Prior to last April’s draft, one of the hot topics was how early Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper was going to go. Viewed almost universally as the most pro-ready wide receiver in the draft class, a lot of teams were lining up for the chance to draft him if he fell to them.
It was clear that the first two picks of the draft in the days leading up to the selection process were going to be quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. After that, Cooper was in play from the third pick on. He didn’t last long, going with the fourth pick of the draft to the Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders knew they were going to be landing an elite player, but if they wanted some deep intel on his skill and his work habits they could have asked Austin Shepherd.
Shepherd, now a Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman, was a teammate of Cooper’s during his entire run in Tuscaloosa. Shepherd had to wait two days and 224 picks longer than Cooper to find an NFL landing spot, but he knows the Raiders’ blue-chipper better than any NFL coaching staff or scouting staff.
In an era where elite wide receivers are increasingly viewed as divas, Shepherd was most impressed with how down to earth and dedicated to his craft Cooper was from Day 1 at ’Bama.
“I was impressed from the day he showed up on campus at Alabama,” Shepherd said. “I’m not shocked at all at how well he’s doing here in the NFL. He’s probably one of the biggest work-ethic guys I’ve ever seen in my life, so his success doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Cooper isn’t the biggest receiver to come into the NFL. He isn’t the strongest. He isn’t the fastest. But he is strong at every facet of his game and his intense dedication to being the best is what drives him.
A week wouldn’t go by where Shepherd didn’t see something new and different in Cooper’s game. He was a student who was more than willing to learn and always looking to add a new weapon to his arsenal to make him a star at the next level.
“It’s a lot of different things that make him such a good player, but the one that stands out to me is that he is such a hard worker,” Shepherd said. “He’s worked for everything he has. You could tell at college that he was getting better every single day he was out on the practice field. He tried to work on something every day and that’s what has made him so good. He works hard to get better.”
Perhaps it’s the ego of SEC schools that they can handle any player without having to give them an inordinate amount of coverage. Had Cooper played in another conference, he may well have been double-teamed or constantly having safeties rolling over to his side of the field constantly.
That didn’t happen on a regular basis in SEC play. Teams would give Cooper added attention, but, too often, they would put an elite cornerback on an island to take him on man-on-man.
More times than not, they lost that war.
“Surprisingly, they didn’t do it as often as you would think they would, given his talent,” Shepherd said. “He got a lot of one-on-one coverage. Maybe that’s just a SEC thing that they believe they can cover a guy like him with one player. It seemed like every time they were in the situation, he found a way to make a big play for us.”
A lot of wide receivers come out of the college ranks highly touted and loaded with hype surrounding them that they will be the next big thing in the NFL. Some players live up to the lofty expectations and the hype machine that surrounds the annual college draft. Many don’t.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer sees that Cooper does.
“He does a great job running routes. For a rookie receiver, he is very, very polished with his routes,” Zimmer said. “He gives you different speeds, he gives different stems, different leans, different double moves, he’s an exceptional double-move guy. And they move him around to a lot of different places, so he does a good job.”
Cooper would appear to be one of those rare exceptions that makes a seamless transition to the NFL. Through eight games, he has caught 45 passes for 653 yards and four touchdowns – a pace that would see him finish his rookie year with 90 receptions for 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns, the kind of numbers only elite receivers can post and rare for rookies.
For a franchise known more for its draft-day misses than hits, the Raiders invested a lot to use the fourth pick of the draft to land a franchise receiver. Some felt that was a lot to gamble on such a premium pick, but as a former teammate, Shepherd said he would have taken the gamble on greatness even earlier.
“He should have been drafted first,” Shepherd said with a laugh. “Having seen him every day in college, I knew whoever drafted him was going to get a great player who is only going to get better as time goes on. He’s just that guy and the Raiders got themselves a heck of a player who is going to earn his money every day.”