Don't look now, but rookie wideout Amari Cooper
has emerged as the league's most dangerous first-year pass-catcher, easily topping the Class
of 2015 in targets, receptions, yardage and field-stretching plays.
The fourth overall pick is on pace for 96 catches and 1,356 yards through the air, placing Cooper within striking distance of Anquan Boldin's rookie receiving record of 1,377 yards from 2003.
"I'm not really pleased with my first four games," Cooper said Tuesday. "There's always room for improvement. It's why I'm here today. It's why I'm here tomorrow. To get better."
As NFL.com's Marc Sessler pointed out, the work ethic is noted, but Cooper already won over Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden after burning the Browns for 134 yards off eight grabs in Week 3, leaving Haden to say: "I've been watching him on film. That dude, he's gonna be special. He has a really good stop-and-start. His burst. Everything."
Cooper's outburst against Cleveland followed his 109-yard torching of Baltimore in Week 2. The Ravens had no answer for a youngster whose five catches of 20-plus yards are two more than any other first-year player. Meanwhile, no rookie is remotely close to Cooper's 12 first downs.
While Chicago's Kevin White, Miami's DeVante Parker and Baltimore's Breshad Perriman have kept their teams waiting, Cooper has altered perceptions of the Raiders. With Derek Carr making strides under center, his top target has turned Oakland's typically stagnant air attack into a top-10 operation.
Cooper's occasional drops remain, but defenses are still catching up to a star-in-the-making.
Teams have tried several strategies covering Cooper, from physicality to bracket coverage. Most of these haven't worked, but Cooper has learned from all of these early experiences nonetheless.
“People defend you in a bunch of different ways, but it’s not anything that I’m worried about,” Cooper said. “You just have to study film, understand how a team is going to play me and do my best to get open no matter what they do.”
Sometimes Carr will throw Cooper the ball before he gets open. That’s often dictated by coverage, but it also helps Cooper take extra yards from the catches he makes.
“In this league, separation doesn’t last for a long time,” Cooper said. “Derek throws it while the getting is good, which makes it easier to create plays after the catch.”
The problem for all the Raiders' skill players this week is obvious: The Broncos, running Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme, will send waves of pressure at Carr.
Carr has shown excellent growth this season and has thrown for 861 yards with seven TDs against two interceptions over his past three games. While Oakland ranks just 22nd with 96.2 rushing yards per game, Latavius Murray has stepped into the feature role nicely, averaging 4.4 yards per carry while taking 81.7 percent of the carries from the Raiders' running backs.
The Raiders must stay committed to the run with Carr doing battle with the league's top-ranked pass rush that has also produced 18 sacks.
Remember, however: Murray was benched in favor of Roy Helu late in Week 4 after he fumbled. Earlier in the game, Murray bobbled a pass that was intercepted. He had 49 yards rushing at Chicago after getting 139 yards in Cleveland.
Murray is still the Raiders’ top option and he will get plenty of carries, but he may have to earn back trust and that could cost him carries Sunday against Denver.