).  Here are his drop rates and rank versus all receivers with more than fifty catchable targets by season:

  • 2015:  21% Drop Rate; 53 of 53 Rank
  • 2016:  5% Drop Rate; 22 of 61 Rank
  • 2017:  18% Drop Rate; 52 of 52 Rank

While one high drop rate season isn’t always alarming due to the variance that is often seen in the statistic (and variability in the way it can be measured), two seasons at such a high rate got me thinking — how often has that happened?  Since 2008 only three times, and those two players don’t exactly inspire confidence:  Dwayne Bowe and Greg Little.

When Matt studied Cooper’s hands in depth he noted some concerns about concentration drops but didn’t notice any glaring issues in this area.  Here are Matt’s comments from the 2015 RSP:

At the catch point, Cooper displays late hands to avoid tipping off defenders when high-pointing targets. He’s good at cutting off defenders and displays strong enough hands to rip the ball free of opponents while airborne or in an awkward position.

Despite this flair for the difficult catch, Cooper has his share of concentration drops. While it would be nice to correct, if he develops into a high-volume option the occasional drops will be something that teams can live with.

Given the conflicting nature of Matt’s original assessment and the data, I decided to really put this aspect of Cooper’s game under the microscope by watching 159 different targets over the course of the past several seasons.  I viewed all of the 2015 games when Cooper’s drop rate was at a career high (20%) and then mixed in games from the next few seasons.

In order to identify any patterns or trends I charted several things for each target:

  • When Targeted – a) open b) in traffic c) contacted
  • Ball Placement – a) high b) mid c) low
  • Ball Placement – a) inside shoulder frame b) outside shoulder frame
  • Ball Placement – a) in front b) behind
  • Field Location – a) short b) intermediate c) deep
  • Field Location – a) inside b) outside

Amari Cooper Play Charting – Catch and Drop Rates

I have bolded and colored the areas where Cooper is at his best and used red for the areas he struggles at.  At a high level, his problems come when dealing with traffic, which is prevalent working the shorter inside areas of the field.  When he works intermediate and deep outside components of the field his performance is stronger.  From a ball placement standpoint, he does best when his arms are extended above his body and hands are within his shoulder base.  Things get shaky when he has to extend his hands outside of his torso on targets arriving at a range between his hips and shoulders (mid).

Poor Catch Rate Performance:  In Traffic, Mid & Outside Ball Placement, Short & Inside Field Location

Utilizing this specific criteria combination Cooper demonstrated a 58% drop rate on twelve catchable pass targets.

I am not 100% sure what is causing Cooper to drop these types of passes.  Hand placement is and technique definitely is part of it.  You could point to concerns about contact due to traffic in these areas, but he displays a willingness to deal with contact and contested throws at other times.  What is fascinating is how well he catches the ball when it is up and away from his body.

Strong Catch Rate Performance – High Ball Placement, Intermediate & Deep Field Location

When Cooper is dealing with a ball placed higher than his shoulder pads where he doesn’t have to make decisions about hand placement and technique he demonstrated a 91% catch rate on twenty-one catchable targets.  These types of opportunities often come on intermediate and deeper passes down the field.

As mentioned in the section above, we can’t pretend to know everything driving Cooper’s superior success catching the ball more downfield.  I believe the bigger component driving the success is less about field location and more about his hands’ technique on these throws.  In these situations, it is clear he has the ability to be a strong catcher of the football.

Yards After the Catch

The NFL Next Gen Stats team recently unveiled a new metric known as “Expected Yards After Catch”.  This is an interesting metric because it takes multiple variables into account to determine how many yards a player should get after a catch.  Per their website here are the stats and definitions associated with this metric:

Yards After Catch (YAC) The yards gained after catch by a receiver.
Expected Yards After Catch (xYAC) The expected yards after catch, based on numerous factors using tracking data such as how open the receiver is, how fast they’re traveling, how many defenders/blockers are in space, etc
YAC Above Expectation (+/-) A receiver’s YAC compared to their Expected YAC.

Here I have summarized the Dallas Cowboys’ receivers and Amari Cooper over the past three seasons:

Dallas Cowboys and Amari Cooper Yards After Catch Data

With xYAC being such a new metric, I don’t know that we can jump to any conclusions.  The results seem to bounce around year-to-year (doesn’t mean it isn’t a valuable metric), which makes me uncomfortable assuming anything.  It is interesting that Amari Cooper has the highest YAC Above Expectation with a plus 1.7 in 2017, which was good for third in the league.  JuJu Smith-Schuster finished first and Golden Tate finished second that season.

Matt actually wrote a good deal about Cooper’s elusiveness, balance, vision, and power in the 2015 RSP.  This is what Matt had to say:

Cooper has the strength to run through contact in the open field and his quick first step helps him lessen the impact of impending contact. He will break off the occasional big play as a runner because of his burst and creative feet, but he’s not a consistently dynamic runner. He’ll try too hard to make that one extra move in the open field and the whole run can come unraveled.

Cooper can extend for extra yards and fight his way to the first down marker, but don’t expect him to turn a short pass into a long gain unless his blockers spring him.

Below are Matt’s grades for Cooper across every category including elusiveness, balance, vision, and power.  For context, I included other familiar names from 2014 and 2015 (order not indicative of ranking).

Amari Cooper RSP Calibration

Compared to Sammy Watkins and Odell Beckham Jr., Cooper didn’t grade out as well in the YAC driver categories.  He graded out solid in these areas and that’s exactly what I observed on film – a solid YAC contributor.  He isn’t going to create a ton of game-breaking plays, but he consistently picks up extra bits of real estate.

Consistent Bits of YAC

Conclusion

Based on this data and film research what can we conclude regarding Amari Cooper’s expected impact on the Dallas Cowboys?

I think there are several reasons Dallas should see immediate dividends:

  1. The Cowboys whole offense will get a lift because opposing defenses will have to account for Cooper’s ability to separate versus man coverage.  Double teams to his side will create more isolated looks for pass catchers that need it.
  2. More strategic flexibility on down and distances where intermediate areas of the field need to be attacked.  This is currently a deficiency in the Dallas air attack that leads to too many throws short of the sticks or incompletions.
  3. Cooper’s YAC consistency brings an improved element to the Cowboys passing game that currently generates 58% of its passing yards through Prescott’s arm versus receivers legs.
  4. The Cowboys will discover if Dak Prescott’s timing route issues and holding the ball too long (3rd highest in the league at 3.04 seconds) are tied to him not trusting his current receivers to get open.  Cooper is going to be open often in these scenarios.

These things alone probably make Amari Cooper worth a second round pick.  When discussing Amari Cooper versus the upcoming receiver draft class with Matt Waldman he told me, “Cooper is as good if not better than the guys we know are coming out.”

The key to Cooper living up to a first round value is tied to his ability to limit drops.  While many in the analytics community don’t value drop statistics, when the data is paired with film study tied to a defined process I do think we can extract value.  By doing this we were able to isolate the majority of Cooper’s drop issues to certain types of passes.  We were also able to define the types of targets he catches well.  This creates clarity we can’t get from data alone on two points:

  1. Amari Cooper can catch the ball – his hands aren’t made of stone
  2. Amari Cooper needs a lot of repetition on certain types of targets

If Cooper invokes (or continues) a strong work ethic around number two and the Cowboys have the right coaches on board to instruct him, there are enough reasons to believe he can perform like a first-round talent.  Of course, whether or not the Cowboys have the right staff or quarterback to utilize that talent is a different story.

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Categories: Dwain McFarland, Players, RSP Film And Data, Wide ReceiverTags: , , , , ,

3 comments

  1. That’s the story I’ve seen. Still a great route runner, but I think the drops contributed to carr targeting the covered receivers and not the open cooper. I worry about Dak’s accuracy to get the ball in those zones where cooper excels. This was a great read. Thanks.

    • Thanks BAM. Carr going away from Cooper this year due to drops is certainly plausible. Jared Cook currently leading the team with 20% of targets versus Cooper’s 14%, but Jordy right there w/ Cooper at 14% too. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

      Thanks again,
      Dwain

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