Heading into his junior season, the stars seem to be aligning for Alabama star wide receiver Amari Cooper to enjoy a banner year.
"So far this spring, he's been phenomenal in the offseason program as well as in the first three practices that we've had," Alabama head coach Nick Saban told AL.com's Michael Casagrande during the middle of spring practice. "Obviously he's a guy that we want to get the ball to as many times as we can."
The timing couldn't be better for the Miami native, considering that he's already among a handful of players being discussed as potential first-round selections in the 2015 NFL draft.
According to NFL.com's Chase Goodbread, Cooper ramped up the hype machine after running blistering times in the 40-yard dash at Alabama's pro day last month, with 4.31 seconds being the fastest time recorded.
While Cooper has some unfinished business at the Capstone, it's hard to deny his potential as a candidate to forgo his final season of college eligibility.
Where would the Tide standout land if he chooses to test the NFL draft waters next spring?
Cooper wasted little time in establishing himself as a superstar on the college level. His 11 receiving touchdowns as a true freshman broke the school record, and his 59 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards bested former Tide All-American Julio Jones' freshman totals.
After a standout freshman campaign, Cooper got off to a slow start last season due to a nagging toe injury. However, his best two games came in the Tide's last two contests against Auburn and Oklahoma, where he combined to haul in 15 passes for 299 yards and a touchdown.
As Andrew Gribble of AL.com points out, the dip in his production as a sophomore shouldn't alarm teams, considering that notable top wideouts such as Jones, A.J. Green and Sammy Watkins experienced similar circumstances during their second years in college.
Cooper led the Tide in receptions and receiving yards in each of the last two seasons, racking up combined totals of 103 catches for 1,736 yards and 15 touchdowns in the process. He has also accumulated seven games with 100 or more receiving yards, including each of the two bowl games he's played in.
More importantly, Cooper has been at his best when the Tide have lined up against top competition, as the chart below illustrates.
|Amari Cooper vs. Opponents who Finished Ranked in Top 10|
|2012||No. 5 Texas A&M||6||136||1|
|2012||No. 5 Georgia||8||128||1|
|2012||No. 4 Notre Dame||6||105||2|
|2013||No. 2 Auburn||6||178||1|
|2013||No. 6 Oklahoma||9||121||0|
While it's still way too early to throw the word "lock" around when mentioning projections for the 2015 NFL draft, Cooper is among the group of elite talents who will find his name at the top of the early lists of projected first-round picks.
B/R draft expert Matt Miller has the Tide product ranked as the best wide receiver in his first 2015 big board. Fellow B/R draft analyst Michael Schottey has Cooper going third overall in his first 2015 mock draft.
Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead agrees with Miller and Schottey about Cooper being the first wideout off the board and has him going seventh overall in his mock. Dane Brugler of CBS Sports has Cooper going ninth overall.
While Cooper enters the season as the top-rated wideout in the 2015 class by numerous outlets, the fact that he had a down year in 2013 will only fuel him to return to his freshman form and secure a spot in the first round of next year's draft—should he choose to forgo his senior season.
Why Cooper Will Be a First-Round Pick
Saban's spring proclamation of wanting to get Cooper as many touches as possible bodes well for his chances to have a monster junior season.
Considering that he has produced at an elite level in his first two years of college, assuming he puts up big numbers this fall, Cooper has a chance to cement his status as the top receiver prospect available in the 2015 class.
With his size (6'1", 202 lbs), speed and route-running ability, Cooper has all the characteristics of an elite pass-catcher who teams will covet in the first round of next year's draft.