The Dallas Cowboys must smell an opening in the NFC East this season. Because trading a 2019 first-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for WR Amari Cooper reeks of desperation.
On the one hand, there’s a lot to like about what the Cowboys are getting in Cooper — a 24-year-old playmaker who was being underused in Oakland and who arrives with a cheap contract for the rest of this season. (More on his salary later.)
It has been clear that Dak Prescott needed another target on the outside to pair with Cole Beasley, who had become the de facto go-to guy in the offense following the release of Dez Bryant. Beasley and Ezekiel Elliot have combined to catch 45.3 percent of Prescott’s passes this season and have totaled 37 percent of the team’s receiving yards.
Cooper can help. Despite only catching 22 passes for 280 yards and one touchdown in the Raiders’ first six games and coming off a poor 2016 season (in which he was saddled with injuries), Cooper has No. 1 WR potential. He was a Pro Bowler his first two seasons, topping the 1,000-yard mark each year, and could be a star in Dallas in time.
But a first-round pick? That’s the stunning part.
Cooper’s name has been in the news as a possible trade piece for weeks now. The Cowboys were among the teams doing background work on Cooper, and the Raiders made sure to leak that there were other teams inquiring about him. But the first-round price tag Jon Gruden was putting on Cooper was believed to be a no-deal for most teams; one league source told PFW last week he believed Cooper could be had for a second-round pick and perhaps an additional late-rounder.
In the end, Jerry Jones wanted Cooper and caved on the price. It could turn out to be a pretty steep cost.
Following the Cowboys’ loss Sunday at Washington, the pick they’ll be sending to Gruden currently would be ninth overall. The Cowboys would have to make the playoffs to avoid it being a top-20 selection.
This deal is reminiscent of Jones’ 2008 trade with the Detroit Lions for WR Roy Williams, which was an abject failure. That price (first-, third-, sixth- and seventh-round picks) was higher than what Cooper will cost them. But Jones must believe that Cooper can help deliver a spot in the playoffs now in order to sign off on such a deal.
Dallas currently sits at 3-4 — the NFC’s No. 12 seed if the season ended today. That puts them third in the division behind Washington and the No. 11-seed Eagles, who currently have the tiebreaker over the Cowboys. Dallas has the 27th-hardest remaining schedule, but Washington has the league’s easiest in terms of remaining opponents win percentage.
There’s also the matter of the concussion Cooper suffered in the Raiders’ loss to the Seahawks in London. He remains in the concussion protocol and would need to clear a physical for the trade to become final, although reports suggest that’s expected to happen.
Cooper also would have to get up to speed with Dallas’ offensive system and build a rapport with Prescott on the fly, but as we’ve seen with Josh Gordon and the Patriots, those things can develop quicker than expected. (You also wonder if the Cowboys don’t regret upping their offer to the Browns for Gordon and whether that prompted them to make the Cooper trade.)
That’s the short-term picture. Cooper’s base salary of $411K makes him an attractive add now, as the Cowboys only will have to pay the prorated eight-seventeenth of that for the remainder of this season. But he’s scheduled to make $13.9 million in his fifth-year option season for 2019, and the Cowboys might be forced to sign him to a long-term deal this offseason to bring that 2019 salary-cap figure down a bit.
Doing so would have to come with the knowledge that Cooper can be a true, go-to receiver again. Is the rest of this season ample time to figure that out?
Jones will worry about that when the time comes, apparently. It was clear that he was not happy with the current state of affairs when the usually talkative owner opted not to speak with the media following Sunday’s loss and subsequently canceled his weekly radio appearance this morning. It turns out he was probably working on this major trade.
With Cooper, Beasley and Michael Gallup, the Cowboys at least have three receivers who should create some more open looks for Prescott, better flexibility with play calling and more room for Elliott to operate in the run game. But mortgaging the future must come with the Cowboys competing in the NFC East this season for the deal to be worth the price.
Maybe the Eagles really are vulnerable. Maybe the Cowboys were not impressed with Washington, the current division leaders at 4-2. Maybe there’s a belief that this is the move that can deliver the Jones and the Cowboys the home playoff game he so badly seems to want a week after his 76th birthday.
But that’s a lot of faith and finger-crossing for a club that hasn’t won back-to-back games since Weeks 14 and 15 of last season, just before they were eliminated from the playoff picture. Deadline deals rarely put teams over the top, especially for such a QB-dependent position such as wide receiver, so right now this deal looks like the Cowboys paid above sticker for a good player but one who still arrives at The Star with some questions — how good he is currently, what his future contract demands might be — that need firm answering.