NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Raiders receiver Amari Cooper originally thought Derek Carr’s pass was going to sail. Trajectory suggested so, and Cooper sprung way up to get it. The ball came in hot and stayed low, but it was too late to course correct.
So Cooper sort of hung in the air and waited for the pass’ arrival. He caught it and thudded back to earth. First down, Raiders.
That 25-yard pass was a marvel, made in tight coverage. How on earth did he stay in the air that long?
“I don’t know,” Cooper said, drawing a laugh from the media scrum.
Spectators weren’t the only ones left in awe. Even those closest to him slack-jawed after that one.
“That was amazing,” Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “Just the catches that he makes… Every single week he does something that you’d never expect.”
Cooper hasn’t necessarily defied expectation. The Raiders believed they drafted a premier receiver No. 4 overall in 2015. He proved it as a rookie, with 72 catches for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns.
Cooper doesn’t like those totals as much as most. He believes they should’ve been significantly higher. While he makes hard plays look easy, he often made easy plays too hard. Drops plagued him early last year, and a foot injury slowed him late.
Cooper never missed a game, but clearly wasn’t right. His production waned, with little to show for 2015’s final stretch. Cooper never complained. He just gritted through the pain and finished his rookie year active when the Raiders considering shutting him down.
“At the end of the day, no matter what business you’re in, people don’t want to hear excuses,” Cooper said. “They want to know if you can get the job done or not. That’s all I was thinking about.”
Cooper is better for the experience. He has taken a scientific approach to body maintenance, making sure he’s doing everything possible to sustain top form.
“I think there’s a benefit in the experience he gained,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “I think that’s part of what you do. As you live life, as you compete at the highest level, you realize things, you learn things along the way. Certainly, having that occur as young player, as a rookie, and experiencing that, I think we know more about him in terms of the toughness that he brings, and I think he understands more about really how important the detail of taking care of himself and taking care of his body and understanding how demanding the season is for the NFL player.”
Cooper is mentally fresh and physically healthy to start the season. Time spent in the 2016 pre-draft process was used to recharge and prepare better for his second season.
“I’m smarter. That’s the biggest thing over a year ago,” Cooper said. "I’m about the same weight I was last year. I would like to say I’m faster and stronger, but I’m about the same speed. I’ve definitely learned how to prepare and what type of treatment I need to keep my body right. I just know what to expect from a full season.”
Knowing how to prepare accentuated top talent and kicking started 2016 with 11 catches for 208 yards – that’s a whopping 18.9 yards per reception -- over two games.
“I think he feels good,” Carr said. “I think he’s playing extremely fast, extremely confident, and I think that he’s making me look a lot better than I am sometimes. (laughter) With some of those catches, we all held our breath a couple of times. I think that he’s just playing like the guy that everyone knows that he is.”