Can Amari Cooper Keep Producing in the Raiders' Offense?
The Raiders have been a franchise mired in trouble essentially since they walked off of the field in Super Bowl XXXVII. Their first-round picks on both sides of the ball are routinely mocked, and for good reason -- whiffs on Jamarcus Russell, Darren McFadden, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Rolando McClain have helped keep Oakland mired in irrelevancy for more than a decade.
It's no wonder, then, that fantasy owners have had trouble trusting that Oakland has made not just a relevant fantasy selection but selected a good player at all.
The fact is, results matter, and since 2004 the Raiders have not had a first-round difference maker on the offensive end.
Fortunes in Oakland might be changing -- Khalil Mack, Oakland's first-rounder in 2014 looks legit, and it appears Oakland through four games might have found an offensive talent worthy of his draft position in Amari Cooper.
Cooper is currently on pace to be the first Raiders receiver with over 1,000 yards in a season since Randy Moss did it in 2005 (incidentally Michael Crabtree is also on pace to go barely over 1,000 as well).
The question is: should fantasy owners care about Cooper, and how much?
Essentially, fantasy football can be boiled down to one simple formula: (Talent) x (Opportunity) = Value.
In other words, a player's value is tied not just to his talent, but it is tied to how many times he touches the ball. According to SportingCharts.com, Cooper has appeared in 234 of the Raiders' 269 offensive snaps -- or 87% of the total offensive snaps the team has taken. That's more than any non-offensive line player on the team, including quarterback Derek Carr, and is 42 snaps more than the next highest-ranked skill position player: Crabtree.
Cooper is not on the field simply as a decoy. The Raiders fully intend to use him. Currently Cooper sits at 40 targets which ties him for 14th in the league, one more than Crabtree. Among highly targeted receivers, Cooper has fared well per our metrics.
Our signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP) can measure how much a player adds or detracts from his team's expectations to score. You can read more in our glossary, but basically what this measures is how effective a player is compared to how players have performed in similar situations, historically.
Among the 32 players with at least 30 targets Cooper (0.71) currently ranks 16th, smack dab in the middle, in Reception NEP per target. That fares favorably to Crabtree (0.59) who currently ranks 26th among that same group.
Through four weeks, the good news for those with Cooper stock from a fantasy perspective is that the Raiders seem intent on not only having Cooper on the field but in getting him involved. The main competition for Cooper's targets, Crabtree, has simply not been as effective as Cooper has been with his targets. Crabtree has one fewer target than Cooper, and one fewer reception, but has 76 fewer yards and, as noted above, ranks 10 spots worse in Reception NEP per target among highly-targeted receivers.
The fact is that the Raiders are going to get Cooper his looks, and if the trend continues Crabtree could begin to cede targets to Cooper, who is almost always on the field for the silver and black.
The problem for fantasy owners is, despite the opportunity, Cooper has not yet turned in a monster game. Through four weeks, in .5 PPR formats, Cooper has finished as WR45, WR11, WR18, and WR19.
There's not a top-10 performance in there, though three of four weeks he's been solidly a WR2 or better. The problem is not so much these finishes. It's who they've come against.
While Cooper's WR11 performance did come against Baltimore, currently our 8th best defense in Defensive Adjusted Reception NEP per play, his Week 3 and Week 4 performances -- where he finished WR18 and WR19, respectively -- came against Cleveland and Chicago. Those defenses are ranked 24th and 29th, respectively.
In other words, the last two weeks have been against defenses we currently have bottom 10 against the pass. The Raiders face exactly one more team that is in the bottom 10 against the pass all year: Detroit in Week 11.
The Raiders have three games against teams we currently have ranked top five against the pass: two games against Denver, including next week, and one game against the New York Jets.
Cooper and the Raiders are going to have much stiffer competition against the pass the rest of the way, and that has to be a factor in looking at Cooper's fantasy prospects for the remainder of the season.
What will be critical for Cooper is to improve his catch rate. Among the 32 receivers mentioned above, Cooper ranks 22nd in percent of targets caught. In some ways, this number makes his Reception NEP per target more impressive. Cooper has been middle of the pack in effectiveness in spite of not catching a high percentage of balls thrown his way. That said, against tougher defenses, Cooper simply cannot waste targets at this rate and be an effective fantasy receiver.
Some of this obviously has to do with quarterback play and the play of his teammates, so it's not all on Cooper. But from a fantasy owner's perspective the mitigating factors are irrelevant. On-field performance is what matters, and with stiffer competition, if Cooper is not catching a higher percentage of balls thrown his way, his fantasy numbers will suffer.
There's a lot of good and bad to consider with Amari Cooper so far this year. There's a lot of potential for Raider Nation to be excited for. On the field, this guy looks like the real deal, and the Raiders have worked hard to get him involved in the offense.
From a fantasy owner's perspective, that's a dream. You know Cooper is involved in the game plan and is going to get his looks. The Raiders should continue to work him into the offense
On the other side, the Raiders' schedule is only going to get tougher from here, which means that Cooper is going to have to catch more of the balls thrown his way if fantasy owners are going to get reasonable returns. So far Cooper has settled into a middling to low-end WR2 range, and he definitely should have at least the opportunities to hold that position.
Fantasy owners should not expect a huge, Odell Beckham-like surge from Cooper, but somewhere between a mid to low WR2 to a high-end WR3/FLEX is well within Cooper's capabilities, particularly with the amount of opportunity he is getting.
Our algorithms project Cooper to perform as the WR19 for the rest of the season.