FRISCO, Texas — Amari Cooper sat alone in his hotel room Monday night, his mind wandering down the road that led him to the Dallas Cowboys. For the first time in more than a month, he had allowed his thoughts to go there — back to the moment when his football life was turned upside down and he became a fixture in Jerry Jones’ world.
Even now, Cooper isn’t sure how or why it all popped into his head on this particular night. But the soft-spoken receiver knows one thing: He’s a different man now because of what the Oakland Raiders did.
“I feel like it kind of changed me, like, as a person a little bit,” Cooper told Yahoo Sports, speaking candidly for the first time about the late October trade between the Raiders and Cowboys.
In a hotly debated move, Jones surrendered a 2019 first-round draft pick to Oakland in exchange for Cooper, the fourth-overall pick in 2015.
“I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been traded before. Growing up, every team that I’ve played on, I was a pretty important piece to the team,” the former Alabama star and two-time Pro Bowler said, following Cowboys practice on Tuesday.
“I wasn’t really happy in Oakland or anything like that. But when I sat and thought about it [Monday] night … ” Cooper said with a chuckle, as if still in disbelief all these weeks later, “I thought about the fact that they traded me away. I don’t know how to feel about it.”
He finished with career-lows in catches (48) and yards (680) in 2017, his third NFL season. But new Raiders coach Jon Gruden insisted in February that Cooper would be “the focal point of our offense” this season. And when rumors began swirling last month about Cooper being on the trading block, Gruden — the man given a 10-year, $100 million contract after almost a decade in the broadcast booth — said the Raiders weren’t shopping him.
A week later, the 24-year-old receiver was shipped to Dallas.
Since then, Cooper has emerged as a go-to playmaker in the Cowboys’ offense, a reliable third-down target for quarterback Dak Prescott, and a much-needed weapon alongside running back Ezekiel Elliott.
“Just reflecting on my last four games here and my personality here, I feel like it did change me, as far as having that chip on my shoulder,” Cooper said, five days after his dominant Thanksgiving Day performance against the Washington Redskins (eight catches, on nine targets, for 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns) helped seal the Cowboys’ 31-23 victory. “Not that I wasn’t passionate before, but playing with more passion, trying to intentionally have fun out there. It definitely has changed me, in terms of me going out there and just having fun with it.
“Because when you get traded, you start to think, ‘Wow, that can happen,” he added, snapping his fingers for emphasis, “Just like that.”
It was clear last month that both Cooper and the Cowboys needed something. As Dallas’ struggles mounted, so did the questions about the job security of head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. And in the case of Cooper, who was in the midst of a disappointing season under Gruden, a change of scenery provided him and the Cowboys (6-5) with an offensive turnaround.
At the time of the trade, Cooper had one year left on his rookie deal that would pay him a little more than $13 million in 2019. But Dallas already seems committed to having him in their locker room even longer.
“Amari looks like he’s making a bid for his cash,” Jones, their longtime owner, said of Cooper, who has 22 catches for 349 yards and three touchdowns in his four games with the team.
The receiver’s arrival has sparked a change in these Cowboys, who are largely viewed as underdogs heading into Thursday night’s much-hyped home game against the New Orleans Saints (10-1). But Cooper can’t relate to the struggling, down-and-out Cowboys.
“Obviously, since I’ve been here, we’re 3-1,” he said, laughing again, before quickly clarifying that he isn’t taking credit for Dallas’ three-game winning streak. “No, no, no, I’m not even saying it like that.
“I’m looking at it like: I’ve played four games here, we’ve won three. So that’s my view of things. I haven’t been here for 11 weeks, so I haven’t experienced [the struggles here]. I’ve experienced more peaks than valleys.”
Many believed the price — a first-round draft pick — was too steep for a player as inconsistent as Cooper, but the receiver was quick to point out that he wasn’t used effectively in the Raiders’ offense. That’s not a problem the Cowboys have. His new teammates and coaches have little doubt about the impact he has made in such a short time.
Cooper said he feels “pretty good” about his contributions thus far, but highlighted his use on critical downs as proof of his playmaking ability: “The first thing that sticks out to me is the third-down conversions. Coach [Garrett] trusting me enough to call plays that I’m the first option on third down, and then us going out there and being able to convert. I just want to continue to instill that confidence in him that I’m that guy to keep the chains moving.”
But Cooper isn’t yet sure how he feels about why he’s in Dallas — or Oakland’s decision to shop him before the trade deadline.
“I looked at it totally different than most people looked at it,” Cooper said, smiling. “[The Raiders] basically said, ‘We could get a guy, who’s going to contribute better than he will, in the first round. And I didn’t know how to feel about that.
“I just always felt like I wasn’t really being used how I felt like I would have used me if I was the coach. So I looked at it from that perspective, not from the perspective that, ‘Oh, they don’t think I’m good enough’ or I’m not good enough.
“I never had those questions in my mind. At all.”
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