Cowboys WR Amari Cooper eyes lofty goal as bone heals: ‘I want the gravy’

Jori Epstein

FRISCO, Texas — Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper strapped on a helmet and pads at last. 

After being sidelined for the offseason and spending three weeks of training camp on the physically unable to perform list, Cooper rejoined Cowboys practice Monday. An elated CeeDee Lamb celebrated the milestone. 

“Welcome back,” Lamb told Cooper. 

Then the second-year receiver asked his seventh-year counterpart for help. 

“Just asking him about a release that he had hit and he was giving me the rundown by putting me in his shoes or his mind if you will,” Lamb told a huddle of reporters outside Cowboys headquarters Monday night. “He gave me the clues as far as how to move a guy or just be deceptive.” 

Those skills will be key to Cooper achieving the lofty goals he has set. Undeterred by two 2021 ankle injuries and sharing targets with a loaded receiving corps, Cooper keeps reminding himself he wants this season to be different.   

Different might seem like an odd descriptor for a player who has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in four of his six professional seasons, including all three in which he has played for Dallas. And yet, Cooper insists that mark is not his ceiling.  

“The way I look at it is 1,000 yards is like the – it’s just OK,” Cooper said. “Anything after that is like the gravy, you know? 

“I want the gravy.” 

PRESEASON WINNERS, LOSERS:Whose stock is up, down?

MORE:Who has edge in NFL's QB battles after first preseason games?

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper (19) is tackled by San Francisco 49ers defensive back Tarvarius Moore (33) in the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium.

Before Cooper could chase the gravy, he needed to heal a bone. Early this year, the four-time Pro Bowler underwent surgery for loose bone spurs jamming his right ankle; upon regaining flexibility, he then experienced inflammation in the bone that required rest, rehabilitation and a regimen of vitamin D to promote healing. Cooper spent the bulk of practices clocking hours in the weight room and on resistance cords. He eyed team drills from an adjacent field but worked primarily with team director of rehabilitation Britt Brown. Finally, on Aug. 10, Cooper passed his physical. His urge to play was strong. 

“The thing about being injured, it really reminds you about how much you love the game,” Cooper said. “It has just showed me how much I really want to be out there because I miss it so much. 

“I’ve never wanted to run a route so bad.” 

Monday, Cooper ran several. Perhaps his most impressive: a slant during 11-on-11 work, Cooper squaring up to catch a pass from quarterback Garrett Gilbert then eluding oncoming defenders as he turned upfield. 

“Just seeing him move around as usual, like normal, is good,” Lamb said. 

Coaches and players dream of an explosive offense with Dak Prescott at the helm. 

Already in 2020, before Prescott’s Week 5 season-ending injury, Lamb, Cooper and receiver Michael Gallup posed a formidable trio on the receiving end of three straight 400-plus-yard games for Prescott. Entering 2021, Gallup and Lamb have worked to further diversify their routes. Gallup has increased the percentage of snaps he’s taking from the slot while Lamb builds a collection of circus-like catches on deep routes and contested jumps. Cooper’s offseason edge: even more explosiveness. He’s lost roughly 10 pounds with plans to lose five more. 

“I was playing the same at the line of scrimmage and guys couldn’t really touch me, so I just don’t feel like I need to be that big anymore,” Cooper said. “I’m 215 now. I’m going to try to play at 210. 

“You might not even be able to see me running.” 

Cooper has cut out 11 p.m. WingStop orders in an effort to trim, ditching his go-to 15 boneless wings as he avoids eating after 8 p.m. Cooper has been lifting, including with a lower-body focus, because “the stronger you are, the faster you are.” 

He’s set goals to assess his weight, speed and quickness. He reminded trainers during relentless rehabilitation sessions: “I love working.” 

Head coach Mike McCarthy said Monday that the team will continue to exercise some caution with Cooper as he reintegrates into practice. But unlike returning veterans in Prescott and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, Cooper was already receiving team-drill snaps in his first day back in pads.  

As he lined up between Lamb and Gallup in a trips-right set, Cooper confidently cut in and upfield in a show of how the group can harass defenses as early as Week 1 against the defending Super Bowl champions in Tampa Bay. The secret to keeping everyone happy? 

“Winning,” Cooper said. “That’s how everybody will be happy. When you’re winning a lot of games, you know that something has to be going right. That’s all that matters to me, no matter what my stats look like 

“If we win, I’m real happy, because that’s what it’s about.” 

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.