After shutout vs. Patriots, should Cowboys' Amari Cooper still be considered a No. 1 wideout?

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By Ben Linsey

Minkah Fitzpatrick was the midseason trade acquisition who stole headlines in Week 9 following his pick-six for the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Indianapolis Colts. A year earlier, another midseason trade acquisition – equally contested in his first-rounder trade value – made his debut for the Dallas Cowboys with a receiving line of five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown.

It was a sign of things to come for Amari Cooper, and it undersold what his connection with quarterback Dak Prescott would mean for Dallas’ offense.

Across the 2017 season and the first six weeks of the 2018 campaign – weeks in which he was an Oakland Raider – Cooper was trending downward. Among 64 wide receivers with 500 or more routes over that span, Cooper ranked 42nd in receiving yards per route run (1.48). The passer rating when targeted of 85.4 ranked 51st among the same group.

Likewise, the Cowboys’ passing offense struggled. Dallas ranked 10th worst among offenses in EPA per pass play over that same stretch. After such an impressive rookie debut, Prescott was averaging 6.8 yards per pass attempt (23rd among 32 qualifying QBs). The Cowboys were averaging just 5.6 yards per pass play (24th among offenses).

FOXBOROUGH, MA - NOVEMBER 24: Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper hits the ground while attempting a catch during the fourth quarter. The call of a catch on the field was overturned on review, and the ball went over to Patriots on downs, sealing their 13-9 victory.  The Patriots won 13-9. The New England Patriots host the Dallas Cowboys for a Sunday afternoon football game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA on Nov. 24, 2019. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Amari Cooper went without a catch on Sunday against Stephon Gilmore (24) and the Patriots. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

A trade was made that sent draft compensation to Oakland for a talented, young wide receiver, and downward trends were bucked. Since Cooper’s Week 9 debut for the Cowboys last season, the Cowboys own the league’s third-best passing offense in yards per play (6.9) and EPA per pass play.

It’s hard not to attribute significant causation in that turnaround to Cooper. Since joining Dallas, Cooper ranks seventh among 86 wide receivers with 500 or more offensive snaps in PFF grade, and only Tyler Lockett has a higher passer rating when targeted than Cooper (125.2) among qualifiers. He’s a certified, No. 1 option, something that the Cowboys sorely lacked at the time of the trade.

That is part of what made this past Sunday’s matchup with New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore so intriguing. Cooper has been one of the best wide receivers in the NFL over the past year, and it’s not hard to make the case that Gilmore has been the best cornerback in football over the last year-plus. Iron sharpens iron.

There wasn’t a whole lot of sharpening on Sunday, as Cooper came out with a dull blade. The dreadful weather put a damper on the matchup, but given the conditions, the fact that Cooper didn’t record a single catch in a game that Prescott threw 33 times comes as a surprise. Cooper was targeted twice in the game – both coming with Gilmore in coverage – and Gilmore came away with more catches (1) than Cooper (0) on those passes. It was the first time since Week 14 of his rookie season that Cooper ran 25 or more routes in a game and did not record a catch.

Amari Cooper’s donut vs. Patriots isn’t a concern

In a vacuum, an off day when seeing plenty of man coverage against Gilmore is the expected outcome. Since the start of the 2018 season, Gilmore ranks first among all cornerbacks in PFF coverage grade, forced incompletion rate (22 percent), completion rate allowed (46 percent), and passer rating allowed on passes into his coverage (57.3).

Gilmore has been even more stingy when you restrict the sample to just this season, allowing a passer rating of 37.4 on 66 targets. The passer rating of spiking the ball on 66 consecutive passes would be 39.6.

That should soften the blow a little bit from the big ole zero that Cooper hung in Week 12, but it also raises a valid question: was that an anomaly or par for the course when Cooper comes up against a top-tier secondary?

Cooper vs. Marshon Lattimore

Cooper has gone against Lattimore twice as a member of the Cowboys. In those contests, he has combined for 11 receptions on 14 targets for 105 yards with Lattimore in primary coverage.

Lattimore was comfortable giving Cooper cushion in many of the matchups, and Cooper obliged with crisp routes and catches underneath. When Lattimore opted for press coverage, he saw more success with two forced incompletions on three targets.

Cooper vs. Darius Slay

Just a week before getting blanked by Gilmore and the Patriots, Cooper had a matchup with Darius Slay and the Lions. In terms of playing press-man coverage, the Lions are the closest team in the league to replicating what the Patriots do thanks to Belichick disciple Matt Patricia.

Slay allowed Cooper to toe-tap on the sideline for a reception and let an interception go through his hands to an awaiting Cooper, but all in all, it was a strong battle all day. Slay allowed three receptions to Cooper for 38 yards on six targets as the primary coverage defender.

Cooper vs. Xavien Howard

Howard has made a name for himself in Miami as a playmaker and a ballhawk at cornerback. In their Week 3 showdown, Cooper was the only one making plays. He had his way with Howard, catching all five of his targets for 70 yards and two touchdowns, including a 37-yard reception where he had the Miami cornerback all kinds of turned around.

Safe to say that Cooper came out on top of this one.

Cooper vs. Jaire Alexander

Alexander has drawn significant praise early in his career and for good reason. He leads all cornerbacks in forced incompletions with 16 this season. That being said, he falls into the boom-or-bust category, as he is susceptible to giving up the big play.

Cooper put together a highlight reel in their Week 5 matchup. He went full scorched earth on Alexander to the tune of eight receptions for 201 yards and a touchdown. Alexander remains the only cornerback to give up over 200 receiving yards in a game this season, and all 201 went to Cooper. His route-running had Alexander in fits, and things could have been worse considering Cooper dropped an open pass downfield that resulted in an interception.

What challenge does Tre’Davious White pose for Cooper?

Cooper has shown that he is capable of beating cornerbacks who are considered among the league’s best. He torched Howard and Alexander in matchups this season while putting up solid lines against Lattimore and Slay.

Cooper is one of the elite route runners in the NFL and that ability travels to every city, regardless of who is across from him. Gilmore got the better of him in nasty conditions, as he has many wide receivers in recent years regardless of weather, but it isn’t reason to raise concern for Cooper against top-tier cornerbacks. He has shown the ability to win those matchups, too.

The Cowboys face the Bills in a Thanksgiving game with big implications for both teams on Thursday, and the best matchup in the game will involve Cooper and Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White.

White poses many of the same problems that Gilmore does. The two are keeping each other company in many statistical categories. The only two cornerbacks who have yet to allow a touchdown on 50 or more targets are Gilmore (66) and White (65). The lowest two passer ratings allowed in press coverage among cornerbacks with 25 or more targets this season are White (24.8) and Gilmore (43.0). The lowest two passer ratings allowed by cornerbacks with 25 or more targets on passes 10-plus yards downfield are Gilmore (24.6) and White (32.9).

It makes the matchup with Cooper in back-to-back weeks interesting. No one is playing at the same level as Gilmore, but White is among that best-of-the-rest group that can pose significant challenges to what Cooper and the Cowboys want to do. White is a big reason that Buffalo’s defense ranks third in the league in EPA per pass play allowed behind only the Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers.

Once again, it’s an opportunity for iron to sharpen iron.

Don’t expect Cooper to come to battle with a dull blade two straight weeks.

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