Jon Gruden: Amari Cooper needs to stay healthy in 2018

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Amari Cooper was conspicuous by his absence from team drills late in Tuesday's opening organized team activities. Especially after the Oakland Raiders receiver had been seen earlier, crisply running routes and cleanly catching passes.

"He has a little twinge in his hamstring right now," said Raiders coach Jon Gruden, and the thought of here we go again no doubt crossed the collective mind of Raider Nation.

Because as breathtaking as Cooper has shown he can be during his three-year NFL career -- who can forget his 11-catch-on-19-targets-for-210-yards-and-two-touchdowns tour de force against the Kansas City Chiefs on a Thursday night last season? -- his battle with niggling injuries down the stretch, leading to frequent disappearances in games, has been just as frustrating.

For all involved.

That's why Gruden was so succinct when asked what Cooper needs to do to take the next step in this, his fourth season.

"He has to stay healthy, No. 1," Gruden said. "Derek Carr needs to stay healthy. We have to pass protect as a whole better. We have to do a lot of things better for him to be better. But No. 1, I think, it's health."

Cooper, the No. 4 overall pick of the 2015 draft out of Alabama, had 72 catches for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie. He followed that up with an 83-catch, 1,153-yard, 5-TD sophomore campaign.

He joined Marques Colston and Odell Beckham Jr. as the only players in NFL history with at least 70 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards in each of their first two seasons. (Michael Thomas has since joined the club.)

Then came last year's fall, so to speak.

"Well, I wouldn't say it was great," Cooper said of his 2017 season. "Definitely some things I need to work on coming into this year and some things that I have been working on so that I can be better on for this season."

Injuries cost Cooper two games, and ineffectiveness saw him finish with just 48 receptions for 680 yards, even with his masterpiece against the Chiefs on national television. Still, he had a career-high seven TD catches.

Not that Cooper was going to publicly blame the injuries.

"Every player is hurt every year," he said. "So that's not really an excuse for everything. I've been hurt every year I played football."

There is a certain stick-to-itiveness to Cooper, and not just when it comes to football.

That mentality is what drove him to continue with his education, via online classes, after leaving Alabama. He graduated this month with a degree in criminal justice, making him one of four Raiders players to earn their diplomas this offseason, along with defensive end Bruce Irvin, right guard Gabe Jackson and offensive lineman Jylan Ware.

"I knew I would always go back and finish, but if it was up to me, I probably would have waited a little bit longer," Cooper said. "But I had some people on me about it, really telling me to go back and finish."

The Raiders obviously still believe in Cooper -- they exercised the fifth-year option on him for 2019 -- to the point Gruden famously said after his hiring that Cooper would be the "focal point" of the team's passing offense, a "centerpiece" of the entire offense.

"It was cool," Cooper said of hearing Gruden's comments. "Obviously, as a receiver, you want to go out there and make plays for your team and win. So for him to say that, it really meant a lot to me. I'm just ready to come out here and work and prove that I deserve to have those opportunities.

"I mean … we have a whole lot of plays, even right now, this early. We have something for everything. Every defensive look, we can audible to something to get in the right play for any defense."

The additions of Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant, along with the release of Michael Crabtree, have given the Raiders' WR corps a new look.

Nelson has been in the NFL since 2008. Cooper said he has been learning from Nelson, who is "always sharing his wisdom in the receiver room."

Bryant's straight-line speed, meanwhile, should open up more things for Cooper because "being that he's so fast, he's so dangerous with the ball in his hands. Man, we have a lot of threats on offense."

And with each pass catcher's versatility, well …

"He's doing a good job of moving us all around right now," Cooper said of Gruden. "We have to learn every single receiver position on the field because he wants to move us around a lot."

Meaning Cooper could see more time in the slot in 2018.

Per Pro Football Focus, Cooper's 2.21 yards per route run from the slot ranked third in the NFL among receivers with 90 or more slot routes last season.

"I love the slot," Cooper said.

Imagine the love all around if Cooper stays healthy.