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Writer's Blocks: Cooper's Impact On The Future?


FRISCO, Texas – The timing of this is such a cruel joke.

The Cowboys pull off their biggest blockbuster trade in a decade. They add Amari Cooper, who has the ability to revitalize their offense, who could help them get their season back on track – and we're stuck with 11 more days until we can watch the guy play.

From the Cowboys' perspective, that's a great thing. They've got two bye week practices and an extra week to get Cooper acclimated to their offense. That's a heck of a lot better than trying to bring him up to speed during three game week practices.

It's awfully boring for the rest of us, though. Oh well, such is life.

Fortunately, I am a gigantic dork. And you know what interests me way more than figuring out how Cooper will ease into this offense? Figuring out how it's going to impact the future of this organization. This trade is a massive curveball for our projections of the 2019 offseason, the Cowboys' salary cap and their draft plans.

So the goal today is figuring out how all of that looks now that Amari Cooper is on board.

Let's go:

1. If you've paid even the slightest bit of attention to this Amari Cooper news, you've heard one common refrain from Cowboys officials about why they did the deal. To paraphrase: they were enamored with Cooper's youth and his early production in the NFL. The Miami native just turned 24 this summer, which makes him a full year younger than Dak Prescott – despite the fact that he has already been to two Pro Bowls.

Speaking of Pro Bowls, that's the other big key. Yes, it has been tough going for Cooper since the 2016 season, but the Cowboys are confident he can get back to his Pro Bowl form after starting his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Tuesday that Cooper has the makeup of a guy they'd spend a first-round pick on, anyway, which helped justify the cost. On top of that, Cooper is proven.

"We feel like he fits into that mode and maybe in some ways is less risky because he has production at the NFL level," Garrett said. "We've seen him play against guys at this level and have success."

2. So here's the part where I put that statement to the test.

We can't say for sure that the Cowboys would have spent a first-round pick on a receiver had they not traded for Amari Cooper, but it's a very good bet they would have drafted one early. The position was clearly a glaring need before the trade, so it feels fair to assume Dallas would have drafted one in the first or second round.

What I wanted to know is whether Garrett is right in his assertion that it's hard to count on young wide receivers to produce. So I went back to 2010 and looked at every, single receiver that has been drafted into the NFL. I looked at their overall production and their early-career production.

A quick caveat before I dive in: this Dallas offense is a run-first, ball control offense. Even with a top-tier receiver in the huddle, it's probably not realistic to expect the Cowboys to put up eye-popping passing stats. That's just not their way.

So here's what I did. I went back to 2016, when this offense operated efficiently with Dez Bryant on the outside. Bryant played 13 games and caught 50 balls for 796 yards and eight touchdowns that year. I decided to handicap those numbers for a full 16-game slate, and I came out with a final stat line of 62 catches for 980 yards and 10 touchdowns.

That's the baseline for what the Cowboys need to make things easier on Dak Prescott, open up the run game for Ezekiel Elliott and take the pressure off their other targets like Cole Beasley.

So, how many receivers drafted in recent memory have managed that – and how quickly did they do it?

3. Going back to the 2010 NFL Draft, the league's 32 teams have selected a grand total of 252 wide receivers, an average of 32 per year.

Of that number, 29 were first-round picks, 30 were second-round picks and 40 were third-round picks – what you'd call premium draft picks. The other 153 were Day 3 picks.

Anyway, during the course of the past eight years, 49 of these guys hit Dez's 2016 baseline at some point during their career. When you weigh early production, meaning the first two years, the number drops to just 31.

That means, of 252 guys who were drafted in that time span, roughly 12 percent have achieved meaningful success in the early going of their career.

The numbers obviously skew as you break it down by round. Going back to 2010, 13 of 29 receivers drafted in the first round hit that benchmark. For the second round, eight of 30 picks have managed it. In the third round, there are just four players out of 40 draft picks who hit those type of numbers in the first two years of their contracts.

Let's put it in plain language. Over the last eight years of drafts, NFL teams have had a 45 percent success rate getting quick production from their first-round receivers. The success rate drops to just 27 percent in the second round, and it's a mere 10 percent for third-round picks.

Day 3 has produced several diamonds in the rough. Antonio Brown, Marvin Jones, Stefon Diggs and Tyreek Hill all spring to mind. But that represents a paltry 3 percent of the receivers drafted in the late rounds.

4. "Cool story, Dave. That's a lot of numbers, but what are you trying to say?"

I'm glad you asked.

As much as we might want to kill them for overpaying for Amari Cooper, their logic makes plenty of sense. The Cowboys have a drastic need at receiver, and the odds of finding success in the draft aren't encouraging – especially not if you expect instant production.

Combine that with the fact that next year's receiver crop doesn't look overly encouraging, and it makes sense to acquire a 24-year-old receiver who has already achieved this level of success. After all, Cooper is one of the first-round 13 receivers included above, having posted seasons of 1,070 yards and 1,153 yards in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Of course, the way this offense has looked so far, I don't blame anyone for being skeptical. I don't think Amari Cooper is going to be a cure-all for this group. Dak Prescott will need to raise his level of play, and the Cowboys' offensive line has a lot of work to do.

But as far as gambles go, this decision to trade for Cooper feels fairly calculated.

5. Speaking of calculating, the big thing that gives me pause about the Cooper trade isn't even the first-round price, it's the escalating salary. The former No. 4 overall pick is going to play the rest of this season on a $411,000 salary. Starting next year, the fifth-year option on his contract skyrockets to $14 million.

That's a lot of cheese, there's no way around it. It's a bummer that the Cowboys only get nine games of affordable play from Cooper before he hits their salary cap hard. But the beauty of it is that, for the first time in a long time, this team can afford it.

Most projections have the Cowboys heading into 2019 with roughly $67 million in salary cap space. Cooper is going to count for roughly 21 percent of that. In addition, I'm hoping that DeMarcus Lawrence is going to eat some of that, as well – because I absolutely believe he is deserving of a contract extension.

Even still, Cooper and Lawrence would only take up about half of that cap space. That still leaves you with roughly $30 million to play with – whether that means you want to re-sign current players like Dak Prescott or Cole Beasley, or bring on outside free agents. And that doesn't even include veteran contracts you could shrug off to free up more room.

So yes, it's scary to think how much money Amari Cooper will cost this team in 2019 – but the Cowboys are better positioned to handle it than they have been in recent memory. And if he doesn't play up to expectations, it'll undoubtedly be disappointing, but the Cowboys would at least be able to shed that salary after just one year.

This leads me to one more pressing issue.

6. What does all of this say about Dak Prescott? For my money (and more importantly, for the Cowboys' money), I think that's the most intriguing part of this trade.

The trade in question is about Amari Cooper, but the underlying theme of this entire thing is Dak Prescott. For months we have talked about the 2018 season and how it would affect Dak's future earning potential. To put it bluntly, the first seven games of the season have not inspired confidence.

And yet, what other conclusion can you come to after the Cooper trade than that the front office is all-in on Dak Prescott? The skill players around him have been lacking, so the Cowboys admitted their mistakes during the offseason and attained a No. 1 receiver. They clearly want to give Dak more weapons to work with. On top of that, the loss of their first-round pick makes it hard to imagine they'll draft a quarterback next spring.

If we're purely just daydreaming, I guess they could go after Teddy Bridgewater or Tyrod Taylor in free agency. Bridgewater hasn't played regularly since 2015, and he's likely to command a high price of his own. Taylor has struggled more often than Dak, and he just got benched in favor of Baker Mayfield. Personally, I don't see either guy as an upgrade over Dak.

I wonder, though: if Prescott doesn't legitimately turn up his level of play in the second half of the season, will the Cowboys still want to extend him this spring? Or does this trial period with Amari Cooper coincide with Dak's contract?

It's not hard to imagine a scenario where Prescott goes into 2019 without a contract, while the Cowboys carry the franchise tag in their back pocket. The team could always tag him to keep him here through 2020, and that could give them the leeway to either work out an extension or draft a quarterback during the 2020 offseason.

There's about a million variables that go into this. Dak Prescott is everything you want in the face of your franchise as a leader, as a standup guy and as a marketing asset. The only question left to answer is whether his level of play justifies a massive extension.

The decision to trade for Amari Cooper is clearly, in my eyes at least, an attempt to answer that question.

7. As a self-proclaimed draft nerd and one of the three hosts of "The Draft Show," there's no way around it: this trade kills some of the excitement for the 2019 draft.

I suppose it's always possible that Jerry Jones can wheel and deal his way back into the first round, but right now it looks unlikely Dallas will hold one of the first 32 picks. That's a bummer for those of us who like to dissect the draft.

But if you look at Cooper as a draft pick and the answer to one of this team's most glaring needs, it's easier to digest. Yes, I'm well aware: there's no guarantee the Cowboys would have picked a receiver in the first round, as we have no idea how the board will fall. But let's look past that for a minute.

Regardless of how we got there, the team addressed one of its biggest needs with a first-round talent. That leaves them with six picks, likely coming in the middle of each round, to address the rest.

So what are they, exactly? It's hard to say for sure, given that we have no idea how free agency will play out, but when has that ever stopped us from speculating?

A. Tight End – Jason Witten might have dropped off a notch or two, but there's still a noticeable difference in the level of play. I think Geoff Swaim has performed very admirably, but you could still stand to upgrade the talent here – plus, Swaim is a free agent in the spring. I'm optimistic Dalton Schultz will progress in Year 2, but that wouldn't stop me from spending good draft capital on a starter-caliber player.

B. Defensive Tackle – Well, we know the Cowboys likely wouldn't have spent a first-round pick on a defensive tackle anyway, so in that regard the trade doesn't matter. Maliek Collins is inching toward the end of his rookie deal and I have no idea what the future holds for David Irving. I tend to doubt the Cowboys will do it, but this draft appears to be loaded with talented defensive tackles.

C. Safety – Much like tight end. It's not that the young guys have played poorly, but the Cowboys could stand to add a playmaker on the back end. Case in point: Derwin James currently sits on 44 tackles, 3.5 sacks, six pass breakups and an interception.

D. Offensive Line – It feels odd to type that, but it's a reflection of how the line has played through seven weeks. We have no idea what the future holds for Travis Frederick. Everyone is pulling for a full recovery, but do the Cowboys need to look at the center position if Frederick's illness limits him into the offseason? What about the fact that the Cowboys' tackles have struggled? Tyron Smith is halfway through his eighth season and has not looked like his typically dominant self. La'el Collins is only under contract for one more season, and he has struggled, as well. I'm not ready to press the panic button yet, but I have to at least admit that this team might need to look for offensive line help in 2019.

8. This has nothing to do with the Cowboys, but I thought it was too interesting not to share.

With everything swirling around about the Cooper trade, a lot of people are going to tell you how bad the past few drafts have been for wide receivers – and they're right. Starting in 2015, NFL teams have not had a ton of success drafting wide outs.

But hoo boy, what about that 2014 Draft. Doing research for this column, I gained a new appreciation for the receivers that draft produced.

The first three rounds of that draft produced Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry and John Brown. That's a combined nine Pro Bowls, three All-Pro selections and a whopping 231 touchdowns.

That doesn't even include guys like Kelvin Benjamin, Marqise Lee, Jordan Matthews, Martavis Bryant and Quincy Enunwa – who haven't achieved consistency but have certainly shown off their considerable talent.

Anyway, yeah. I just wanted to point out the absurd number of quality receivers that came out of one draft.

9. It took seven weeks, but I finally had an outing I can be proud of. The football gods smiled on me, and I picked some winners. Of course, the irony is that as soon as I started nailing picks around the league, I got my Cowboys pick wrong. You can't have everything, as Aubrey Graham says.

Undaunted, I press on.

TEXANS (-7.5) over Dolphins

Eagles (-3) over Jaguars (LONDON)

Jets (+7.5) over BEARS

BENGALS (-4) over Buccaneers

Seahawks (+3) over LIONS

CHIEFS (-10) over Broncos

Redskins (+1) over GIANTS

STEELERS (-8.5) over Browns

Ravens (-2) over PANTHERS

RAIDERS (+3) over Colts

Packers (+9.5) over RAMS

49ers (+1) over CARDINALS

VIKINGS (-1) over Saints

Patriots (-14) over BILLS

LAST WEEK: 9-4-1

THIS SEASON: 40-60-5