Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders signaled their plans to rebuild by trading away Khalil Mack before the season. On Monday, they took another step toward breaking up the young core that was supposed to carry the organization to Vegas by sending Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys for a first-round pick in the 2019 draft.
The initial reaction to this move has been diametrically opposed to the chatter we saw the last time Gruden traded away one of general manager Reggie McKenzie's star selections. When the Raiders traded Mack to the Bears for a package built around two first-rounders, the NFL world seemed shocked that the Raiders would settle for such a pittance. This time, Gruden and the organization have been lauded for nabbing a premium asset while getting rid of a player they clearly didn't intend to re-sign.
When I wrote about the Mack trade, I tried to understand why the Raiders could justify getting rid of him. This time around, let's look at things from the Cowboys' perspective. What's their logic in going after Cooper? Can we piece together a scenario in which they're better off in the short term or long term by swapping their first-rounder for Cooper?
This trade isn't really about Cooper. It's about Dak Prescott and whether the Cowboys want to commit to Prescott at the going rate for a franchise quarterback once his contract is up after 2019. After a stunning 2016 season, Prescott took a step backward in 2017 and hasn't been much better so far in 2018. The Cowboys have essentially wasted Prescott's rookie contract with salary-cap missteps and injuries to would-be offensive contributors.
The biggest problem for Prescott, at least in 2018, has been the issue many expected before the season: He's saddled with an absolutely abysmal group of receivers. Prescott does get to play with Ezekiel Elliott, but I ranked Dallas' weapons 30th heading into the season, even with Zeke. Prescott's best wideout this season has been slot receiver Cole Beasley, with the likes of Tavon Austin, Michael Gallup and Allen Hurns failing to consistently make plays. Top tight end Geoff Swaim, who had nine catches in his first three seasons, was on pace for 55 targets before he went down with a knee injury on Sunday.
No receiving corps in the league looked less imposing on paper heading into the season, and the Cowboys have lived down to expectations. The NFL's Next Gen Stats reveal what Dak is dealing with, as the league tracks the yards of separation between a receiver and the closest defender when a pass arrives. Just 36.4 percent of Prescott's passes have gone to open receivers (3-plus yards away from a defender) this season, the lowest rate in the league among quarterbacks with 200 or more attempts. The league average is 45 percent. Prescott's average pass goes to a receiver with 2.9 yards of separation. Again, that's last among the 22 qualifying passers. Just 43.9 percent of Prescott's pass yards have been generated by receivers after the catch, which ranks 21st out of 22 passers.
Once Cooper clears the league's concussion protocol, he should be a receiver capable of creating one-on-one separation for Prescott. Cooper has been targeted only 32 times this season, but he has averaged 3.4 yards of separation on throws 6 or more yards downfield, which is the best rate in the league. Over the past three seasons, Cooper ranks 16th in average separation at target among receivers with 200 or more targets, alongside wideouts such as Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, Odell Beckham Jr., Adam Thielen and Antonio Brown.
Beasley also ranks highly in the separation stat, in part because he's running routes out of the slot and rarely being thrown contested passes. The division of labor in the slot might become a problem for these Cowboys. When Cooper struggled to start the 2017 season, the Raiders helped spark their star wideout back to life by moving him into the slot, where he posted most of a 210-yard, two-touchdown game against the Chiefs. The Cowboys would likely be smart to give Cooper plenty of reps in the slot, but they would be doing so at the expense of Beasley.
Dallas can't realistically evaluate whether Prescott is its quarterback of the future with the Cowboys' pre-trade wideout corps. Trading for Cooper gives them a credible wideout with which to analyze Prescott. Cooper's numbers have slipped over the past two seasons, but the former Alabama star hasn't suffered the sort of lower-leg or foot injury that would sap his athleticism, and he doesn't turn 25 until next June.
Unless there's some missing piece of evidence, it's difficult to figure out why Cooper has declined the past two seasons. Some of the blame has to go to the Raiders' coaching staff. They let offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave leave after the 2016 season to promote quarterbacks coach Todd Downing, in part to prevent Downing from leaving for a coordinator's job elsewhere. Downing was an absolute disaster in his season at the helm. Gruden is now the de facto offensive boss, and while Cooper hasn't been 100 percent for much of the season, he racked up two 100-yard games in his first four starts before the trade was made.
Adam Schefter breaks down the Raiders' trade of Amari Cooper to the Cowboys for a first-round pick.
The clock on a Prescott extension is ticking. If the Cowboys were absolutely sure they wanted to stay in the Dak business for the next several seasons, they would sign Prescott to an extension this offseason in advance of the final year of his rookie deal. It's the same fourth-year timeframe the Raiders had with Derek Carr and the Seahawks used with Russell Wilson, each of whom were also mid-round picks without fifth-year options attached to their rookie contracts.
On current production, I'd lean toward the Cowboys giving Prescott an extension without the Cooper trade, but Dallas has reasonable concerns about whether Prescott can elevate his game with better wideout play. There isn't really a recent precedent for a team moving on from a passer as effective as Prescott has been after his rookie deal without a serious injury involved, although in a league in which rookie contract quarterbacks are essentially keys to unlocking Super Bowl rosters, we'll see a team go for it in the next few seasons.
Trading for Cooper now gives the Cowboys a season and a half to figure out whether Prescott is their guy. If Prescott works out, the Cowboys can use the threat of the franchise tag in 2020 to keep Prescott around in advance of a long-term deal, though that runs the risk of creating a Kirk Cousins-in-Washington problem. If not, the Cowboys can go after a new quarterback without having committed to Prescott in the long term, though they'll be down a first-round pick in the process.
The problem with that math, of course, is that the Cowboys also have to figure out what to do with Cooper. They're on the hook for only $411,765 this season, but Cooper's fifth-year option comes in at $13.9 million in 2019. Even that represents a discount in a market in which Sammy Watkins is getting $16 million per year in free agency, but do the Cowboys really want to pay Cooper something north of $20 million per season to keep him from hitting free agency in 2020?
Making these time frames work is tough because the Cowboys can't franchise -- or threaten to franchise -- both Cooper and Prescott in 2020. They can sign one of them this offseason to free up the franchise tag in 2020, but they would either be locking up Cooper to an extension after half of a season in Dallas or signing Prescott before they're sure he's their guy.
Given that the Cowboys already committed a first-round pick to acquire Cooper and are set to pay him nearly $14 million next year, my suspicion is that they'll lock him up to an extension this offseason. They already have more than $48.1 million in projected cap space for 2019, and while Cooper isn't a sure thing, the free-agent market isn't likely to deliver a better option.
The top available wideouts in the 2019 free-agent class are likely to be veterans such as John Brown, Chris Hogan and Golden Tate. The guys from the 2014-15 drafts who aren't yet re-signed and are likely to hit free agency this offseason aren't inspiring. Would you rather pay Cooper $18 million per year on a new deal or spend $14 million per season to sign Devin Funchess? Players with questions, such as Kelvin Benjamin, Quincy Enunwa, and Robby Anderson, could go for $10 million or more per season. You can understand why the Cowboys looked at their options and preferred the idea of paying a premium to sign Cooper, who is younger and has a more inspiring track record than just about anyone they could've gone after in free agency.
There's also a benefit for the Cowboys in terms of competing for the NFC East, which looks up for grabs after the Eagles got off to a slow start. With the Giants quickly fading out of the race and turning it into a three-team battle, the 3-4 Cowboys have seen their odds of winning the division jump from 22.2 percent before the season to 30.7 percent after seven weeks, per ESPN's Football Power Index.
Cooper isn't going to swing the division on his own, but the trade addresses the weakest point of Dallas' roster with enough time for the Cowboys to seriously shift things over the final nine games of the season. Does Cooper win them the game over the Texans, in which the Cowboys could barely move the ball in the second half? Is he enough of a weapon for Jason Garrett to trust Prescott with 52 seconds left in Sunday's loss to Washington? I'm not sure, but it's hard to argue that the Cowboys aren't in better shape than they were yesterday.
Of course, it's easy to improve when a team gives up a first-round pick, and the Cowboys incur an opportunity cost by not being able to get a player at relatively low cost over the next four seasons. Just as the Mack trade left the Bears implicitly pricing their star edge rusher at something north of $30 million per season, the Cowboys are likely going to be paying Cooper something close to $23-24 million per year when factoring in a new deal and the value they forfeited with a first-round pick. Cooper can make that work if he turns back into a superstar, but the Cowboys aren't likely to realize much (if any) surplus value on this contract. They'll also miss out on adding a first-rounder to help in the secondary or along the offensive line, where their once-vaunted unit has been ripped apart by injuries the past two seasons.
The very long term
As for Oakland's side of things, it's easier to understand. When you're having a fire sale, you sell things. The Raiders quite clearly didn't intend to give Cooper an extension after the 2019 season, and they're better off trading a guy sooner rather than later if they don't want to pay a premium. Getting rid of Cooper limits the extent to which the Raiders can evaluate Derek Carr, but the trade seems to confirm that Gruden might have already made up his mind about Carr.
Gruden painted the trade as an opportunity, noting that Cooper was a good player and the deal would give the Raiders five first-round picks in the next two drafts. As tempting as it is to compare Gruden to Sashi Brown or Jimmy Johnson in Dallas, though, is Gruden really stockpiling draft picks when he dealt a third-round pick for Martavis Bryant and a fifth-rounder for AJ McCarron? The first-rounders are worth more, of course, but Gruden doesn't exactly have a great track record in drafting and developing young talent.
If he doesn't think his team can win and wants to rebuild the team in his image, going after draft picks makes sense. My concern would be less about the picks and more about the veterans. In the early days of the McKenzie era, Oakland struggled to attract veteran free agents because nobody wanted to come play on a miserable team in an antiquated stadium. The Raiders had to target veterans who were past their primes or massively overpay midtier starters until they showed signs of life with Carr, Cooper and Mack in 2015. One year later, with the help of additions such as Bruce Irvin and Kelechi Osemele, the Raiders went 12-4 and won the division.
Now, though, the Raiders are back to square one. Why would any veteran player want to come play for the Raiders under Gruden when they're clearly not committed to winning in the near future? The Raiders don't really have any promising, young players left on the roster who aren't on veteran contracts, but if Cooper had stuck around, why would he want to play for a coach who doesn't seem to want to pay young players who break out on their rookie deals? Who would play for the Raiders right now if given a choice to play anywhere else in the league? It's fair to wonder whether Gruden, who has publicly thrown players such as Carr and Rashaan Melvin under the bus in recent weeks, has poisoned the well.
If you go to Las Vegas, you'll see a billboard towering above the future site of the Raiders' stadium, advertising the arrival of its future tenants. Most team billboards have a shot of the star quarterback or a dynamic skill-position player. The only person depicted on the Raiders' billboard is the coach. Given what we've seen from Gruden so far, it's fair to wonder whether he'll be the only current member of this organization actually making his way to the desert for the team's projected debut in 2020.