As the first round of this year’s draft began, the Bears had a deck of seven players they’d established as being worth the No. 7 pick of the draft. Two of them were wide receivers and the Bears would have been happy with either Amari Cooper from Alabama or West Virginia’s Kevin White.
Whether the Bears would’ve chosen Cooper over White was a moot point. The decision was made for them when the Oakland Raiders grabbed Cooper, the 2014 Fred Biletnikoff winner as the top collegiate receiver, with the fourth-overall pick. The Bears, who also had Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes still on their list, opted for White.
At least for 2015, fate was not kind to the Bears, who lost White, possibly for the season, to a stress fracture. In the meantime, Cooper became a near-instant centerpiece of the Oakland offense with 20 catches through three games, good enough for 15th in the NFL, and his 290 receiving yards rank eighth in the NFL.
Cooper is the only rookie ranked among the top 50 for catches and receiving yards.
But in an NFL that has seen increasing numbers of wide receivers making huge impacts as rookies, Cooper’s success was close to predictable. He was considered the most NFL-ready receiver in this year’s draft and has played up to his seed.
“He comes from a college program that runs similar to a pro offense so that obviously helps him,” said Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “I think he's got good football instincts and football savvy, so he knows how to play the game and adjust to things well and he's got good, size, strength, speed and quickness, and you put that all together you've got a great player.”
The Raiders selecting Cooper, the 2014 Biletnikoff winner, in the same year as they were signing Michael Crabtree, the 2008 and 2009 Biletnikoff winner, lined up an element of serendipity: The Oakland wide receivers coach is, naturally, Raiders legend Fred Biletnikoff.
The situation was not lost on the rookie.
“It means a lot to just be in the NFL,” Cooper said. “To play for the team that Fred Biletnikoff played for is just a great feeling to try to continue the legacy.”
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Cooper and Crabtree (No. 10 overall, 2009) give the Raiders two wideouts from top-10’s of their drafts. Crabtree, chosen initially by the San Francisco 49ers, evolved slowly, from 48 catches as a rookie to 55, 72 and a career-best 85 in 2012.
Cooper’s ascent has been faster, with production through three games that projects to 107 for the year. That would break the mark of 101 set by Anquan Boldin with Arizona in 2003.
It would not totally surprise the Raiders.
“A lot of work went into the draft and he was a guy where the tape was good, the production was good, the work ethic was good, the character was good,” said coach Jack Del Rio. “We expected him to be a good football player and he’s had a good start… .
“He had a lot of production in college and when you go to Alabama, you’re exposed to some professional principles in terms of the route tree and all those things. It’s closer to an NFL-looking offense in the things that they do and what’s he’s been exposed to. From that standpoint he was a lot better prepared than a lot of the players who come out.”