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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
The circus has arrived a week early.
Eight days prior to the NFL trade deadline, the Oakland Raiders dealt two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys in exchange for a first-round draft pick, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
It’s another indication the Raiders are looking to 2019 and beyond—and a sign the Cowboys believe they can compete now.
Who won and who lost? Let’s break it down.
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The Raiders are one of just four one-win teams remaining this season. At 1-5, they’re already 4.5 games out of first place in the AFC West.
They weren’t winning this year with Cooper as their top wide receiver, just as they didn’t win much last year with him. And even when Cooper made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2015, they had a losing record.
It was becoming clear that the 2016 season—featuring Cooper’s best campaign and Oakland’s best record (12-4) since 2000—was an aberration.
It’s entirely possible that they were losing hope that Cooper could become a game-changing receiver on a consistent basis. Could you blame them? The guy was a top-five pick and he’s only 24 year old, but he just hasn’t been reliable.
According to Pro Football Focus, among receivers who were targeted at least 150 times between 2015 and 2017, Cooper ranked fourth in the league with a drop rate of 13.6 percent. He led the NFL in that category in two of those three campaigns.
He caught just 50 percent of the passes thrown his way last year. And while that rate has increased significantly this season, he’s averaging a career-low 46.7 receiving yards per game and a career-low 12.7 yards per catch.
Cooper’s fifth-year option for 2019 becomes guaranteed if he suffers a major injury. That could leave his employer on the hook for $13.9 million next spring. Now, the Raiders no longer have to worry about that possibility, and they have an extra first-round pick to boot.
“It’s a trade that we feel it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass on to get a first-round pick,” Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said Monday, per Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “In this business here, I thought that was invaluable for me. It was something I felt like I had to do.”
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The Cowboys added a weapon to a passing game that severely lacked firepower, but at what cost?
The jury’s still out on this year’s first-round pick, Leighton Vander Esch, and last year’s first-rounder, Taco Charlton, but five of the team’s previous seven first-round selections became Pro Bowlers—and Byron Jones might be the sixth. They haven’t done a lot right since the turn of the century, but they’ve drafted well.
And yet now they’ve forfeited their next first-round pick while also inheriting the risk associated with Cooper’s lucrative 2019 option-year salary, all for a receiver who has never had an 85-catch season, or a 1,200-yard season, or an eight-touchdown season.
Again, the 24-year-old Cooper could still become a special player. He’s also cheap for now and certainly becomes the most talented member of that receiving corps immediately. But the Cowboys are currently slated to land a top-10 pick in April’s draft.
That selection now belongs to the rebuilding Raiders.
The Cowboys gave up far too much for a player who is unlikely to put a 3-4 team over the top in 2017. This doesn’t suddenly give them a reasonable shot at beating the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints or Minnesota Vikings on the road in January. And if that doesn’t happen, this trade will start to look worse in the 2019 offseason.
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After drawing criticism for several questionable moves in his first offseason back in Oakland and then getting roundly roasted for his decision to trade 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack just prior to the start of the regular season, Raiders head coach Jon Gruden needed an off-the-field victory.
Of course, he might become a loser again if his team falls to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 8.
And it’s possible this move will also backfire. Cooper could catch seven touchdown passes for the Cowboys in Week 9.
But without hindsight available, this is a win for Chucky.
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They made the controversial decision to release veteran No. 1 wideout Dez Bryant and essentially replaced him with a committee containing two overlooked free agents (Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson), a bust first-round pick acquired in a trade (Tavon Austin) and a project third-round pick (Michael Gallup).
Austin and Gallup have a combined 17 catches, Hurns has caught just 46.4 percent of the passes thrown his way, and the touchdown-less Thompson is averaging just 8.6 yards per reception.
Safe to say the Cowboys have already lost faith in that quartet, as it’s become obvious that slot stud Cole Beasley is carrying too much of the load. Beasley should continue to get plenty of action inside, but Cooper’s arrival likely means fewer opportunities for every other active receiver on the roster.
But because Cooper hasn’t done much to spark the passing game in Oakland, it’s tough to tell if he’ll be able to transform a Cowboys passing offense that ranks 29th in football.
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Tools for measuring dysfunction have yet to be devised, but the Cowboys organization might be slightly less dysfunctional than the Raiders organization.
I mean, they Cowboys are acquiring veterans rather than cleaning house, and they aren’t sending mixed messages by trading Pro Bowlers just months after signing a slew of old pros such as Doug Martin, Jordy Nelson and Derrick Johnson.
Plus, unlike the Raiders, they know where they’ll be playing football in 2019.
After a bumpy three-and-a-half seasons in Oakland, Cooper has an opportunity to totally redeem himself in a fresh setting and a new atmosphere. And in Dallas, he’ll be supported by a higher-ranked defense, a stronger offensive line and a more productive running game.
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Cooper might not have been ripping up opposing defenses, but he’s still a top wide receiver with 280 yards. So his departure can’t be perceived as good news for struggling Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
Cooper was tied with Jordy Nelson as Carr’s most-targeted wideout this season, and his absence will put even more pressure on the league’s 12th-lowest-rated qualified passer.
Is it possible Carr could excel with less of an onus to throw to his highly touted receiver? Sure, we saw that to an extent in Detroit when Matthew Stafford lost Calvin Johnson to a sudden retirement a couple years ago. But Stafford didn’t lose Johnson in the middle of a season, and we’ve seen many quarterbacks struggle when suddenly losing top wideouts to midseason injuries.
Carr will have his work cut out for him on the field the next couple months, and there’s a chance this’ll eventually impact him off the field as well. The Raiders seem poised to start from scratch under Gruden, who just might want to groom his own handpicked quarterback next year.
They can pay Carr $15 million to go away in the new year, which might not be ideal for the 27-year-old if he’s coming off back-to-back tough seasons.
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On the other hand, Carr could hit the open market in 2019 having made over $60 million for two years of work in Oakland. And have we mentioned that the Raiders are cleaning house? Even if he’s traded, he’s likely to land in a better, more stable spot with more support (looking at you, Jacksonville).
Like Cooper, Carr might be better off elsewhere. So if this is a harbinger for a move that would give him a chance to join a contender rather than spend a prime season on a rebuilding roster, it could be a good onus for the three-time Pro Bowler.
We’re only reading tea leaves, but this trade could hurt Carr in 2018 before helping him immensely in 2019 and beyond.
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You’d have to imagine the Cowboys would have strongly considered drafting a wide receiver in the first round of the 2019 draft.
But receivers don’t often take priority when you’re building from the ground up. With Dallas’ first-round selection now belonging to Oakland, it’s likely the Raiders will be focusing on defenders and maybe even quarterbacks.
Of course, it’s possible the Raiders will be in on a wide receiver early, but ultimately, it’s probable there will be one less team willing to use a high draft choice on Mississippi’s A.J. Brown, Buffalo’s Anthony Johnson or Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry.
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Mark Brown/Getty Images
Somebody has got to get more work in the Raiders’ receiving corps now that Cooper’s gone, and Martavis Bryant is the first wideout to watch in the competition to fill those shoes.
After all, Gruden and McKenzie thought highly enough of Bryant to trade a third-round pick for him in April, despite the fact he’s proven to be a liability off the field.
The enticing 26-year-old former Pittsburgh Steeler is dealing with a hamstring injury right now, but he’s only three weeks removed from a three-catch, 91-yard performance against the Los Angeles Chargers. He’s yet to play a gigantic role in the offense, but he’s caught a solid 66.7 percent of the passes thrown his way.
Could Bryant finally live up to his tantalizing potential? He’ll likely get plenty of chances to do so over the course of the next 10 weeks.