“He’s really the one that [helped me learn] my coverage skills,” Jackson said of Cooper. “He helped me build [as a player] and got me polished.”
Both Jackson and Cooper were four-star high school football recruits who played together at Alabama. Cooper finished his career as the Crimson Tide’s all-time leading receiver. Jackson, a year younger than Cooper, got to face him every single day at practice.
“There was one time in practice he was killing me,” Jackson said. “I was a freshman. I looked back at coach [Nick] Saban, and he said, ‘Don’t look back at me, Eddie, I’m not going to take him off you.’
“Going into spring ball after my freshman year, that’s when everything came and I got him. We were going one-on-one. It used to be Amari, Amari, Amari. Then it became, like, tit for tat. Now it was Amari, Eddie, Amari, Eddie.”
Fast forward six years and Cooper is a force to be reckoned with. A three-time Pro Bowler and No. 4 overall pick by the Oakland Raiders in the 2015 NFL draft, Cooper leads the Cowboys with 64 catches for 971 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Bears (6-6) host the Cowboys (6-6) on Thursday night (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox) in a game with serious playoff ramifications.
“Cooper is definitely at the top [of the list of the league’s best receivers],” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “He’s one of the best route-runners in this game. Again, I’ve had the unfortunate familiarity of going against him for years and years in Kansas City. I’ve seen him have some good games at times, but he’s a guy that can win the one-on-one matchup. He has great hands, he’s smart and he’s a football player.”
Barring something completely unforeseen, Cooper will top 1,000 receiving yards for the fourth time in his career. Cooper was traded to Dallas last season but remains unsigned beyond 2019.
“He’s just an elite competitor,” Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said on Monday. “He’s got all the intangibles. The athleticism is there. The speed is there. The strength, his route-running ability.
“… He’s well-coached, I know that. He’s got strong hands. He runs great routes. He’s very, very precise. He understands coverage. He knows how to get open. And he’s going to win a bunch of 50-50 balls, and him and the quarterback have great chemistry.”
Jackson describes Cooper’s versatility as the veteran receiver’s greatest strength.
“Oh, man, he can do a lot of different things,” Jackson said. “Route running. He’s fast. He can stretch the field vertically. Good release guy. Knows how to drop his weight and shift in-and-out of routes pretty good.”
In the mind of Bears offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, the head coach of perennial powerhouse Oregon when Cooper dominated at Alabama, the 25-year-old receiver is, “a dynamic, dynamic guy.”
“He’s a fabulous player,” Helfrich added.
But something has to give Thursday night. The Bears enter Week 14 with the league’s ninth-ranked passing defense. Two members of the Bears’ defensive backfield were voted to the Pro Bowl last year (Kyle Fuller and Jackson). This season, Chicago has allowed only four players to reach 100-plus receiving yards in a game (Stefon Diggs, Michael Thomas, Zach Ertz and Kenny Golladay).
But Jackson knows if the Bears aren’t careful, Cooper can easily become the fifth player to inflict heavy damage on Chicago’s secondary, which features another former Alabama player in safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
“[Amari] is a guy we’ve got to bring it [against] every play,” Jackson said.