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ALAMEDA — Amari Cooper was not in a talkative mood Wednesday as he stood in front of his locker at the Raiders’ practice facility. Which I’m guessing brings Cooper’s streak of consecutive non-chatty days to, oh, 8,496 – the number of days he’s been alive.

Cooper is never rude or biting in interview situations. He doesn’t brush people off like teammate Michael Crabtree or intentionally confound them like Marshawn Lynch. He just, it would seem, finds it painful to talk in a group setting. So when a handful of reporters asked Cooper about the dropped passes that have plagued him through the first three games the 2017 season, we left without learning much.

How do you approach these miscues, Amari?

“I try to move forward. Obviously, I like to look back on ’em and see how I dropped the ball, and then try to fix it.”

Are you frustrated to see this problem arise again?

“It can be a little frustrating, but just have to go and fix it.”

Do the drops have anything at all to do with the extra muscle you put on this year?


So there you are. The guy who posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and Pro Bowl appearances in his first two years in the NFL, the one who ranked eighth in the league last season with 1,153 receiving yards, suddenly is having trouble catching the football. And the reason is obscure.

What we do know is that we’ve seen this trend before.

As a rookie in 2015, Cooper showed all the traits that made him the fourth overall pick in the draft, the ones that have gotten people raving about him in the NFL: the precociously precise route-running, the acceleration after the catch, the ability to high-point the ball in traffic. But he had a lot of drops, too.

Drops are notoriously hard to quantify. So many botched pass plays are a combination of less-than-flawless protection, a slightly off-line pass and the failure of the catcher to reel in the ball. Assigning ultimate blame is a slippery task. That noted, the website SportingCharts.com had Cooper tied for second in the NFL with 10 drops (in 130 targets) in 2015.

It was too many. They held Cooper back, and held the Raiders offense back.

In 2016, his second season, the error rate went way down. SportingCharts said Cooper dropped three passes in 132 targets that year. (Meanwhile, Crabtree led the league with nine, but that’s another story.) No, Cooper wasn’t perfect. He biffed a wide-open deep ball at Tampa Bay on Oct. 30, for example. But he looked more relaxed, and thus more dangerous.

This year, the beat writers noticed some additional muscle bulging out of Cooper’s jersey when he showed up to training camp. Everyone figured the strength would be good for him, would help him get off of jams at the line of scrimmage. And with another year alongside Carr, plus the addition of Lynch and tight end Jared Cook, Raiders fans braced for a breakout season from No. 89.

It hasn’t gone like that at all. Cooper caught a touchdown pass from Carr at Tennessee in Week 1. But overall he has just 10 receptions for 101 yards in three weeks. To put that in perspective, Cooper averaged 66.9 yards per game in Year 1 and 72.1 in Year 2; in 2017, he’s down to 33.7 yards per game. Carr’s passer rating when throwing to Cooper is an unsightly 53.0.

And the drops are back with a vengeance. According to Pro Football Focus, Cooper has six of them, twice as many as any other NFL receiver, in 16 catchable targets so far.

His PFF drop rate leads the league among players with 10-plus targets.

Panic has not arrived. It’s a small sample size, and everyone knows how good this guy is. But frustration? Yeah, it’s knocking at the door.

“If I felt like I could talk my way through it, I’d be yapping all over the place,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said Wednesday. “It’s not something I can talk my way through. He’s just going to have to make the catch, do the work. I believe in him. I believe he will.”

As Carr attested, Cooper can be hard to read, which seems like both a blessing and a curse.

“You can tell easily with me,” Carr said. “With him, he’s so quiet, you just have to know him. For him, I don’t think he’s pressing or anything like that. I think he just expects so much more out of himself that he gets mad at himself. I’m looking forward to getting out here at practice and throwing him some balls today.”

Carr added: “There is no ‘a-ha’ moment or anything like that. He knows how good he is. He knows what he’s capable of.”

Cooper did give one clue to the gears that are turning in his mind.

“Most of the balls that I’ve dropped have been from the result of trying to run before I actually catch the ball,” he said.

Sounds like an excuse. But if you look at Cooper’s drops, he’s right. Most have come as he starts to peel his eyes away from the pass and look for the defender he has to beat. That was true of the slant in Week 1 that should have been a touchdown against the Titans, and it was true of the crossing route that went bad on the first snap of the second quarter at Washington on Sunday night. The Raiders trailed 7-0 at the time. It could have been a big first down. Instead, it became an omen of what was to come in a 27-10 battering.

I covered Darrius Heyward-Bey when he played for the Raiders. He simply wasn’t very good at catching the ball, at least not by NFL standards. He tended to cushion passes with his torso rather than snagging them with his hands. That’s not Cooper. He is being betrayed not by his body, but by his brain.

Cooper’s slippery slope highlights his importance to this team. The Raiders have so much talent right now that he can feel superfluous, like icing on the cake. “You mean, these guys have a franchise quarterback, and the NFL’s best defensive player in Khalil Mack, AND Amari Cooper?” Without the latter, Oakland still has an arsenal of talent.

But if the Raiders truly have designs on an AFC West championship and a deep playoff run, they need 2016 Amari Cooper, not 2015 Amari Cooper.

And the urgency is real. The Raiders play at Denver in a division showdown this Sunday. The Broncos have one of the best defenses — and specifically, one of the best secondaries — in the NFL. Oh, and Crabtree is hurting after getting blasted in the sternum during the Washington game.

If Cooper can’t regain his focus and get back to being the playmaker his Raiders teammates expect him to be, this is an opportunity that could slip right through their hands.

You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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