Can Amari Cooper Live Up to the Fantasy Football Hype?

Coming off the board in the middle of the fourth round, can Cooper deliver on his price tag?

Not that long ago, a common belief in the fantasy community was to pursue third-year receivers, with the thinking being it took wideouts two full seasons of play before they were truly fantasy relevant.

Now that view looks as old-fashioned as printing out MapQuest directions before a road trip.

Over the past few seasons, rookie and second-year wideouts started contributing more and more -- and then 2014 happened.

The 2014 class of receivers set the league -- and fantasy world -- ablaze a year ago, becoming  a historic rookie class thanks to its incredible depth and monumental top-end production. In the past five seasons, only six rookie receivers have caught more than 66 balls. Amazingly, five of those six instances happened last season.

Leading the way were a trio of 1,000-yard receivers in Odell Beckham, Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin, who all finished among the top 17 wideouts in standard leagues, with Beckham and Evans each finishing inside the top 10.

What does that mean for Amari Cooper, the first receiver off the board in the 2015 NFL Draft, and the first rookie wideout -- 19th overall receiver -- being taken in fantasy football drafts this year?

It means we're likely overvaluing him. With an average draft position (ADP) in the middle of the fourth round -- 44th overall and the 19th receiver, to be exact -- Cooper is going to have a difficult time providing any value.

Let's break things down.

Opportunity Knocks

Aside from being pretty good at football, Beckham, Evans and Benjamin all had one thing in common: they were target monsters. Each finished inside the top 20 in targets per game.

Cooper -- who is already atop the Raiders  depth chart, figures to be peppered with targets in an Oakland offense bereft of quality pass-catchers. The Raiders gave James Jones' corpse 111 targets a year ago, so that should be the absolute worst-case number for Cooper as the Raiders' top receiver. Oakland’s other receiving options are Michael Crabtree, Andre Holmes, Kenbrell Thompkins, Lee Smith and Mychal Rivera

Using our  Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which looks at each play and calculates the points added by a player based on expectation, we can see how poorly Oakland's current crop of receivers fared in 2014.

Out of 95 receivers who caught at least 25 passes last year, Crabtree's Reception NEP per target clip of 0.58 ranked 65th, with Holmes' mark of 0.59 one spot better. Rivera's Reception NEP per target checked in a 0.44, which was 24th out of 31 tight ends who made at least 25 catches.

So, yeah, I think it’s safe to say he should be quarterback Derek Carr’s first read on most plays.

What’s In His Toolbox

There’s a perception out there that Cooper isn’t a great athlete, rather a receiver who wins with pristine route running. He was  most often compared to Greg Jennings in the pre-draft process. Jennings is also who the nifty tool spits out as the best comparable, which is saying something considering Jennings has 8,308 career receiving yards. 

Player Height Weight 40-yard dash Vertical 20-yard shuttle
Greg Jennings 5-foot-11 197 4.46 36.5 inches 4.16
Amari Cooper 6-foot-1 211 4.42 33 inches 3.98

Other than the vertical, where Jennings held a significant advantage, Cooper bests Jennings in terms of size, speed and short-area burst, three things that are obviously important for a receiver. A bigger, more athletic version of Greg Jennings? Sounds good to me.

Cooper grades out well, but does that carry over to the field? Let’s see. Well, that looks like a resounding yes.

Serving as Alabama's top receiver in 2014, Cooper is coming off one of the most dominant college seasons in recent history. He racked up a video-game-like 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns on 124 grabs in 14 games (8.8 receptions per game) while playing a stout schedule with spotty quarterback play.

In lieu of being called a “great athlete,” Cooper is referred to as a “great route runner” in almost  every pre-draft article you read. Not one of those pieces calls Cooper a great athlete -- not a single one -- rather saving that praise for Kevin White and Dorial Green-Beckham. They all gush over his route running, though. It’s like someone can’t simultaneously be a great athlete and a great route runner -- cough, cough, Antonio Brown.

When we hear great route running, we often think of stopping on a dime or watching a receiver turn around a corner with a double move. It does encompass those things, but one of the most difficult parts of the college-to-NFL transition for wideouts is handling physical, press coverage.

This is one of Cooper’s strengths, as you can see (two separate times Cooper toasts that poor dude so badly the defender leaves the frame of the video); he just didn’t get to display it much in college, where corners typically play off the line of scrimmage.

Not Quite A Black Hole 

Landing in Oakland is far from an ideal spot, but it’s not a death sentence either.

The Raiders' offense was rather miserable in 2014, which is one of the reasons they put so much draft capital into Cooper. When adjusting for schedule strength, Oakland finished last season at -0.07 Net Expected Points per play. Only Jacksonville (-0.10) and Tampa Bay (-0.09) were less efficient than the silver and black. That's not good company to keep. Your mom wouldn't like you hanging out with Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.

Cooper and Carr, in his second year, should mesh well. Carr’s strength is getting rid of the ball quickly and moving the chains through short, intermediate completions. That aligns well with Cooper's best attributes. Plus, they have a ready-made nickname: AC/DC.

Carr struggled in 2014, despite the common belief that he had a successful rookie season. Out of the 37 quarterbacks who attempted 200 or more drop backs, Carr was one of only six signal callers with a negative Passing NEP. He finished the year with a Passing NEP of -40.94. The average Passing NEP among those qualified quarterbacks was 45.17, so there was a small galaxy between Carr and average quarterback play.

It might not be efficient, but if their chemistry continues into the regular season, then the volume -- only three teams ran more drop backs than Oakland's 656 last year -- could make Cooper a viable option.

Zeroing In On Some Numbers

With the Raiders offense being what it is, it will somewhat limit Cooper's touchdown potential, but hopefully he can compensate with immense volume a la Evans and Benjamin. Looking around for a similar situation -- young receiver in a weak passing offense without many other quality pass-game options -- Sammy Watkins' rookie year comes to mind.

Watkins, a similarly-ranked prospect coming out of college, played in a Buffalo offense which ranked 15th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play (but just 21st in cumulative Passing NEP). Watkins hauled in 65 receptions for 982 yards and 6 touchdowns a year ago. That was good enough for 25th among wideouts in non-PPR leagues.

In search of another, more applicable baseline, let's look at the 2014 numbers of James Jones, the receiver Cooper is effectively replacing. Jones caught 73 balls for 666 yards and 6 touchdowns last season. Among the 40 receivers who were targeted at least 100 times, only four posted a lower Reception NEP per target mark that Jones' 0.48. Jones saw plenty of volume (again, 111 targets) despite being terribly inefficient, though some of that might have been because of Carr's play.

Let's put to use the data we gathered from Jones and Watkins. Using their 2014 numbers as a guide, aiming for something a little worse than what Watkins did and better than Jones' totals, I came up with a projection of 68 catches for 781 yards and 5 touchdowns (108 points). Wouldn't you know it? That's pretty darn similar to the numbers -- 64 catches for 843 yards and 5 touchdowns (114 points) -- our algorithm spit out for Cooper's 2015 projection. (I didn't look beforehand -- pinky swear!)

About That Value

We believe we've found set of numbers that accurately depict what will probably happen in Cooper's rookie campaign. According to our projections, Cooper would've finished 2014 as the 34th-ranked receiver, meaning he's not providing any value at his current ADP as the 18th receiver off the board. The performance of rookies last year has everyone going all Black Friday to get this season's top first-year receiver.

So, as a mid-fourth-round pick, will Cooper provide any value this year? No, it doesn't appear that way.

For Cooper to finish as a top-17 wideout, based off receiver totals from the past three seasons, he'd need to amass 149 points. Our projection gives him 114 points. So, unless receiving numbers come down league-wide, he'd need to rack up 35 more points. The easiest way to do that would be to have a fluky high touchdown total, which is unlikely given the offense he's in. 

Instead of going in the middle of the fourth round, Cooper should be coming off the board a full three rounds later, in the middle of the seventh round.

Long story short: unless Cooper falls in your draft, he is not going to be a value pick. Let someone else take the plunge. If you've already drafted him, you might want to sell high.