This was supposed to be the year Amari Cooper pulled away from Michael Crabtree and took over the number one receiver role for the Oakland Raiders. The third-year receiver finished with similar receiving numbers to Crabtree each of his first two seasons. Last year, both finished with over 1,000 receiving yards, but Crabtree grabbed eight touchdowns to Cooper’s five.
The result was a photo-finish on fantasy points, with Crabtree beating Cooper for the WR-11 ranking by exactly one point. In 2015, Crabtree scored only six more points than Cooper. Still, Cooper was taken two rounds ahead of Crabtree in the average NFL fantasy draft this year. After all, the prognosticators said 2017 would be Cooper’s year.
Then the season started. In the Raiders’ season opener, quarterback Derek Carr made it an obvious point to throw to Cooper. He threw several passes to him in the red zone, an area where Cooper disappeared in previous seasons. It was almost for naught until Cooper carried the entire defense on his back to score a touchdown. He finished with 63 yards and the one score. It was all downhill after that.
By the time Oakland was through Week 6, Cooper’s receiving yards per game was down to 24. He suffered through three consecutive single-digit yardage contests. To add insult to injury, Crabtree was a top-ten wide receiver with five touchdowns. Cooper was not on most starting fantasy rosters. In fact, only about 24% of fantasy rosters benefited from what happened in Week 7.
That was when Derek Carr came out looking for Cooper over and over again. Cooper received an amazing 19 targets and caught 11 of them for 210 yards and two touchdowns. His 33 fantasy points gave him the second-highest NFL fantasy score for the week.
Is he back?
Nineteen targets are a lot. To feed a receiver that many times, there must be a few things happening. First, the quarterback has to be throwing a bunch. Between the chase for points against a powerful Kansas City offense and fueling a fourth-quarter comeback, Carr threw 52 passes last week. That is not likely to occur every game.
You also have to have other receivers who don’t mind watching 19 targets go to one person. In an exciting victory over the top-ranked team in the league, no one was upset about anything. But Crabtree, Cordarrelle Patterson, and tight end Jared Cook deserve consideration for their efforts all year.
But the most important thing you must have working to see 19 targets in a game is that the receiver must be trustworthy. If you worry that he might drop the pass every time, and then he does, how does the quarterback keep throwing it that way?
In crunch time, Crabtree, Patterson, and Cook all saw passes thrown to them close to the end zone. Cooper did not. His biggest nemesis this season did not disappear in Week 7. He dropped four passes on the night and on at least one play, he was not where Carr expected him to be. Cooper leads the league in drops heading into Week 8 and it is a problem for him.
So… what will happen?
Kansas City presented Derek Carr and the Raiders with a defense they could exploit through the air. Cooper might be the most explosive talent in the receiving corps, so it made sense to get him on track against one of the worst passing defenses in the league.
In Week 8, the Raiders face a top-five defense in the Buffalo Bills. They travel across the country and play an early game, which has had an effect on them historically. It makes sense to get Cooper involved. When he is an effective receiver, the Raiders are an exponentially better football team. His teammates are saying all the right things to support their young star.
But… the Buffalo defense will be a much tougher test than Kansas City’s. Cooper will have to come down with contested balls and can’t afford to drop any when he is open. The Bills don’t give up big touchdowns. Most of the scoring will probably come from in close where Cooper continues to disappear.
So… must start?
Unfortunately, you almost have to start Cooper after a game like his last contest. You hope a light has gone on or that the Raiders are bent on getting him opportunities. The risk here is that if Cooper drops something early or can’t get open in the red zone, Carr will quickly go to his more reliable targets in Crabtree and Cook.
It would be a gutsy call not to start Cooper, but it is a call I would consider if I had a viable alternative. If you will take a gamble on a mid-range receiver having a big day, Cooper is as good a bet as any. I would not be surprised to see a line of three catches on eight targets for 50 yards and no score. I would also not be surprised to see one catch for 90 and a touchdown. That is the quandary.
Putting it all together, knowing the team would love to see Cooper succeed, Amari Cooper is a must-start again. But not exactly the sure thing we expected him to be this year.
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