Under the Microscope: Amari Cooper


Two years ago, Amari Cooper swept the nation off its feet as a true freshman. By the end of the season, Cooper had surpassed Julio Jones‘ freshman receiving records with 59 receptions and 999 yards, as well as notching 11 touchdowns to break a long-held Alabama record of 10 receiving touchdowns.

Heading into 2013, Cooper was supposed to be the most dominant receiver in the country, but he failed to live up to the hype, mostly due to focus issues. That said, his “lack” of production was a terrible portrait of his ability. But of course, many took his dip in production way out of hand and saw him to be a hoax. Just over halfway through 2014, he’s shut up anyone who questioned him, as he has already caught nine touchdowns and racked up 1,100-plus yards.

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Cooper measures in at about 6’1″ and 202 pounds- nothing special, but certainly adequate. He is not going to be restricted entirely from being a great player, at that size.

Although, many still question what Amari Cooper is at the next level. “Can he be a No.1?” “Can he thrive outside?” “What about his ability in traffic?”

To all those questions and concerns, I say that there is no reason to believe he is a hoax.

Few, if any at all, receivers in college football run routes as well as Cooper does. From his release from the line of scrimmage to running through breaks to being able to create room in tight spaces, Cooper is the total package as a route runner.

Cooper shows variation in his releases. He can get you to hesitate on a nasty “foot drag” or he may chop his feet at lightning speed and get the cornerback to be too slow to react to the actual cut. Having the ability to gain ground off the line of scrimmage is a skill that too many young receivers struggle with, but for Cooper, it is one of his strengths.

To the tune of the same song, his fluidity and burst when running through route breaks is phenomenal. Cooper gets low, keeps his feet moving, and fires off like a cannon into his new direction. There is never a step wasted, nor is there speed lost. In many cases, he is simply to quick in the tight space for defensive backs to keep up with him. Below is an example of Cooper’s ability both at the line of scrimmage (notice the foot drag) and when breaking on his route.

As you can see, Cooper has an unheralded ability to force defenders to lose ground when covering him. Being able to find ways to create space is key for receivers, especially ones without dominant size, which he does not have. As if his lateral ability alone was not terrifying, he has the linear speed to compliment it.

Much like Sammy Watkins, Amari Cooper eats up space between he and the cornerback before the cornerback even realizes it is gone.  He shoots of the line of scrimmage and quickly generates momentum with each step, causing defenders to underestimate when he will be near them because of his insane acceleration. This can either force the defender to get too grabby on him in an effort to slow him down or it can force the cornerback to turn around too fast and lose his balance, at least to some extent.

Cooper also uses the acceleration when facing cornerbacks head one in press coverage. Instead of the cornerback misjudging where he will be at a certain time, the cornerback just gets caught being too slow to catch up to the blazing speed and short area acceleration that Cooper possesses. Below, Cooper uses his acceleration to burn arguably the best cornerback in college football, Vernon Hargreaves III.

As would be expected, his athletic ability translates to the open field, making him a lethal “yards after the catch” type. After having clearly separated from his defender, Cooper can continue running with the ball and create yard for himself. Often, safeties and deep linebackers take poor angles when coming back to tackle him because of hos fast he is.

Likewise, Cooper can break an ankle or two, just like he does at the line of scrimmage. Even in tight areas, like the sideline, Cooper has shown ability to weave through the mess of players and end up with a huge gain, if not a touchdown. Because of this, Cooper can be utilized as a scree/bubble workhorse, as well as be a quarterback’s best friend on slants and digs.

When looking at Cooper’s hands, there may be over-correction. In 2013, his hands were certainly an issue, but not because he has poor hands. Rather, it was because his head was not where it needed to be. He simply lost focus and failed to look in the ball correctly a number of times. Luckily, those issues seem to be much less frequent in 2014, which suggests that he can improve.

More so than anything, Cooper is most frequently knocked for being weak at the catch point and not showing enough ability to high-point the ball. While it is certainly fair to criticize Cooper for not being able to box out defenders and physically dominate defensive backs at the catch point, he is a special case in regards to high-pointing.

Cooper has rarely shown the ability to high-point, but what makes it less of an issue with him is that he rarely puts himself in a situation for it to be necessary. As hinted at before, Cooper’s burst in short areas is unlike any other. It is a subtle trait for Cooper to keep himself clean in these situations, but it is one that holds great value, especially in the red zone. Below, Cooper turns what is a contested fade for most receivers, into an easy touchdown reception with a lot of space between he and the cornerback.

Would it be nice for Cooper to display more ability in a vertical sense? Sure. Is it absolutely necessary for him to be highly productive? No. With that said, what exactly will his role in the NFL be?

For a good grasp of who Amari Cooper is and what he can do at the next level, look at Jeremy Maclin. Granted, Maclin battled injury last season, but he is back in 2014 and has been a menace. Much like Maclin, Cooper can be used a deep weapon because of his ability burn the “cushion” that the defensive back gives and beat him over the top. Below is a play from Maclin’s game last weekend against the Houston Texans that mimics that Cooper will be able to do.

There is a lot to like about Cooper, accompanied by few reasons to believe he will fail. Cooper’s two most glaring flaws- failing to win at contested catch points and rarely flashing vertical ability- are often hidden or nullified by his other traits. Cooper has the speed, quickness, explosion, fluidity, and unpredictability to be a menacing receiver in the NFL.

Now, the question is, with his size and lack of aggression at catch points, is he a bonafide No.1 receiver? I guess that depends on what you interpret a “No.1” to be, but to me, he can be a No.1 because of how well he separates and creates offense. Certainly, he will not be a “typical” No.1, but there is nothing wrong with that.

As much as I like Cooper, you have to think that, to some extent, his overall potential is limited because of his average size and lack of physical dominance. He is a No.1 receiver and a lethal space player, but if I was an NFL GM, I am not sure I take him (or any receiver in this class) in the top 12 picks. For reference, Cooper is a slightly less impressive prospect than Odell Beckham Jr. was and “ODB” was selected 12th overall by the New York Giants.

Now, Cooper’s “non-top 12 ability” has something to do with the fact that the receiver position ought to be devalued in regards to the draft and not just his talent, but that is a conversation for another article. Regardless of where he is chosen, he will be a fine professional football player and will give defensive backs headaches for a long time to come.