FRISCO, Texas – It's the time of year for a good self-scout.
As the Cowboys process a disappointing end to 2021, it prompts a lot of speculation about what lies ahead in 2022. This series looks to present, and hopefully answer, a lot of questions about what this team will look like in the coming year.
We'll start things off with a position that's looking at a lot of uncertainty, the wide receiver corps – more specifically, where things stand with their star wide out.
What Does The Future Look Like For Amari Cooper?
Life comes at you fast, and nowhere can that be seen more clearly than the NFL.
Amari Cooper's 2021 season exemplifies this beautifully – a year that flipped from promising to befuddling in an instant.
Think back to the Oct. 31 win in Minnesota, when Cooper played the hero with three huge catches on the Cowboys' final drive of the game, including the go-ahead touchdown, to help Cooper Rush pull off the upset with Dak Prescott sidelined by a calf injury.
That win lifted the Cowboys to 6-1, and it did plenty to boost Cooper's individual stats. At that point in the year, he had caught 38 balls for 495 yards and five touchdowns. He was on pace to finish with more than 90 catches for 1,200-plus yards.
We know what happened next. After a dominant win against Atlanta, Cooper missed two key games against Kansas City and Las Vegas when he contracted COVID-19, and the Cowboys' front office expressed some frustration that he hadn't gotten vaccinated.
"It is a 'we' thing when you walk into the locker room," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones at the time. "Anybody is being counted on to pull his weight. Everybody expects that."
Cooper returned and contributed to the Cowboys' playoff run, but the results were lackluster. During the last nine games of the season, he averaged just four catches for 48 yards on six targets per week. It might not seem like much, but that's a noticeable contrast from the first seven games, when he was targeted an average of eight times per game, averaging 5.4 catches for 71 yards per outing.
It was enough to prompt the typically reserved Cooper to express his own frustration with the offense.
"It's very frustrating. But that's not something that I can really control," Cooper said in December. "But I do think there's a benefit in me getting the ball in those important situations, like red zone and third down, because I know what I'm gonna do, you know what I mean? I'm just going to stay ready for when that time comes. Hopefully it's soon."
Following the Cowboys' elimination from the postseason, Jones followed up on that, expressing his frustration that Cooper being the focal point of an opposing gameplan should not prevent him from having an impact.
"He ought to be able to catch it in the middle of when they're going with him," Jones said. "Others do. You throw to people that are covered all the time in the NFL. You have to. Most people don't have the numbers of receivers we've had."
It's a lot of context, but it helps frame the present situation.
Cooper just finished the second year of the five-year, $100 million extension he signed in 2020. The Cowboys frontloaded the guarantees in that deal to give themselves flexibility in the future. With those first two years off the books, they could part ways with Cooper – via trade or outright release – and save themselves $16 million while carrying a cost of $6 million on their 2022 salary cap.
The Cowboys haven't made any public comments about their plans for the future, but the numbers make it easy to understand why this is a topic of conversation. Add in the fact that Cooper's $20 million salary becomes fully guaranteed on March 20, and it's also safe to say there has to be some kind of decision soon.
Cooper himself was asked about that in the moments following the playoff loss to San Francisco and deferred, though he did acknowledge he'd like to remain in Dallas.
"I don't make those decisions," he said. "I honestly don't know, but hopefully."
Cooper's return would make things a bit easier on the Cowboys as they seek to re-stock their receiver depth chart. Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown and Malik Turner are all slated to be free agents next month. But keeping Cooper in the fold alongside CeeDee Lamb would give them two Pro Bowl receivers to build around.
If Cooper isn't in their plans for 2022, receiver all of a sudden looks like this team's biggest need. Lamb made the Pro Bowl this year off the strength of 79 catches for 1,102 yards and six touchdowns. But without Cooper, he and Simi Fehoko would be the only receivers under contract on this roster. It would certainly put pressure on the front office to bolster the depth chart, either in free agency or the draft or both.
That's why it's a fitting place to start the offseason speculation. It's a simple enough decision on its own, but it's one that'll have huge ramifications on the future of this roster.