By Adam Klionsky
In the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Oakland Raiders filled a pressing need at the most important position in sports: NFL quarterback. Derek Carr excelled in his rookie campaign, throwing for 3,270 yards and 21 touchdowns in 16 starts, yet the offense would stall at times. As a result, General Manager Reggie McKenzie dived into the offseason on a mission: build the offense with talented skill players around his young signal caller.
When training camp kicked off in Napa, Calif., in the summer of 2015, McKenzie's bounty had already begun turning heads. With the Raiders' fourth-overall selection in the 2015 draft, the team welcomed polished Alabama wideout Amari Cooper, the 2014 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner and the recipient of 16 touchdown passes as a senior.
Many believed the Raiders had finally found the impact receiver the team had been lacking for nearly a decade, but McKenzie as well as new Head Coach Jack Del Rio were far from finished in their search for playmakers. They did not have to look far, however, as the perfect complement to their deep-threat rookie was waiting just across the San Francisco Bay.
Enter seventh-year veteran wide receiver Michael Crabtree, a two-time Fred Biletnikoff Award winner at Texas Tech who had since posted 4,327 career receiving yards and 26 touchdowns with the San Francisco 49ers. Following an electric 1,000-yard season and Super Bowl berth in 2012, Crabtree had seen his production dip over the past two seasons with San Francisco, due in part to an Achilles injury.
So when the Raiders came calling this offseason, a healthy Crabtree seized the opportunity. With one of the best pairs of hands in the business and a chip on his shoulder, Crabtree jumped at the chance to once again prove himself to the rest of the NFL, this time wearing Silver and Black.
The dynamic tandem now lining up on the edges of Oakland's offense has already proven itself as the most productive pair of receivers the Raiders have seen in years. In just seven games together, Coober and Crabtree are averaging 11.1 receptions per game and have combined for six touchdowns.
They also rank seventh in the league with 1,048 combined receiving yards.
Those staggering numbers recall the memories of some elite receiving duos in the Raiders' past: Biletnikoff and Branch, Rice and Brown, Moss and Porter. While their statistics may be comparable on paper, it is the way the two stars learn from and complement each other and that sets them apart.
"It kind of looks like we get open differently," said Cooper. "He uses his hands a lot. He uses his body to shield defenders away and I've really picked that up from him. We seem to complement each other well."
Raiders wide receivers coach Rob Moore, the 12-year NFL veteran who was charged by Del Rio with developing the Raiders' new assets, also notices differences in their games.
"Michael has a lot of veteran savvy. He understands how to run routes, how to set people up," said Moore. "He reads coverages well and has great hands. I was really shocked at just how superior his skills were in terms of catching the football. The guy has got unbelievable hands. Amari is young, still learning, but everybody knows that he's extremely fast, quick, sudden and explosive. Both of them work tremendously hard."
Cooper and Crabtree not only learn from Moore, but from each other. Despite being widely-praised as the most refined and pro-ready receiver the NFL had seen come out of the college system in years, Cooper immediately took to Crabtree and began absorbing the seasoned vet's advice.
"He's been really good towards me. He's been teaching me how to release with my hands and I've just been watching him and how he gets open," Cooper said. "All of the veterans have really been telling me the same thing: How to keep my body fresh, how the season is so long and [how to build] my study habits."
All of their efforts are not going unnoticed, especially by the main beneficiary of their arrival in Oakland. There is a spark in Derek Carr's eyes when he talks about his new weapons on the outside, one akin to what they provide to offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's unit.
"I remember saying he's a home run waiting to happen, and we saw it obviously these last two games," Carr said on Cooper following the rookie's second straight 100-yard outing. "We all think he's going to score anytime he touches the ball. He was a top-five pick for a reason. I can tell you I'm thankful he's on our team."
"Unbelievable," added Carr when asked about Crabtree's remarkable ability to haul in seemingly impossible passes. "He only catches the ball because he has to. There's no effort that goes into that for him." Though it is still early in Cooper's rookie season and Crabtree's comeback campaign, the Raiders have plenty of reasons to be confident about the offense heading into the future. As part of a young and improving offensive corps, the Raiders' new elite receiving tandem may have plenty of room to grow, but the sky is surely the limit.