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Amari Cooper strengthens Raiders’ chances to return to prominence

Third-year wideout has added muscle and is making plays for team with Super Bowl aspirations

ALAMEDA, California — The touchdown may wind up being his signature play, something Amari Cooper points to long after his football days are over to illustrate “That’s how I rolled!” At the very least, the Oakland Raiders’ Pro Bowl wide receiver definitely added to his career highlight tape. He also quickly reminded the rest of the league that he’s still on the way up.

On Oakland’s first possession in the first quarter of Week 1, Cooper set the tone for a team that has what it takes to play in the NFL season’s final game. With the Raiders at the Tennessee Titans’ 8-yard line, Cooper was split out wide right against rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. On a slant route, Cooper caught a pass from quarterback Derek Carr, and Jackson appeared to tackle Cooper for a short gain. But Cooper landed on Jackson, keeping the play alive. Spinning away from Jackson, Cooper took on many other would-be Titans tacklers at the 4-yard line and bulled his way into the end zone — with some timely help from his teammates — to put the Raiders ahead on the road en route to a 26-16 victory.

Talk about an opening statement.

“Amari … he’s got a lot of desire,” Oakland head coach Jack Del Rio said. “And he’s got a lot of talent.”

After two Pro Bowl seasons, Cooper enters his third year determined to do everything even bigger. Having added muscle as a result of an intense offseason conditioning program (as if we couldn’t tell from the way he moved the pile in Tennessee), Cooper is focused on helping Oakland return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2003. He joins Carr and defensive end Khalil Mack in forming the Raiders’ trio of stars who have revived the franchise and inspired fans to believe in championship dreams again.

For the Raiders to get where they want to go, Cooper will have to be out front. Good thing for them that he’s totally down with that.

“The goal is always to get better,” Cooper said after practice at the Raiders’ facility recently. “The goal is always to do more to [contribute to success]. That’s why you work so hard in the offseason. You do it so you can go into the next season and be a better player than you were before. Otherwise, what are you doing?”

There’s no doubt about what Cooper did before this season. You can see the results.

He’s visibly bigger than he was during the 2016 season, say people who follow the Raiders closely, and definitely stronger. Just ask the Titans.

They seemed surprised that Cooper refused to go down. Although Cooper likely wouldn’t have gotten into the end zone without being pushed, the fact that he managed to maintain his balance in the center of the scrum was nonetheless impressive. Cooper enjoyed the moment.

“It was a real fun play,” he said. “I caught the ball, guy tried to tackle me, and I knew that I wasn’t on the ground. I stayed up and just kind of let the guys push me in. … It was great. Definitely pumped up the team up.”

Cooper has always trained diligently in the offseason. From his high school days in Miami through his standout career at the University of Alabama and in the NFL, he has stayed on the grind. But after the 2016 season, Cooper stepped it up even more than usual. Weights, cardio, flexibility work — the program was draining. It also worked.

“I wasn’t trying to get bigger,” Cooper said, shrugging almost as if to apologize for adding another component to his game to torment opponents. “I was just training so much that I did get bigger.”

While also maintaining the stretch-the-defense speed (at the NFL scouting combine, he covered the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds) that largely prompted Oakland to select him with the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft. In the previous draft, the Raiders hit two home runs: Mack was picked fifth overall and Carr went in the second round (36th overall).

Mack was selected the Associated Press 2016 Defensive Player of the Year. Carr is one of the game’s best young passers. If not for the broken leg that Carr suffered late in the 2016 season, the Raiders’ Super Bowl drought might have ended last season.

The three ballers did provide the foundation for Oakland’s return to the playoffs in 2016. The team hadn’t gotten that far in 14 years. Through two games this season, the Raiders are perfect. “We have young players who are really driven, who want to be special,” Del Rio said. “They have the work ethic.”

Cooper has produced consecutive 1,000-plus-yard seasons. And he’s still only 23. “The biggest thing,” Del Rio said, “is for him to just continue growing.”

That’s where Carr comes in. A wideout is only as good as the quarterback tasked with getting him the ball. Besides being top-shelf, Carr also has a great relationship with Cooper. That’s a winning combination.

“I just feel comfortable throwing him any route, whether it’s him coming in the middle, on the outside, deep, short,” Carr said. “He’s worked his tail off and proven to me that he can really do it all.”

Cooper, though, sees so much more he can do to improve his game. Whenever he watches fellow Alabama alumnus Julio Jones, it’s clear to him that there’s another level.

The Atlanta Falcons’ All-Pro wideout is “regarded as one of the best in the league right now. Some of the things that he does out there are just amazing,” Cooper said. “Obviously, if you want to be one of the best, you’ve got to put in the work. There’s no other way.”

Yep. There’s only the right way. Cooper is following it and making a strong impression.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.