Amid a dismal 1-5 start to his tenure, Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders would be wise to start tearing down sooner than later. The Raiders would see a robust trade market for receiver Amari Cooper if expectations were realistic.
One of the least-surprising slow starts to the 2018 NFL season has been the Oakland Raiders’ 1-5 crawl out of the gates. Jon Gruden’s first-year into a 10-year pact has been as painful of an adjustment period as many expected after the head coach spent 10 years in the broadcast booth. If it weren’t for a half-dozen drops by the Cleveland Browns or a blown fumble call, the Raiders could be winless as they enter their Week 7 bye.
With the NFL trade deadline looming on October 30, it was a matter of time until trade rumors broke around the Raiders after their Week 6 loss to Seattle. Fox Sports Insider Jay Glazer reported the team is open to moving former first-round picks Amari Cooper and Karl Joseph.
NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport later reported that their asking price for Cooper is a first-round pick. We’ll touch on that later.
Their preseason trade of star defensive end Khalil Mack signaled that the Gruden-era would be disjointed. The Raiders built their team with $55 million in short-term deals this off-season, contradicting their eventual plans for Mack. Signing mediocre veterans to fill gaps cost them Mack and future assets.
Jordy Nelson, Tahir Whitehead, and Rashaan Melvin headline a group of signings that were for naught as soon as Mack was traded. With just $6 million to rollover into 2019, the Raiders will be middle of the pack to bolster their defense and address a lacking corps of offensive playmakers. And that’s before we touch on trading draft picks for Martavis Bryant and AJ McCarron.
Fortunately for the Raiders, there’s a pathway to turn the page on a disastrous off-season and questionable 2018 NFL draft. It begins with moving off as many players for assets as they can to clean off their cap and open playing time for younger bodies.
Moving Melvin, Bruce Irvin, Jared Cook, Nelson, Marshawn Lynch (if he’s healthy enough), Joseph, Derrick Johnson, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie could net the Raiders late-round picks for players who realistically shouldn’t see the field again for a team with maybe three winnable games remaining on their schedule.
2019 could continue to see turnover as Derek Carr, Bruce Irvin, Whitehead, and Seth Roberts are all movable as the Raiders could open upwards of $115 million of cap space. Not all of that would be usable in one off-season, but it’s not like these are valuable, irreplaceable veterans who are affecting the win column.
For other teams, Cooper is the most valuable playmaker in the short-and long-term of any potentially available Raider. So why would the Raiders be open to moving on from him? It would have to be a for a solid offer, although a first-round pick is surely not happening based on Cooper’s struggles over the last two seasons.
Cooper’s enigmatic status requires context as to what he is, how he’s been used, and why expectations have warped how he’s viewed.
After being a two-time Pro Bowler by age 22, Cooper had certainly lived up to the lofty hopes set forth for him with the fourth overall pick. He averaged 131 targets, 77 receptions, 1,112 yards and 5.5 touchdowns in his first two years, making it easier to deal with the issues of drops.
Drops are incredibly subjective, and I’m normally more punitive than most. Pro Football Focus counted 18 drops in Cooper’s rookie season, only four in 2016, but then leapt back up to 11 drops in 2017 despite only 96 targets. His hands have been a problem, and the variance of big plays to offset the negativity surrounding drops has disappeared in the last two years.
His targets decreased by 1.5 per-game, and as importantly, his quarterback play completely disappeared. Carr’s own demise coincided with another change of offensive coordinators and a back injury that clearly affected his ability to throw with the same velocity. Both incidents have also zapped his gusto that led to more downfield passing, neutering what was an explosive unit in their breakout 2016 campaign.
Now at 24 years old, Cooper is in the fourth-year of his five-year rookie deal with a reputation of inconsistency. Blaming him for the drops is fair, but he also didn’t suddenly lose the ability to create chunk plays within the right situation. We know that he’s not going to be a Julio Jones-type presence, and that’s acceptable as long as he’s within a healthier offensive ecosystem than what Carr is now comfortable executing.
The film and the numbers tell a similar story to one another across multiple play-callers, schemes, and versions of Carr. When targeted at least 10 times in 2015 and 2016, Carr produced at least 100 yards in seven of nine contests. He had an additional two games over 100 yards on less than 10 targets.
Cooper dealt with a foot injury in 2017 that left him visibly lacking the same explosiveness on a weekly basis, but only had three games of 10 or more targets. One of those led to a 210-yard performance against Kansas City, and the other produced a touchdown reception.
The weekly production massively dipped along with the offense as Carr became a check-down monster. The foot injury is now in the rearview, and another staff is in town, yet all factors have continued.
Cooper’s been targeted 10 or more times twice in six games, leading to a combined 244 yards and one touchdown. Outside of his games against quality secondaries in Denver and Cleveland, Cooper had just 10 targets for four receptions and 36 yards. He had two costly drops against Miami, but he’s been excellent at creating more good than bad when given the volume of targets.
After playing just 12 offensive snaps against Seattle due to a concussion, the Raiders have done a terrible job of incorporating their best offensive weapon on a weekly basis. Other teams must take notice of this when valuing Cooper’s potential impact upon a trade.
Unless Gruden suddenly decides he wants to build an offense around Cooper’s blend of route-running, body control, and speed, he’s better off moving him for a Day 2 pick and possibly a young talent. He won’t get a first-rounder for a player who is set to make $13.9 million on his fifth-year option next year, but a combination deal would give the Raiders two assets for a player they view as unimportant.
Finding potential suitors isn’t difficult since Cooper wouldn’t be a half-year rental for most teams. Literally the only cap-strapped teams entering 2019 are Philadelphia, Jacksonville, and Minnesota, and would struggle to account for his deal.
Any other team would control Cooper for at least 24 games before he hits free-agency, and even then they’d have the chance to use the franchise tag if need be. Or they could buy-low after a trade by extending him after this season and create an early-out in his deal after two years.
There are two tiers of potentially best fits for Cooper: those in a playoff push who are more focused on winning this year, and the others who want Cooper long-term regardless of their playoff standing.
Teams looking to acquire Cooper for a playoff push should include the Baltimore Ravens, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, and Green Bay Packers. I can’t see any team offering more than either a third-round pick and player, or a second-round pick, so keep that in mind.
The Redskins and Cowboys stand out as NFC East teams with critical needs for an injection of playmaking. The Redskins lack a consistent threat as Josh Doctson continues to be injured, and Cowboys have no one outside of occasional flashes from Michael Gallup.
Washington could potentially offer a third-round pick and a flier like tight end Jordan Reed or running back Samaje Perine. Dallas would also have a third-rounder to pair with cornerback Jourdan Lewis.
Baltimore and Green Bay lack the same type of intriguing young players and the immediate need for Cooper, but would certainly be upgraded by his presence. The Packers have an extra first-round pick, which could free them to use their second-rounder as an offer-topper.
Baltimore’s best offer could be a pick, corner Tavon Young, and edge-rusher Tim Williams. The latter two haven’t quite found their footing in the NFL but could flourish with more of an expanded role, and they both play critical positions.
Green Bay’s willingness to include Kevin King would be tested if they’re not wanting to offer their second-round pick. That would still be worth it as King is still lagging behind in his development and it’s possible he never becomes a quality starter for them.
The other group is the long-term builders who want to lock-in Cooper long-term. These teams may liken Cooper’s upside at only 24 more than what looks like a good but not great draft of receivers. Moving a pick for potentially six years of a high-upside receiver is palatable.
The Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans, Arizona Cardinals, and San Francisco 49ers all fit that description.
The Colts have an abundance of picks due to their trade down with the Jets last draft, and could flip their second-rounder and cornerback Quincy Wilson for Cooper. The Bills and Cardinals lack extra picks after moving up for Josh Allen and Josh Rosen, respectively. So there’s not as much flexibility, putting some emphasis on sweeteners.
Defensive end Shaq Lawson would be an intriguing option from Buffalo for the Raiders, as would Haason Reddick of the Cardinals if he were made available.
The Browns could overwhelm the Raiders with picks since their roster is filled with youth, or could try to flip some of their defensive depth. Offering Jamie Collins, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, or Seth DeValve could certainly create interest for the Raiders.
Of course, the Raiders may never deal Cooper as they realize the potential issues with dealing their lone young playmaker on offense. Replacing him with a draft pick will be nearly impossible, but their depth would benefit from taking back players and a pick. It all depends on Gruden’s patience and willingness to develop talent.
There’s risk in taking on a variance receiver like Cooper, but his track record has proven that he’s going to make it worthwhile to feed him like a primary receiver. A diverse offense with a more accurate or aggressive quarterback will get even more out of him than the suffocating situation in Oakland has.