It has become routine week after week for the Dallas Cowboys: stud running back Ezekiel Elliott goes out on the field, ducking and darting his way against stacked boxes, all because defenses have zero respect for the Cowboys’ passing attack.
And in today’s pass-happy NFL, Dallas’ heavy reliance on the run game and complete inability to throw the ball dynamically — which is a little like driving a 2004 Ford Explorer in 2018 — was a sight the Cowboys got so sick of through seven games that on Monday, they reportedly sent a 2019 first-round pick to Oakland for receiver Amari Cooper.
Reviews of the trade came in fast and furious, with many inside the league and out saying the Cowboys gave up too much.
“I wouldn’t do that,” one NFL personnel man told Yahoo Sports on Monday, “but he is very talented.”
The latter, however, is what matters most to a Dallas team that is not, and will never be, keen on rebuilding as long as team owner Jerry Jones is around. And while Jones’ refusal to orchestrate a complete rebuild has led to much consternation among Cowboys fans over the past 20 years — a group that has largely seen America’s Team stuck in perpetual mediocrity — this is one case where the Cowboys’ lack of patience works.
Let me explain.
Cooper is not a perfect player. His tendency to drop passes can be maddening — he finished third in the NFL with nine drops last year, according to Football Outsiders — and his production in 2017 wasn’t great, as he caught only 48 passes for 680 yards and seven touchdowns as he missed two games due to a concussion and high ankle sprain.
But when Cooper is at his best, there’s no doubting his ability to serve as a No. 1 receiver. His route running has always been advanced, even dating back to his time as a freshman starter at Alabama, and Cooper’s first two years in the NFL — when he totaled 155 catches for 2,223 yards and 11 touchdowns — are more indicative of the former No. 4 overall pick’s talent.
“If I felt I was competing for a championship,” another NFL personnel man said Monday, “then he’s worth it.”
The Cowboys, who are perpetually in “win now” mode, always believe they’re on the cusp of doing so. And regardless of how you feel about that, the truth is that Dallas — which fell to 3-4 with a 20-17 loss to Washington on Sunday — remains only a game and a half behind the NFC East-leading Redskins (4-2).
Instead of waiting until the offseason to fix its receiver problem, Dallas decided to pay a stiff price for an immediate upgrade to one of the weakest receiving groups in the NFL, one that hasn’t had an elite threat since Dez Bryant was outrunning and outmuscling cornerbacks and throwing up the “X” in 2014.
Now, that’s not to say the unit is completely devoid of talent. Cole Beasley is a good player, a strong route-runner who hurts teams over the middle, and rookie third-rounder Michael Gallup is undeniably gifted. But Gallup is still mastering the offense, free-agent signees Allen Hurns (13 catches, 158 yards) and Tavon Austin (seven catches, 130 yards) have been busts, and none of them have the deep-ball juice and physical gifts the 6-foot-1, 211-pound Cooper does.
The Cowboys’ problems on their 29th-ranked offense (total yards) go deeper than receiver, of course. Players have quietly griped about the lack of offensive creativity, league sources tell Yahoo Sports, and when you add in the deep-ball issues of quarterback Dak Prescott — who has completed only 16 throws of 20 yards or longer (27th in the league) — and consider the offensive line isn’t anywhere close to its prime 2016 form, the fact that Elliott has averaged 4.7 yards per carry is a minor miracle.
Cooper’s numbers are depressed at the moment, as he has 22 catches for 280 yards and one touchdown under new coach Jon Gruden. But when he’s right — and being used properly, as he was in Oakland in 2015 and 2016 — rival executives believe Cooper will likely (and finally) give defenses someone they’ll have to account for outside when they face the Cowboys, regardless of the price tag.
“He opens it up and gives them a threat,” one executive told Yahoo Sports.
“Gives them a receiver with the talent to win 1-on-1,” another added.
Most importantly, there’s a significant chance the Cowboys get a nice return on their investment here, and that can’t be understated. Cooper won’t turn 25 until June, meaning they stand to have him through the bulk of his physical prime. And next season will be the fifth and final year of his rookie deal, meaning Cooper will be playing for a new contract in 2019. The contract year is undefeated, and best of all for the Cowboys, if he earns a new deal he’ll be young enough to actually make good on it.
“Too much based on where the pick will be,” another NFL exec said, when asked if the Cowboys gave the Raiders too much. “But they secured a real player who is young.”
Regardless, I like the risk Dallas is taking, although I’m sure Cowboys fans probably feel a nauseating sense of déjà vu if they’ve been around long enough to remember in 2008 when the Cowboys shipped a 2009 first-round pick to Detroit for former Longhorns star receiver Roy Williams.
Williams never fully became the star they hoped, as he totaled 75 catches, 1,126 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns from 2009-2010. The Cowboys actually gave up more for Williams than Cooper — a first-, third- and sixth-round pick.
I understand the rush to rip what the Cowboys gave up, but from Dallas’ perspective, I get it. In the Cowboys’ mind, they’re getting the young receiver with blue-chip ability they desperately need, only six months earlier than critics would have preferred for them to do so — the 2019 NFL draft.
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