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Cardinals’ Pharoh Cooper making most of WR reps after wild past year

(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Pharoh Cooper’s NFL journey began with three years of stability.

The Los Angeles Rams selected him in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, and it didn’t take long before Cooper impressed the team enough to become a key special teams player. By his second season, he returned kicks and punts well enough to earn a Pro Bowl berth.

An ankle injury to begin 2018 took all that stability away. Cooper eventually returned but was cut in mid-December. The Cardinals, before facing the Rams in the second-to-last game of the year, claimed him off waivers.

Cooper, now 24 years old, probably lent some info on Los Angeles before playing in Arizona’s season finale against Seattle. But his NFL future has taken some twists in the past year.

He’d never gotten the chance to play significant snaps as a wide receiver, and through a wild past 11-plus months, he’s finally done that as the Cardinals prepare to host the Rams at State Farm Stadium this Sunday.

Cooper practiced with Arizona this offseason and through training camp, but he was cut at the 53-man roster deadline. He spent a brief stint in Cincinnati, was cut again, took two weeks off and because of Christian Kirk’s ankle injury suffered in Week 4 had a chance to rejoin the Cardinals.

He’s run with it.

“In L.A., I was just returning punts and kicks,” Cooper said. “That opportunity to come back here, it worked out for the best. I’m actually playing meaningful offensive snaps, catching the ball, scoring touchdowns, making plays … showing the NFL world and fans, and proving to myself too … that I can play offense in the NFL.

“It’s been a long journey, even since December when I was released by the Rams. Ever since then it’s been a little, like, long. Crazy long … Learn to appreciate the game. It can humble you. Learn a lot about myself and it was cool to go through. I’m happy to be here now, though.”

Cooper didn’t do anything wrong in training camp — there weren’t consistent drops in practices or games, no outright flaws. He brought versatility as a return man, too.

So he didn’t see that Arizona would cut him at the 53-man roster deadline.

“I felt like that from the beginning: I should have made the roster,” he said. “Nothing is given in this league. It’s a cut-throat business but the way I performed and the way I fit into the system, special teams-wise and all that, it felt like I should have been here initially.”

Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said cutting Cooper was “one of the more emotional” meetings of chopping the roster down.

Arizona is just happy to have a chance at a mulligan. Same with Cooper, who didn’t hold a grudge against the Cardinals and with an offer to return, jumped at the chance to prove he belonged on an NFL field.

In seven games this year, Cooper has 157 receiving yards — nothing to write home about heading into Week 13 but just 33 fewer than his total through his first three NFL seasons with Los Angeles.

Of the limited number of touches he’s received, Cooper has made some memorable plays in big moments.

In Week 5 against Bengals, Cooper’s first game back with the Cardinals, he made a diving third-down catch for a 28-yard gain at the Bengals’ 11-yard line.

Arizona scored a field goal on the drive to go ahead 16-9 early in the fourth quarter of what became their first win.

During a close loss in Week 10 to the Buccaneers, Cooper converted a 4th-and-10 catch that also drew a pass interference penalty.

Punter Andy Lee completed a 28-yard pass to him on a trick play that gave the Cardinals the ball on the Tampa Bay 38-yard line. The drive ended with a touchdown that put Arizona ahead, 27-23, with 3:47 left in the game.

And two weeks ago against the 49ers, Cooper grabbed a 23-yard pass on 3rd-and-11 during the first quarter.

Arizona’s touchdown drive put it on top, 9-0, and in the second quarter Cooper scored on a five-yard touchdown pass that put Arizona ahead 16-0 during an eventual loss.

All of those plays came from Cooper the receiver, not the return man.

Kingsbury’s deep wide receiver rotation has limited Cooper’s offensive snaps, but that doesn’t mean the coach doesn’t have trust in the receiver.

Cooper has been used as a kick returner, punt returner and, along with his receiver duties, has been installed in a Wildcat formation. He ran the Wildcat in college at South Carolina and even threw the ball at times.

He completed 9-of-16 passes for 118 yards and four touchdowns throughout his three years as a Gamecock.

There’s a good chance Kingbury has green-lit a Cooper pass attempt out of that personnel grouping if the receiver gets the right defensive look. But just having that threat on tape goes a ways in getting the attention of an opponent.

For Kingsbury, who loves throwing unique personnel packages into his play-calling arsenal, Cooper is quite the asset.

“He’s a great ballplayer,” Kingsbury said. “That’s the best way to put it. He could cover kicks, he could play quarterback, he could be receiver, be a running back, probably play DB.”

But Cooper is making his case for being, simply, a reliable wide receiver.

“Anytime he goes in the game, you feel comfortable he’s going to make a play and be in the right position,” Kingsbury said.


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