TEMPE, Ariz. — This was supposed to be Jonathan Cooper’s breakout season, with the third-year pro finally making good on the potential that led the Arizona Cardinals to pick him seventh overall in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The broken leg that cost him his rookie season was a distant memory, and the wrist injury that ended his 2014 campaign just as it seemed to be getting started was no longer a problem, either. In fact, the only thing Cooper had to worry about coming into this year was learning a new position, as he had moved from left guard to right guard.
A starter the first nine games of the season who had his share of both good and bad moments, Cooper was sidelined in Week 11 against the Cincinnati Bengals with a knee injury and then, after practicing on a limited basis all week, was inactive for the team’s win over the San Francisco 49ers. Ted Larsen, who started 14 games at left guard and two at right guard last year filled in for Cooper, and Wednesday, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians made an announcement that really did not come as much of a surprise.
Asked if Cooper, now healthy again, would return to the starting lineup at right guard, he said “no.”
“Ted’s playing better,” the coach offered.
It’s a disappointing turn of events in a career that, quite frankly, has been filled with them for Cooper, who not long ago was seen as one of the best guard prospects to enter the league in some time. Pressed on whether he’s disappointed with the guard’s development this season, Arians said that was not the case.
“I think when you look at the offensive linemen that are coming out of college today, it’s going to take them a while to get at this level,” he said. “He’s tough. He’s athletic. He’s just continuing to grow. Right now, we don’t have time for the growth because Teddy’s got more experience and is playing better. But I think he’s going to be a heck of a player.”
Arians compared Cooper to D.J. Humphries, this year’s first-round pick who has been inactive for every game yet still has a bright future ahead of him.
The question people are starting to ask, at least with Cooper, is how much longer it will take to get there.
In what could be seen as a positive sign, Arians said the demotion did nothing to change Cooper’s approach to practice.
“He’s worked his ass off,” he said. “I don’t see any difference in him.”
Cooper, though, is understandably disappointed, offering that he will take it all as positive as he can and continue to work hard in trying to be the best player he can be.
However, he understands his play has not been good enough.
“Obviously not,” he said. “It’s kind of one of those things. As long as I continue to work to improve, that’s all I can do.”
While the move seems to be an indictment of Cooper, the Cardinals see the switch to Larsen more as a sign of what the sixth-year pro has done than what the younger guard has not.
“Ted’s played well in every game he’s played this year, and myself personally, it’s good for Coop just to take a step back and just relax for a little bit,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “He’s a first-round pick, that’s a lot of pressure. For him to just take a step back and get refreshed, he’s going to be OK in the long run.
“But Ted’s playing good and we just decided to keep him in there.”
Though Larsen has the job now does not mean he is guaranteed to keep it the rest of the way. Injuries are always a possibility and besides, the Cardinals are invested in Cooper and would likely prefer he take hold of the starting spot and never let it go.
However, the former North Carolina Tar Heel said there is not really any one thing the coaches told him he must improve if he is to get back in the lineup.
“Just generally,” he said. “Nothing too specific was said. Just at this point in time that was the best move for the team and that’s pretty much the main focus, in order to make a Super Bowl run.”
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