GLENDALE, Ariz. — Jonathan Cooper is expected to start at left guard for the Arizona Cardinals, but for a few series during Saturday’s practice he was with the second team.
The seventh pick in the draft last season, Cooper is still working his way back from a broken leg that sidelined him for all of 2013. Though he’s made significant progress over time, he’s still not where Bruce Arians would like for him to be.
“I’m a little disappointed in where Coop is at right now, I hoped he would come a little faster to get back into the speed of the game,” the head coach said.
Arians said it is clear Cooper is rusty, which is understandable given how much time he missed. However, at some point he’s expected to start looking more and more like the player he was prior to the injury, the guy who showed a unique blend of power, speed and quickness at the position.
“We just need to see it,” Arians said. “We need to see that special player that we drafted, that we had last year.”
The tough part of this for Cooper, though, is that it has nothing to do with the mental side of the game. He got over returning to the field and dealing with contact easier than he imagined he would, meaning now the physical part of his game needs to catch up to where his head is at.
“We all have work to do. I have my ups and my downs, I just have to make sure I’m more consistent. There are some times where I’m showing flashes and I feel and look like the old player I was prior to being injured, but then there’s sometimes when you can look up and say, ‘that’s not the guy we picked up,'” Cooper said. “So I definitely have a lot of work to do. Whether it’s physical — I feel like the mental is fine as long as I can make sure emotionally I stay sound, and no matter what’s said, what happens, just keep pushing forward and I’ll be OK.”
Admittedly it’s taken longer to get back to full strength than he thought it would.
“I have those moments when I am feeling pretty good and I’m like, ‘Alright, I’m over the hump, I’m good to go,’ but then there’s just those reps where it’s like the old Cooper would have done this or done that or been able to make this move or that move,” he said. “I can’t say I did, but I mean, I just have to persevere and I think this will just reveal character, show me I can overcome this and improve to be the player I want to be.”
That player would be someone who could be penciled into the lineup at left guard next to left tackle Jared Veldheer for years to come. For the most part, when people talk about the Cardinals’ offensive line their concern lies on the right side, with very few questions about the left.
Veldheer seems to be everything the Cardinals believed they were getting, but Arians calling out Cooper may be a bit of a wakeup call showing that nothing is guaranteed.
“He has high standards for me just as well as I have high standards for myself,” Cooper said of his coach’s comments. “If he didn’t he wouldn’t be honest with (the media). I know that I haven’t been playing up to the level of potential that I have, but it’s all right. He called me out and now I have to just work that much harder to kind of get over that hump and be the player I can be.”
While he waits for that to happen, though, the Cardinals will continue to move on. If that means second-year pro Earl Watford surpasses Cooper in the depth chart, so be it. The two split time with the first team Saturday, and while it may only be a move meant to motivate Cooper, it is still something worth monitoring going forward.
To his credit, Cooper said all he can do is focus on what he can control, which his effort and performance. And for now, that means getting back to being comfortable with all the movements, plants and contact that comes with playing his position.
There have been times where he’s been that guy, others where he hasn’t. It’s the moments where he looks like his old self that keep him pushing.
“I’m banking on having patience with myself and not getting discouraged,” he said. “Those flashes, they’re more encouragement for me than anything else. I see what I can do if I just keep it up, keep working and don’t give up on myself.
“Because I’ve got to be the last one to give up on me.”