With all due respect to the great Julio Jones, Alabama Crimson Tide junior receiver Amari Cooper should go down as the best receiver of the Nick Saban era with one more good season. Now don't confuse being the best with being the most important. Jones will always be the most important receiver of this era simply because his presence, along with former running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, made it a must for heralded five-star players to go to Alabama again.
But if you judge strictly on skill set, despite being at a size disadvantage, Cooper (6'1", 210 lbs) can do all of the things Jones (6'3", 220 lbs) can while being a notch above in the nuances of receiving. When you take into account that Jones is arguably the best receiver in the NFL (not named Megatron, of course), that notion may be hard for some to fathom.
It's time to wrap our collective brains around it; Cooper is that darn special!
In fact, I'm thoroughly convinced that Cooper is actually former Florida State superstar receiver Peter Warrick attempting a do-over on his disappointing NFL career. Think about it: they both wear jersey No. 9; both can go from zero to 60 like no other; both have alarming lateral agility; both have exceptional hands.
But most importantly, they are possibly the two best route-runners that collegiate football has ever seen. And I can guarantee you this: Nobody has ever seen Cooper and Warrick in the same room at the same time.
Things that make you go hmmm...
The route-running ability/Tackle-breaking prowess
Cooper's ability to separate via his route-running ability is unparalleled. It's one thing to to run a route, it's another thing to understand how to use routes to set your opponent up. A lot of fans think that just because a player is fast they know how to separate via a route. That's not remotely true.
Former University of Tennessee receiver, and current rising star of the Minnesota Vikings, Cordarrelle Patterson is blessed with 4.42 40-yard dash speed -- at 6'2", 216 pounds. If his assignment is a go- or post-route he's virtually unstoppable. But his ability to win in the short-to-intermediate area leaves a lot to be desired.
By contrast, the greatest route-runner in the history of football, Jerry Rice (San Francisco 49ers fame), was said to run in the 4.7 range. But his ability to sell, and work off the sell, made it looks as though he had 4.4 speed himself. Cooper is a rare breed that is uber-fast and has Rice-like separation ability.
This is a prime example of Cooper's ability to sell. He delivers the initial part of this route as if he's running a 9-route. This causes the corner to bail on his backpedal during Cooper's transition phase and it also almost causes him to do a split.
Cooper further gains separation by "squaring off" his transition phase to perfection. Most receivers round off their routes -- Patterson being a great example -- instead of snapping their heads around like Cooper. His ability to decelerate will be tough for any corner to deal with on any level.
In addition to his superb talents in route-running, Cooper is virtually impossible to bring down by one defender. He's a very physical player -- which is something you rarely get from route technicians. He's unafraid to lower his shoulders into defensive backs, linebackers or linemen.
But it's his elusiveness that should get most of the focus. A trait he shares in common with Warrick.
Here's Warrick doing his thing back in the day (as you can plainly tell by the footage quality). He could stop on a dime and give change -- in Canadian quarters. Cooper is every bit as elusive.
Here, on this drive route, Cooper lays waste to three defenders and finishes with authority. In new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's system, he will be given ample opportunity to work the intermediate area of the field. Kiffin's scheme is versatile, but it's based off West Coast principles -- which calls for yards after the catch.
He posted the most productive freshman campaign in Bama history (59 catches for 1,000 yards with 11 touchdowns), and followed it up with a very solid sophomore campaign (45 catches for 736 yards with four TDs), although, a great deal of pundits considered it a major step back.
Cooper's career paradigm resembles that of his predecessor. Jones came out strong (58 catches for 924 yards and four TDs), but didn't follow it up with the type of season most expected (43 catches for 596 yards and four TDs).
Both were hampered by injuries. Jones by a knee; Cooper by a foot. But Jones bounced back with a monster junior season which cemented him as a top pick in the draft. Cooper is on a squad that has more talent on offense than Jones' did -- so he may not be able to dominate the ball like one might expect.
But he has all the tools to make the most of the opportunities he will receive.
The deep-ball prowess/Athletic gifts
As great as Cooper is in the short-to-intermediate game, he is equally as effective in the long game. His lateral quickness and agility may only be superseded by his deep speed. To put it simply, this kid is lightning fast. He can flat-out run by just about anyone, but he still relies on his innate route-running ability to set up the deep game.
Here we see Cooper taking Georgia's Damian Swann to school. On this 9-route, Cooper initially plays it as if he's running a dig- or post-route. This gets Swann to commit hard inside. Then Cooper breaks it back outside, spinning Swann like a ceiling fan in the process.
Then from there it's all god-given ability. Cooper has enough speed to decelerate, and re-accelerate, while not losing any ground. He's been clocked as low as 4.31 in the 40, and appears to have out-of-this-world leaping ability.
Case in point.
Look for Cooper to "bounce back" in a major way this season -- especially with rocket arm quarterback Jacob Coker delivering him passes in Kiffin's offense. Cooper's ability to run routes is second to none; his hands are flawless; he has speed to burn; his leaping ability is off the charts; he's smooth, yet very physical.
He may not be the physical freak of a Jones, as far as height and weight combination, but he's an extremely explosive play-maker that's as polished as you'll ever see -- regardless of the level.
Some may vehemently disagree, but it's certainly any arguable point: Cooper should go down as the best receiver of the Saban era with one more good season...or he should be exposed as Peter Warrick attempting a comeback.
Do you agree?
Murf Baldwin is a national college football writer for SBNation.com. Additionally, he covers the Alabama Crimson Tide for Roll 'Bama Roll and AlabamaIntel.com. He previously covered the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints for Bleacher Report. Are you not entertained? Follow Murf on Twitter.