The Raiders’ fire sale is back on. On Monday, Oakland’s roster makeover continued when the team shipped former No. 4 overall pick and two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys in exchange for a 2019 first-round draft pick.
It’s another major move for head coach Jon Gruden, who has taken a machete to the Raiders’ roster since arriving as the team’s $100 million coach this offseason. After releasing players like Michael Crabtree and Marquette King, he engineered possibly his boldest move by trading 2016 defensive player of the year Khalil Mack (and a second-round pick) to the Bears for two first-rounders and additional draft considerations.
“It was an opportunity that I felt I couldn’t pass on,” Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie said in the team’s official statement. “To get a first-round pick, in this business here, I thought was invaluable. It’s something that I felt like I had to do moving forward for this organization. I love Amari… I just felt when I got a call from Stephen Jones this morning, he put it on the table, what he wanted to do, and he wanted the player, and he gave me the pick, and that’s what it came down to.”
McKenzie’s pickiness paid off in a big way. He’d previously turned down a second-round pick from the Eagles to hit paydirt with their NFC East rivals.
Monday’s trade is a move that bolsters the Cowboys’ needy wide receiver corps. Dallas lacked a legit No. 1 receiver after cutting a declining Dez Bryant earlier before the 2018 season. While players like Cole Beasley and Michael Gallup have helped, the team’s lack of offense has been a major culprit in a 3-4 start. Cooper should help jump-start the Cowboys as soon as he takes the field in Texas, but his acquisition came at a steep price.
What does this mean for the Raiders?
Gruden’s first season as a head coach since 2008 has been all about rebuilding the Raiders to give the franchise a viable product for its upcoming move to Las Vegas. That’s meant a Sam Hinkie-esque approach to shedding veteran talent in exchange for draft assets. Unloading Cooper for the better-than-expected haul of a 2019 first-rounder gives the club plenty of opportunities to create a new home-grown star over the next two years. Oakland will have three first-round picks in 2019 (its own, the Cowboys’, and the Bears’) and two in 2020 (own, Bears) from which to rebuild the foundation of a once-prosperous team.
Of course, the Raiders now have to turn those picks into undeniable NFL talent, which is an arena where the franchise has struggled in years past.
Jettisoning Cooper also creates some cap space for 2019, when the dynamic wideout was set to cost $13.9 million in the final year of his rookie contract. That will give Gruden more opportunities to find the players he wants on the free market next winter. Guys like, uh, Jordy Nelson, Tahir Whitehead, and Derek Carrier, if 2018 is any indication.
The move also completely punts on the ongoing season, which wasn’t going anywhere to begin with. The Raiders are 1-5 and their lone win came over the Browns in overtime in a contest where Cleveland somehow got more screwed than normal by the officiating crew. This team didn’t have much to play for except draft position, and now they’ll have an even better opportunity to keep pace with the Cardinals in their race to the bottom.
History may label their final 10 games of 2018 as an act of aggression on the city of Oakland, however. Losing Cooper means quarterback Derek Carr’s receiving corps is now led by a 33-year-old Nelson, the only-playing-because-he’s-appealing-a-season-long-suspension Martavis Bryant, and Seth Roberts. Cooper hadn’t played up to his own lofty standard in 2018 — injuries and ineffectiveness mean he’s had four games with 17 or fewer receiving yards this fall — but he’s still a dynamic weapon at full strength. He proved that in 100+ yard performances against the Broncos and Browns — two games that are, not coincidentally, the Raiders two best performances of the season.
And moving Cooper might not even be end of the team’s major deals in 2018. The rangy wideout had previously been mentioned in trade discussions alongside safety Karl Joseph, another former first-round pick. When general manager Reggie McKenzie was asked whether anyone on the roster was untouchable, he didn’t get the press any names — not even starting quarterback and former MVP candidate Derek Carr.
McKenzie asked if anyone on roster is untouchable. “I’m untouchable.” Laughed. But yeah, he wouldn’t say Carr— Vic Tafur (@VicTafur) October 22, 2018
Gruden, however, disagreed:
When I mentioned Derek Carr, Gruden was quick and to the point: "We're not trading anyone else. We're trying to stay competitive and figure out a way to compete this next game (against the Colts." #Raiders— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) October 22, 2018
What does this mean for the Cowboys?
Well, Jerry Jones got the lead receiver he’s been searching for since releasing Bryant this offseason (and, if we’re being honest, probably since Bryant’s breakthrough 2014 season). But hooooo boy did he pay for it. It’s rare to see players exchanged straight-up for first round picks since those picks deliver teams franchise-building talent on dirt cheap long term contracts. The Cowboys decide to make that deal for a player who:
a) caught 3.4 passes per game in 2017
b) has at least one bad thing in common with the wideout the club famously cut this spring
Only two receivers last year had drop rates over 12%: Dez Bryant and Amari Cooper.— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) October 22, 2018
c) will cost $13.9 million in cap space in 2019, more than all but two players on the roster for next fall (Tyron Smith and Zack Martin)
d) is a free agent in 2020.
That’s a lot of red flags! But Dallas decided its low-wattage receiving corps was so in need of an upgrade to make the deal anyway, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The NFC East is wide open, with a flawed Washington team — one that narrowly defeated the Cowboys at home in Week 7 — atop the division at 4-2. Giving Dak Prescott, who has been spinning straw into gold to start the 2018 season, a 1,000-yard threat who can stretch defenses vertically while creating space from sideline-to-sideline, will immediately upgrade an inconsistent offense.
It’s a win-now move, and the cheap rookie contracts of stars like Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott will give the club the space needed to absorb Cooper’s big 2019 payday and the inevitable extension that follows — there’s almost no way Jones lets his new acquisition walk after 25 games after dealing an ultra-valuable pick for him. Cooper’s arrival will lift the entire Dallas receiving corps once he’s cleared of the concussion that took him out of Week 6’s game against the Seahawks. His presence will take the defensive focus off guys like Beasley, Gallup, Tavon Austin, and Allen Hurns, and allow them to shine in roles for which they’re better suited.
At his best, Cooper is a rising tide who can lift the Cowboy offense. And he’s only 24 years old, so there’s a chance he’ll grow beyond the Pro Bowl peaks we saw early in his career thanks to a change in scenery. But still, he’s an expensive tide, and a serious win-now move from a 3-4 team that might regret ditching a first round pick in the long run.