OXNARD, Calif. - One of the most important pieces of this puzzle has been missing, so to speak.
For all the focus on Dak Prescott, the offensive line and the explosive elements of this offense, one of its best performers has been out of the spotlight to this point in 2021.
While the Cowboys have eased into their practice schedule, Amari Cooper has been hard at work on his own schedule, rehabbing his way back from a nagging ankle injury.
"I'm close to 100 percent. I wouldn't say I'm quite 100 percent yet, to be completely candid. But I'm real close," Cooper said Tuesday. "I can do everything, maybe a little better, just because I've been rehabbing so hard."
With DeMarcus Lawrence coming off the team's PUP list on Tuesday, Cooper is one of just a few players not cleared for practice. It stems from an offseason surgery that was done to clear bone spurs out of his ankle. As Cooper explained, clearing up that problem eventually created another.
"Because my foot was jammed up and not as flexible, I didn't really feel the other injury I had in my bone, the inflammation in my bone," he said. "But when they took the spurs out, my ankle got more flexible and I was able to really feel that injury, from what I understand."
Cooper was held out of OTAs and minicamp, and to this point in training camp he has mainly worked on rehab and conditioning. Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said at the start of camp he didn't think the Pro Bowl receiver would start practicing until the team returned to Texas.
Frustrating as the wait might be, Cooper said it has only served to remind him just how much he enjoys
"For me, 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," he said.
The goal is to be ready for Week 1 against Tampa Bay - a milestone that's still more than a month away. It is interesting to hear more about Cooper's goals, though. Very quietly, the 27-year-old had arguably the best season of his career in 2020, working with four different quarterbacks to finish with 92 catches for 1,114 yards.
And yet, to hear it from him, Cooper has big ideas on what 2021 can bring.
"Just trying to be the best Amari Cooper that I can be, trying to be better than I've ever been," he said. "I've been talking to myself a lot lately about how I want this year to be different than any other year that I've played football."
Those words carry some serious weight, given what Cooper has done to this point. From the time he was traded to Dallas, Cooper has tallied 224 catches and 3,028 yards in 41 career games for the Cowboys - an average of five catches for 75 yards per outing. Since entering the league in 2015, he has amassed 1,000 or more yards in five of his six seasons and been named to the Pro Bowl four times.
That's a roundabout way of stating this obvious fact: if Amari Cooper plans to be better than ever, it's going to be an awfully high bar. Asked about that, he didn't shy away.
"The way I look at it is like 1,000 yards is like the - it's just OK," he said. "But anything after that is like the gravy, you know? I want the gravy."
He's not quite there yet. There's more work to do. But Amari Cooper is putting in that work, and if it pays off, he won't be outside the spotlight much longer.