Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Raiders believe they caught the best receiver in the draft in Alabama’s Amari Cooper

Wide receiver Amari Cooper catches a pass during Alabama’s Pro Day in March.
Wide receiver Amari Cooper catches a pass during Alabama’s Pro Day in March. The Associated Press

Somewhere down there in the valley, despite the heat wave and the dusty air, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr must be chilling, smiling, exhaling.

Assuming Alabama wide receiver and No.4 overall pick Amari Cooper arrives as advertized – fast, mobile, precise, explosive, nuanced – Oakland’s offense could start to look retro. You know? Balls zipping inside the Coliseum, the chains moving more than a few inches per possession, a gifted young athlete separating from defenders, catching passes, scoring touchdowns.

Steph Curry doesn’t have to be the only playmaker in the Coliseum-Arena duplex. Tim Brown doesn’t always have to be the last Raiders receiver to generate highlight noise with hands. Darrius Heyward-Bey – the seventh pick in the 2009 NFL draft – doesn’t have to be forever mentioned when a Raiders drops a ball, runs the wrong route or does something that would embarrass Fred Biletnikoff.

Wideout talent certainly hasn’t been abundant around here in recent years, or even decades. Jerry Porter, Denarius Moore, James Jett, Andre Holmes, Brice Butler, Jacoby Ford, Heyward-Bey, to list just a few who have toiled at the position. Michael Crabtree is a newbie to this side of the bay; he doesn’t count, yet.

But on and on it goes, the years of wondering what happened to the days of Brown, Cliff Branch, the great Biletnikoff, whose name is stitched onto the side of the trophy awarded annually to the top receiver in college football.

This year, the honor went to Cooper, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound Miami native who blew past defensive end Leonard Williams and all the other draft prospects, at least in the estimation of Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, coach Jack Del Rio and Auburn resident and Hall of Fame center Jim Otto.

“Cooper is a great receiver,” said Otto, who rode over to Thursday’s draft proceedings at Raiders headquarters with his neighbor and former Oakland running back Vance Mueller. “He gives us the chance to get back to the type of game we need to play, want to play, because he stretches the field.”

McKenzie, the stoic, whispery-speaking GM who whiffed on his first coaching hire (the unproven and departed Dennis Allen) but oversaw an excellent 2014 draft headed by linebacker Khalil Mack and Carr, was so delighted Cooper was available when the Raiders selected that he failed to contain his emotions: He grinned. He kept grinning.

Asked when he decided to target the Southern Conference’s all-time leader in touchdown receptions, a three-year starter who finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting, he simply nodded, firmly. There was no hesitation, no quibbling, no doubts. The Raiders went all-in on Cooper shortly after interviewing and observing him at the NFL scouting combine.

According to their scouting report, this is the quick, fast, explosive, sure-handed receiver and polished route runner that the doctor – er, make that the strong-armed Carr – ordered.

In a brief teleconference that took place long after Jameis Winston (Tampa Bay), Marcus Mariota (Tennessee) and Dante Fowler (Jacksonville) were selected with the first three picks, leaving Cooper to the Raiders – and dropping Williams to the New York Jets at No. 6 – Cooper described himself as a committed lifelong wideout.

Since the age of “5 or 6,” he ran around his backyard with friends, bumping and shoving to gain separation and create spaces. And he agrees with his new bosses; his route-running elevates him above the competition.

“There are only two ways you can get open at wide receiver,” Cooper explained, “your releases and the top of your route. My coaches tried to teach me how to run a route, but I was pretty good at cutting, so it came pretty natural and pretty easy.”

That’s the plan, anyway. Natural and easy. Back to a time when the Raiders quarterback zipped passes, the receivers caught balls, the catches generated more chatter than the drops or mistakes, the team amassed far more victories than defeats. Though Del Rio insists his offense will be balanced, not too pass-heavy, the backfield depth and talent remain issues. Other weaknesses remain, as well.

The Raiders have endured 12 consecutive losing seasons, eaten coaches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and consistently frustrated a loyal fan base because they ooze Hall-of-Fame-type talent. But as McKenzie suggested, at least one hole appears to be plugged.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.