In the run-up to the NFL draft, it's easy to fall in love with sizzle over substance. Explosive athletes with a handful of highlight reel-worthy plays to their name can vault up the charts, while proven playmakers with workmanlike games seem to fall under the radar.
At the wide receiver position in particular, the buzz tends to surround the big-bodied pass catchers posting impressive 40 times and lighting up pro-day workouts. But observers must remember that today's young, elite NFL receivers were proven commodities at the college level, where they compiled résumés suggesting they'd have long-term success as pros. This was certainly true of A.J. Green and Julio Jones, who were dominant collegiate players with a history of exceptional production when they entered the NFL in 2011. Most importantly, they also displayed the core traits (size, speed, ball skills, route-running ability and running skills) needed to thrive at the next level -- and they unsurprisingly took the league by storm as immediate impact playmakers on the perimeter.
Alabama's Amari Cooper might lack the sizzle and imposing dimensions of his predecessors, but he is the most pro-ready receiver in the 2015 draft class, and he should quickly make his mark as a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver early in his career. While I know those are certainly lofty expectations, given how sensational the outstanding class of 2014 was, Cooper stands out as the most polished receiver to enter the draft in the past five years. Yes, I'd say he's even more polished than Green and Jones were as rookies, in terms of route running, technical acumen and experience. His time thriving as a multi-faceted playmaker in a pro-style system will allow him to step into the WR1 role in any scheme.
A three-year standout with the Crimson Tide (finishing with 228 career catches and 31 touchdowns), Cooper is a skilled route runner who has the savvy and guile to win against any coverage. He cleverly uses tempo and pace to set up defenders throughout the route, and he also possesses the quickness and burst to create separation out of the break. The success Cooper has with his tactics -- which are uncommon for a young receiver -- suggests he'll have an answer for the various strategies elite NFL cornerbacks will employ in an attempt to slow him down.
Cooper is a natural pass catcher with exceptional hands and ball skills. He snatches the ball effortlessly in traffic; his ability to track and adjust to errant throws is remarkable for his age and experience. Although he had a few drops and bobbles show up on tape during his career, Cooper's receiving skills are superb -- few catch the ball as easily as he does.
The 6-foot-1, 211-pound receiver also exhibits outstanding running skills and burst with the ball in his hands. He is sneaky explosive in the open field, and he's rarely run down from behind when he gets to the second level. Cooper displays toughness and physicality on the perimeter. He frequently runs through arm tackles and is difficult to bring down in one-on-one situations. Given his ability to turn short passes into big gains, Cooper is a serious home-run threat.
Possible concerns are related to his ability to work free from press coverage. While he can use all the tricks of the trade (double moves, stutter-step releases and speed takeoffs) to escape contact at the line of scrimmage, he has struggled at times against physical corners playing "bump-and-run" coverage (see: past performances against Kyle Fuller and Jalen Collins). Cooper eventually works to get free, and he has the capacity to adjust to different strategies throughout the down, but with more NFL teams resorting to physical tactics on the edges, Cooper will need to continue to refine those skills if he is to have consistent success as a pro.
Overall, Cooper is a polished playmaker with all of the tools to thrive as a WR1 -- someone who can mirror the impact that Reggie Wayne, Roddy White and Jordy Nelson have enjoyed for their respective teams in past seasons as versatile pass-catchers. Cooper can thrive as the focal point of a passing game or act as a complementary piece opposite a dominant veteran early in his career. He's a "can't-miss" prospect with the potential to consistently earn all-star honors throughout his career.
Here are five teams that look like ideal fits for Cooper:
Oakland Raiders (No. 4 overall pick)
The Raiders landed their franchise quarterback of the future (Derek Carr) in last year's draft; this year, they would be wise to provide Carr with a polished WR1, to help him grow as a playmaker in the passing game. Cooper is as pro-ready as they come, exhibiting all of the qualities needed to shine as a franchise receiver in Oakland. From his reliability as a pass catcher to his detailed route-running ability and positional flexibility, Cooper is poised to make an immediate impact as a "Z" (flanker) or "F" (slot receiver) in the Raiders' offense. Given his experience in a pro-style system heaped with West Coast concepts at Alabama, Cooper should be able to hit the ground running in the Black Hole.
New York Jets (No. 6)
The Jets certainly upgraded their receiving corps with the addition of Brandon Marshall, but that shouldn't prevent them from looking for a young wideout who could anchor the passing game for the next decade. Marshall -- a five-time Pro Bowler -- undoubtedly will be the focal point of the aerial attack in 2015, but Cooper possesses the tools to eventually take that torch. The Alabama product is a skilled receiver with an advanced game and high football IQ. Most importantly, he's a big-time receiver adept at making plays when the game is on the line. He would give new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey another weapon to use to help quarterback Geno Smith (or Ryan Fitzpatrick) find his way as the leader of Gang Green.
Chicago Bears (No. 7)
New coach John Fox's recent experience with Peyton Manning and an explosive receiving corps in Denver could prompt him to try surrounding Bears quarterback Jay Cutler with the weapons that could help him rediscover his Pro Bowl form. Cooper is a silky-smooth playmaker with a refined game that makes him ideally suited for a WR1 role opposite big-bodied pass-catchers Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett. With Jeffery and Bennett capable of clearing zones on vertical routes, Cooper could work the underneath areas of coverage on an assortment of short and intermediate routes designed to let him use his impeccable timing and awareness to settle into open windows. The Bears have featured a dynamic passing game over the past few years; adding Cooper would give them a 1-2 punch at wide receiver to rival any combination in the league.
St. Louis Rams (No. 10)
While the lack of a true No. 1 receiver has been a common theme for the Rams under Jeff Fisher, adding the most polished receiver in this class would certainly solidify the position. Cooper is a crafty playmaker with a pro-ready game and impressive ball skills. He can immediately step into the lineup and add order to a chaotic rotation on the perimeter: Cooper would fill the WR1 role, with Kenny Britt (split end) and Tavon Austin (slot receiver) occupying complementary spots. The Rams' passing game has performed inconsistently with the veterans positioned in prime roles, and reshuffling the lineup could help Fisher put his top playmakers in better positions to showcase their skills. In a league where the best coaches understand how to match the strengths of a player with a role or assignment, acquiring Cooper would significantly improve the Rams' aerial attack in 2015.
Cleveland Browns (No. 12, No. 19)
The suspension of Josh Gordon and departure of Jordan Cameron have left the Browns without an elite pass catcher on the perimeter. Thus, general manager Ray Farmer must explore every conceivable option to upgrade Cleveland's receiving corps this offseason. Free-agent signees Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe will bring leadership and modest production to the lineup, but the team still needs a young, dynamic weapon around which to build its passing game. Cooper -- a precise route runner with exceptional hands, ball skills and savvy -- could be that guy. Most importantly, he has a keen understanding of the position after thriving in a sophisticated passing attack at Alabama. Given the uncertainty surrounding the Browns' franchise, particularly at the quarterback position, the Powers That Be would be wise to add a stabilizing force like Cooper -- someone who could enhance the passing game going forward.