Fantasy Football: How Can Amari Cooper Get Even Better in 2017?

An analysis of air yards shows that the biggest weakness in Amari Cooper's game is on targets five yards or fewer away from the line of scrimmage.

Amari Cooper is on the verge of history.

If he catches 84 or more passes this season, he’ll own the record for the most career receptions in NFL history for a player through their age-23 campaign. Through his age-22 season, he only trails Larry Fitzgerald and Reggie Bush in this department, each of whom caught 161 passes during their first two years in the league.

Cooper is also looking to exceed 1,000 receiving yards for the third consecutive time. Since Randy Moss entered the league back in 1998, only three wide receivers have also started their careers in similar fashion: A.J. Green, Odell Beckham, and Mike Evans.

It's been an impressive beginning to Cooper’s career, and he’s doing it all despite also becoming notorious for failing to get two feet in bounds.

Despite this historical start, though, numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) metric doesn't totally love Cooper. Last year, he ranked 15th with a Reception NEP of 89.28 after posting a nearly identical 89.45 mark as a rookie, which placed him 20th at the position.

NEP reflects the number of points a player contributes -- either positively or negatively -- to his team versus what is expected against the league average. That is determined by looking at historical results in similar game situations (down, distance, line of scrimmage) from the last 12 years. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

So, entering his third NFL season, where exactly can Cooper look to make significant strides on the field?

Did You Order the Code Red?!

Even though the young pass-catcher is on a historical pace when it comes to receptions, his fantasy owners will tell you he hasn't found the end zone enough.

Cooper was only targeted 13 times in the red zone last year, according to Pro-Football-Reference. To put that in perspective, that's fewer targets than Theo Riddick, a running back that missed six games. Cooper only caught five of those passes and didn't get any into the end zone.

It also doesn't look great when we compare Cooper to his teammates in similar situations. The below table shows the production from Cooper, Seth Roberts, and Michael Crabtree from inside the 20-yard line each of the last two seasons.

2016 Targets Rec Catch% Yds TD Target%
Michael Crabtree 21 12 57.14% 96 6 23.30%
Seth Roberts 20 8 40.00% 53 4 22.20%
Amari Cooper 13 5 38.46% 42 0 14.40%
Targets Rec Catch% Yds TD Target%
Michael Crabtree 13 3 23.08% 18 2 23.20%
Seth Roberts 9 5 55.56% 58 5 16.10%
Amari Cooper 7 3 42.86% 38 2 12.50%

And when we zero in even more, here's how these three receivers have performed in those same categories over the past two seasons inside the 10-yard line.

Michael Crabtree8450.00%12419.00%
Seth Roberts8450.00%15219.00%
Amari Cooper700.00%0016.70%
Michael Crabtree6233.33%10237.50%
Seth Roberts00 0.00%000.00%
Amari Cooper00 0.00%000.00%

Wow, just wow. Cooper has never caught a pass that was thrown from within the 10-yard line. From such close range, he wasn’t even targeted as a rookie and went 0-for-7 last year. Just how bad is that? Well, he was the only player that managed to come up empty when targeted at least five times from within the 10-yard line.

Seeing Cooper struggling so badly close to the end zone is bizarre. At the NFL Scouting Combine, he displayed excellent short area quickness in the 20-Yard Short Shuttle and 3-Cone Drill. Those times added up earned Cooper a 97th-percentile Agility Score on PlayerProfiler. He is dealing with a great deal of competition when Oakland moves into the red zone, though.

Last year, Michael Crabtree ranked in the top five among all players in red zone targets (21) and receptions (12). Crabtree also led Oakland with 13 red zone targets in 2015, but only made 3 catches. Let's not forget about Roberts, either. Any fantasy owner who's had Cooper on their squad has dreaded seeing that name pop up on a scoring alert.

Roberts is an undrafted rookie from the 2014 draft class and spent his first year in the league on the practice squad. However, he's still managed to best Cooper in the red zone for two consecutive years, scoring nine red zone touchdowns, compared to Cooper's two.

There are also opportunities being shifted to the ground game, as Latavius Murray was one of only six running backs to score double-digit touchdowns in the red zone during the 2016 season. And oh, by the way, Oakland is replacing him with Marshawn Lynch. So, things may not be getting any easier.

The Air Up There

The chart seen below is from Josh Hermsmeyer’s, and it displays just how much Cooper has struggled to convert air yards into actual yards on throws traveling five yards or fewer. And it's not just in the red zone -- this is looking at all of Cooper's targets within that range from the line of scrimmage.

However, once the depth of target extends out to six or seven yards, we see that the green line – which is Cooper’s Receiver Air Conversion Ratio, or RACR -- meets the league average line. From there, it takes off into well above the league average on throws made deeper down the field.

To put it simply, Cooper is excellent at turning air yards into real yards once the average depth of target (aDOT) gets beyond five yards.

He had the highest RACR (0.89) among the 31 wide receivers that saw more than 1,200 air yards last year, with Antonio Brown (0.81) being the only other player above 0.79.

First Class

Based off his strong first two years, Cooper is appropriately valued as a top-10 fantasy wide receiver in both best ball and redraft leagues.

Using the average draft position (ADP) data from the MFL10 Live App, he's currently being selected as the 9th wide receiver and 17th overall pick in best ball. On FantasyFootballCalculator, he's the 10th wide receiver taken in standard 12-team leagues and is being selected with an ADP just outside the top 20. In dynasty leagues, his youth combined with a historic start has pushed him into the top five at his position, according to the RotoViz Dynasty ADP App.

The current numberFire projections agree with those assessments, placing Cooper as the 10th-best wide receiver. Our projections have him taking another step forward, setting career highs across with the board with 90 receptions for over 1,212 yards and 7.51 touchdowns.

At just 23 years old, Cooper has already demonstrated a remarkable set of skills and is gifted enough to fix the hole in his short game. In order to outperform his ADP, he must find a way to get better at catching short passes. Better play design from the coaching staff or improved technique by the player could be all it takes to get Cooper to own the red zone like he does everywhere else on the football field.