PHOENIX — The first two draft picks of the Steve Keim and Bruce Arians era were Jonathan Cooper and Kevin Minter.
After two seasons in the NFL, neither has made much of an impact.
Cooper, the seventh pick in the 2013 draft, lost his entire rookie season to a broken leg, and then struggled with various maladies in 2014. He appeared in three games last season, experiencing some success, but was unable to stay on the field.
Likely in part because of Cooper’s failure to establish himself, the Cardinals went out and paid big money to Pro Bowl left guard Mike Iupati. That signing will move Cooper to the right side, where he has played some but was not the position he was selected so highly to man. To some, that would seem like a bit of an indictment on the former North Carolina Tar Heel, or at least a sign of the team maybe losing faith in their former top pick. If that was the case, 2015 would seem to be a bit of a “make or break” year for the 25-year-old.
But Cardinals coach Bruce Arians says that, actually, is not the case.
“No, no,” he said. “He’s just got to stay healthy,” Arians said. “Every time Coop gets out there he’s still a rookie. He’s only played, what, three games last year? No games the year before. So he’s always going back to step one, so it is frustrating.
“But right now he looks great and hopefully he can stay healthy; there’s no question he has the ability to be a heck of a player.”
Minter, the 45th overall selection in the 2013 draft, played just one defensive snap as a rookie, and then last year, when he was expected to take over at inside linebacker and be an impact player, suffered a pectoral injury in preseason and finished with 49 tackles — five of which were for a loss — with one sack and one pass defensed. He played in all 16 games, starting five, but, like Cooper, did not establish himself the way it was hoped he would.
The Cardinals’ offseason moves have not necessarily targeted Minter’s position, but there has been plenty of chatter about how the linebacker group could use an upgrade. But in terms of the expectations for the former LSU Tiger, Arians said little has changed since they drafted him.
“The position’s changed,” he said. “MIKE linebackers are kind of like nose guards; when you’re playing running teams, they get to play. We don’t play too many of them anymore.
“So you hate to say a guy’s a bust because he’s not playing a lot, but that’s a first- or second-down player that we needed at that time.”
The Cardinals’ 2013 draft class was made up of nine players. Of the other seven, their third-round pick, safety Tyrann Mathieu, looks like a potential star, sixth-round pick Andre Ellington is a big part of the offense as a running back, fourth-round choice Alex Okafor has shown flashes as a pass rusher and fifth-round pick Stepfan Taylor has carved out a role in the backfield. Another fourth-round choice, guard Earl Watford, will be battling for a starting spot this offseason. Ryan Swope (receiver, sixth round) and D.C. Jefferson (tight end, seventh round) are no longer with the team.
It’s not a bad collection of talent, but for Arians and Keim, their top two picks that year stepping up would go a long way toward the Cardinals being successful in 2015. They’re waiting.