He was college football’s best wideout last season and is the most polished receiver in the 2015 draft. But will his size and concentration lapses lead to a long wait on draft night?
There’s a lot to like about Alabama wideout Amari Cooper, who stands 6-1 and weighs 211 pounds. Though he doesn’t turn 21 until June, he already possesses an NFL body: long arms (31.5 inches), thick torso, strong legs and massive hands (10 inches). His 40 time (4.42) was tied for seventh among receivers at the combine.
He illustrated his strong run-after-the-catch ability by doing the three-cone drill in 6.71 seconds—the fifth best time among receivers at the combine—and the short shuttle in 3.98, tops among receivers. Both drills measure agility, and Cooper tested at an elite level.
Cooper is easily the most polished receiver in this draft, and perhaps since Robert Woods (Bills) and Keenan Allen (Chargers) were taken in 2013. Sometimes it seems as if Cooper isn’t exactly flying, but then he kicks it into a higher gear and gets beyond the defensive back. His footwork is precise, and he rarely uses false steps. On film, it’s also difficult to find an example of his running a bad route.
In fact, Cooper can run the entire passing route tree at an NFL level. Be it a slant, comeback, curl, out, dig or post, Cooper is nearly at top speed from the start of his route and doesn’t power down to make cuts. That’s part of the reason he gets so open. He’ll run full speed and force a defensive back to open his hips in an effort maintain coverage, at which point Cooper will quickly make his cut or blow by the defender. Watch this post pattern against Auburn, which is just one of several examples:
Cooper has been taught well by Billy Napier, Alabama’s receivers coach, and has taken that coaching well, which is a good sign to his future employers. As a route runner and precision receiver, Cooper compares favorably to Jordy Nelson, the Packers’ taller but slower Pro Bowler. As with Nelson, I can see Cooper developing into a lethal back-shoulder receiver in the NFL.
He's also excellent after the catch. Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin deployed his best weapon in a variety of ways, including quick passes, screens and end-arounds. Cooper is elusive in the open field. Sammy Watkins, selected fourth overall by the Bills last season, was better and more physical with the ball in his hands (almost like a running back) in college. Cooper is nearly as good, but with a different style. He has a shake and another gear that enables him to zip past tacklers. Sometimes you think Cooper is going to run out of bounds, but suddenly he’s around the corner and picking up another 15 yards.
It’s long been said that if you want to see how competitive a receiver is, watch him block. Cooper has a long way to go to be a good blocker—his reactions can be slow, and he doesn’t seem to understand yet the angles needed to approach or execute a block—but he almost always shows great effort. Here’s one example:
And I saw some real fire on a play in the second quarter against Texas A&M in 2013. The Aggie cornerback tried to get physical with Cooper at the line, and paid a substantial price when Cooper put him on his backside. This is what NFL coaches want to see and work with.
Finally, despite playing with a new quarterback and despite defenses knowing that Cooper was carrying Alabama’s offense last season, he broke the SEC single-season record for receptions (124) and finished second in yards (1,727 yards). In Alabama’s biggest games against ranked teams (Mississippi, LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn, Missouri and Ohio State), Cooper averaged 9.8 catches and 106.7 yards, with seven touchdowns in those six games.
Those are Amari Cooper's many strengths.
Here are a few weaknesses or, to be more accurate, the concerns teams are weighing when debating whether or not Cooper is worth a top 10 pick.
Height: Cooper has good size at 6-1, but as I wrote about last year with Sammy Watkins, nearly all elite receivers—proven game-changers who force defensive coordinators to tilt resources toward stopping them—are 6-3 or taller. (Occasionally a 6-2 receiver has other factors such as arm length and/or leaping ability that enables him to play taller.) Cooper does everything well, but he doesn’t appear physically special. Similar in this regard, Watkins had an impressive rookie season considering the Bills’ quarterback situation. Yet given the production of receivers taken later in the draft—Mike Evans, Odell Beckham, Kelvin Benjamin, Brandon Cooks and Paul Richardson—should the Bills have really traded up to get Watkins?
Concentration and 50-50 balls: It wasn’t as much of a problem for Cooper last season as it was in 2013, but he can sometimes drop easy short passes, much like Broncos standout Demaryius Thomas. And while he lacks sufficient reps because he’s always so open, Cooper isn’t a standout on 50/50 balls—and elite receivers should rise above the rest. West Virginia’s Kevin White, who is also vying to be the first receiver taken in the draft, is taller, faster and better than Cooper on making contested catches. Cooper has also had trouble with balls thrown outside his frame and getting his hands in the proper position, but those elements can be improved.
Such quibbles aside, Cooper does just about everything well, and he appears to have a better understanding of the passing game (and the ability to execute) than most receivers entering the draft. For this reason, barring injury, he has minimal bust factor. He will play well for a long time in the NFL and make his quarterback and coaches very happy. Cooper is extremely consistent and productive. He appears to be a quiet leader, and that also bodes well.
But is that enough to be a top 10 pick? Maybe. An argument can be made that you must possess the ability, or at least the potential, to be an immediate game-changer every time you take the field in order to be drafted so high. How teams answer that debate will determine whether or not Cooper hears his named called early in Chicago.
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