TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s been less than 10 months since Jonathan Cooper broke his left leg in the third quarter of the Arizona Cardinals’ third preseason game.
The injury ended his rookie season before it could really even begin, and delayed the start of what is expected to be a really promising career for the guard.
Though plenty of time has passed and Cooper has been on the field for the team’s OTAs and minicamp, he’s not prepared to declare himself back.
“I think I have progressed quite a bit, but not quite to game-ready,” Cooper said after the team’s final minicamp practice Thursday. “I’ve come out here and I’ve done everything they asked me to do rehab-wise and lifting-wise and on the field to the best of my ability, but my performance isn’t quite where it needs to be for game one.”
There’s still more than one month until training camp, just less than two months until the first preseason game and nearly three months before the team’s season opener against the San Diego Chargers.
If he needs time, he’s got it.
“Coop’s still got a ways to go,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Thursday. “His recovery is not total yet, and it’s obvious. He’s not the athlete he was last year at this time, but I wouldn’t expect him to be.”
The number seven pick in the draft out of North Carolina, the 6-foot-2, 311-pound Cooper was advertised as a great athlete for his size who offered excellent mobility and figured to be a mainstay along the offensive line for years to come.
The 24-year-old said the last few weeks allowed him to knock some of the rust off while building confidence that his leg was able to hold up to being an NFL offensive lineman. The recovery process, he noted, can be as much mental as it is physical.
“They say a lot of the injuries when you’re recovering is between the ears, and so I feel like that has a lot to do with it,” he said. “But I feel like this (OTAs and minicamp) was good for me. I mean, I really got a bunch of reps and was able to show myself that it’s fine, you’re not going to re-injure yourself or anything like that, so I can just keep working and improve.”
It’s all part of the process. Arians said he’s hopeful Cooper will be 100 percent when training camp opens, and it’s a goal Cooper said he also has for himself. It may be optimistic, he said, but as of now there’s nothing he really can’t do so much as he’s just not yet able to do things at the level he did before the injury.
“It’s just a matter of getting confidence and his strength back and his balance back,” Arians said.
When he gets there, Cooper will be expected to be part of a very good left side of the offensive line. In using a first-round pick on Cooper and then signing tackle Jared Veldheer as a free agent it is obvious the Cardinals made a concerted effort to fix what has been a problem area for years.
“He’s a great player, he is a heck of a player, super smart,” Cooper said of his new linemate. “That’s amazing to me, (him) coming into a new system and just having such a great understanding of it. And physically — he’s a prototypical left tackle.”
While each has yet to take a regular season snap with the Cardinals, the seeming lack of concern about that side of the line likely stems from Veldheer’s success with the Raiders and Cooper’s reputation. But reputation only gets one so far, and because of injury the second-year pro was not really able to prove himself on the field.
By his own admission he’s not quite ready to do that yet, saying he still has more rehab left to do. But he can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s definitely getting close,” he said. “I remember when I wasn’t able to walk, so just being able to run around; I remember being nervous about leaning on these defensive linemen and all that stuff.
“But I’ve been able to do it and day-by-day proven to myself that I’ll be fine.”