Football is a funky game. It’s played with an oddly shaped ball. There are 22 dudes impacting every play. And an entire season is still a relatively small sample size — just 16 games compared to 82 in the NBA and NHL and 162 in the MLB.
That's why it can be dangerous to put too much stock into the results of a single NFL season. It can convince us that a crappy player is good. Or that a quality player is trash.
The latter is the case with our 2018 Comeback Player.
2017 in review
Not much went right for Raiders WR Amari Cooper last year.
A transverse process fracture in QB Derek Carr’s back cost him Week 5 and bothered him the rest of the season. After that injury, he completed just 61.3% of his passes and averaged 6.8 yards per attempt. Those marks would have ranked 23rd and 19th among 32 qualifying QBs over the course of a full season.
Cooper dealt with a couple of injuries of his own. He sustained a concussion and sprained his ankle on the same 2nd-quarter play against the Broncos in Week 12. Cooper missed Week 13, re-injured the ankle in Week 14 and missed Week 15. So, in total, he was sidelined for 2 full games and more than 50% of the snaps in 2 others.
Carr suggested after the season that Cooper’s injury was worse than we knew.
“That man was out there playing on 1 foot,” Carr said. “He was out there just trying to give it his all even though he could barely get out there and do it ... Honestly, a lot of guys probably wouldn't have even played with what he had going on.”
Of course, Cooper was disappointing even before those injuries. He topped 62 yards in just 1 of his first 10 games and hit pay dirt in just 3 of them. He posted an ugly 48.8% catch rate and 12.0 yards per catch over that span. Despite closing the season with 3-66-1 and 3-115-1 lines, Cooper still finished with career lows in catches (48) and yards (680). Even with a personal-best 7 TDs, he ranked just 35th at his position in PPR points and 30th in non-PPR.
An elite prospect
So 2017 was undoubtedly ugly. But remember what we said about small sample sizes? They can be misleading.
Let’s take a step back and reconsider Cooper’s complete prospect profile.
He arrived at Alabama in 2012 as a 4-star recruit and a top-50 prospect in the country. Cooper exceeded expectations as a true freshman, exploding for 59 catches, 1,000 yards and 11 TDs All 3 marks led the team. And the catches and yardage broke Julio Jones' freshman records (58-924). Cooper was named a consensus Freshman All-American.
Foot and toe injuries contributed to a step back in 2013, although Cooper still led the Tide with 45 catches and 736 receiving yards. Healthy down the stretch, he closed the season with big 6-178-1 and 9-121 lines.
Then came a massive 2014 campaign. Cooper led the country with 124 receptions and ranked 2nd with 1,727 receiving yards and 16 TDs. All 3 marks set Alabama records. Cooper won the Biletnikoff Award (nation’s top WR), was a finalist for the Heisman and was named a unanimous First Team All-American.
At the 2015 NFL Combine, Cooper clocked a 4.42-second 40-yard dash with elite marks in the 3-cone and 20-yard shuttle. The 6’1, 211-pounder earned a 68th percentile SPARQ score, a measure of athleticism that compares a player to all others at his position in the NFL.
So from both a production and measurables standpoint, Cooper looked like an elite prospect entering the league. The Raiders agreed, making him the 4th overall pick of the 2015 draft.
Just like he did at Alabama, Cooper made an immediate impact in Oakland. He racked up 72 catches for 1,070 yards and 6 TDs as a rookie, finishing as a top 23 WR across fantasy formats.
He was even better in year 2, hauling in 83 balls for 1,153 yards and 5 scores. Cooper ranked 16th among WRs in PPR points and 14th in non-PPR in 2016.
Few WRs in NFL history have been more productive than Cooper through their first 2 seasons. Only 10 have totaled more than his 155 catches; only 12 have compiled more than his 2,223 yards.
And Cooper’s start is even more impressive if we consider his age. He entered the NFL extremely young, having turned 21 just a few months before the start of his rookie campaign. Larry Fitzgerald is the only WR to rack up more receptions than Cooper by age 22. And check out how Cooper stacks up in terms of receiving yards by 22:
Moss is a Hall of Famer. Larry Fitzgerald will be. Evans, Hopkins and Allen are considered elite fantasy WRs on an annual basis. And Gordon, Watkins, Robinson and Nicks have all flashed WR1 upside. Cooper is in excellent company here.
Even if we factor in his disappointing 2017, Cooper still ranks 10th all-time in catches through age-23 and 7th in receiving yards.
So last year looks much more like a blip in what’s been an ultra-productive run than the type of season we should expect in 2018.
The Gruden Effect
The biggest change for Cooper and the Raiders this season is the arrival of HC Jon Gruden. Out of coaching since 2008, Gruden is a bit of a wild card. But he certainly looks like good news for Cooper.
Here’s how Gruden’s #1 WR has fared in his 14 seasons as a HC or OC:
Gruden’s #1 WR has averaged 137 targets, 79 catches, 1,142 yards and 7.4 TDs. The last 13 topped 1,000 yards, with 9 of them going over 1,100 yards. Eleven of Gruden’s 14 lead WRs caught 76+ balls. And 9 of them scored 7+ TDs.
It’s not like Gruden has piloted consistently elite passing games, either. Four of his squads finished top 6 in passing yards. But another 4 finished outside the top 20.
The big production from #1 WRs has largely been the result of volume. The group averaged a 25.8% target share. To put that in perspective, only 9 WRs topped that mark in 2017. Cooper has never reached that territory, posting shares of 21.5%, 22.1% and 17.2% over his first 3 seasons.
Most importantly to us, Gruden’s #1 WRs have produced in fantasy. Only once has his lead dog failed to crack the top 26 in PPR points. Gruden has churned out a top 14 WR in 71.4% of his seasons (10 of 14) and a top 9 WR 50% of the time (7 of 14).
So the #1 WR in Gruden’s offense has been a prosperous place. And that title should belong to Cooper this year.
Oakland cut ties this offseason with Michael Crabtree, who actually out-targeted Cooper each of the past 3 seasons. The Raiders are hoping to replace Crabtree’s production with Jordy Nelson, but that looks like a downgrade (and perhaps a significant one).
Nelson turned 33 in May and is coming off career lows in both catch rate (60.2%) and yards per catch (9.1). He finished 52nd among 117 WRs in Pro Football Focus’ 2017 receiving grades. Football Outsiders ranked Nelson 60th among 86 qualifying WRs in DVOA.
The Raiders also traded for Martavis Bryant during this spring’s draft. He’s flashed loads of big-play ability amidst myriad off-field issues but is coming off a disappointing 603-yard, 3-TD 2017 campaign. He has a lot to prove. (Not to mention the mid-June report that Bryant might be facing another suspension.)
Gruden has talked up Cooper since arriving in January. He tabbed Cooper the “focal point” of his offense at the Combine the following month.
“He has tremendous quickness. He’s smart, versatile and he’s a gamer,” he added. “He likes the bright lights, and he’ll be the headliner in our offense.”
In April, Gruden compared Cooper to Hall of Famer Tim Brown, who had that big run from 1998 to 2001 in Gruden’s offense.
“I said it when he came out of Alabama, that he reminded me of a young Tim Brown,” Gruden said. “He has that type of game speed. He's elusive, and has a wide range of routes he can run … I've said it earlier. We're going to make him the main vein of our passing offense and move him around a lot. We are really excited about him. I think he's entering the prime of his career.”
Cooper on sale
The best reason to draft Cooper this summer might just be his discounted price. As of mid-July, his 12-team PPR ADP is sitting in WR2 territory. He’s going 16th among WRs in MFL10 drafts. Fantasy Football Calculator has him at WR17; My Fantasy League at WR12. Cooper currently sits 13th in our PPR WR Rankings.
He’s an especially good value, though, because the thirst for RBs early in 2018 drafts is pushing the WRs down. You needed to spend a 2nd-round pick on Cooper last summer. Now, he’s regularly available in the 4th round.
Depending on your league settings, you might see Cooper appear as a Suggested Pick on your MVP Board as early as the mid-3rd round. He’s a nice pick there and a screaming value anywhere in the 4th.
Cooper was on a Hall-of-Fame trajectory prior to a disappointing 2017. Now healthy and in an offense that’s consistently produced big #1 WR numbers, bet on Cooper getting back on that path this season.
Honorable Mention - Sammy Watkins, WR, Chiefs
There isn’t an offense we’re more excited about this season than the one in Kansas City. Problem is — most Chiefs are pricey in fantasy drafts.
Kareem Hunt is a 1st-rounder. You’ll need to spend a late 2nd- or early 3rd-round pick to land Travis Kelce. Tyreek Hill is flat-out overvalued at his early 3rd-round ADP. Patrick Mahomes is a nice target in the 11th, but he’s 1 of a handful of QBs who make sense in that range.
Then there’s Watkins, who looks undervalued for the 1st time in a while. (Maybe ever.) He’s going in the 6th round as the 26th WR off the board. That’s a cheap price to pay for a guy with WR1 upside.
Watkins’ career so far has been largely defined by injuries. He missed a total of 11 games across 3 seasons in Buffalo, dealing with a strained groin, a torn labrum in his hip, a strained calf, a sprained ankle and a fractured foot.
Watkins produced around those injuries, though, averaging 66.5 yards and .46 TDs per game — a full-season pace of 1,064 yards and 7.4 TDs. And that was on Bills teams that ranked 18th, 28th and 30th, respectively, in passing yards.
Injuries weren’t Watkins’ problem last year. He was concussed in Week 3 but didn’t miss any further time, only sitting out a meaningless regular-season finale.
Instead, the issue was volume. Watkins’ 70 targets ranked 4th on the Rams and tied for 59th among WRs league-wide. That wasn’t a major surprise after he arrived in Los Angeles in mid-August.
Watkins was efficient, though. He hauled in 55.7% of his targets and averaged a big 15.2 yards per catch. His 8.47 yards per target was good for 27th among 85 WRs who saw 50+ looks last year. Watkins also scored 8 times — tied for 7th most among WRs, despite ranking just 63rd in catches.
Since arriving in 2014, Watkins ranks 16th in yards per target among 84 WRs who have seen 200+ looks. The group above him is dotted with big names like Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham and Michael Thomas. Watkins sits ahead of guys like Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson and Steve Smith, just to name a few.
Let that serve as a reminder of this guy’s ability. Watkins dominated at Clemson, averaging 94.2 yards and .75 TDs per game across 3 seasons, highlighted by a massive 101-1,464-12 junior campaign. Then he tested as a solid 63rd percentile athlete at the Combine before the Bills made him the 4th overall pick of the 2014 draft.
Still just 25, the best might still be yet to come for Watkins. The Chiefs certainly believe that’s the case, handing him a 3-year, $48 million contract with $30 million guaranteed in free agency. Only 5 WRs have more guaranteed money in their contracts, and only 3 are making more in average annual salary.
If we follow the money, Watkins is set to play a huge role in this offense. And if the passing game hits its ceiling with the toolsy Mahomes under center, that’d mean a big fantasy season from Watkins.
Just like with Amari Cooper, now is the time to take a shot on a young, talented WR in Watkins at a depressed price.