It has been reported by various people that the Arizona Cardinals are planning on giving Jonathan Cooper a look at center this offseason.
Drafted as a guard in 2013, Cooper has dealt with injuries and inconsistency in the NFL, and has yet to establish himself at either left or right guard.
The Cardinals, however, would like to get something out of the player they chose seventh overall out of North Carolina, and with a need at center, it makes some sense to see if Cooper can handle the job.
Yet, just because Cooper may look the part does not necessarily mean he can play it, and former NFL lineman Max Starks, as a guest of Off the Edge with B-Train on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Thursday, explained the challenges facing the fourth-year pro.
“When you look at the position that Jonathan’s used to playing — he’s used to playing guard, primarily right guard — and he has a stagger in his stance,” Starks said. “When you move to center you move to a parallel stance, first and foremost, then you’re getting a half a step closer to the defender, so now you have even less space to work with.
“So just from an alignment standpoint it’s a big transition to make; not only that, now you have to snap a ball between your legs, so you lose one hand, and you’re pretty much second in command on that offense because you’re responsible for getting the rest of the team lined up.”
Arizona’s center for each of the last nine seasons has been Lyle Sendlein, though the 31-year-old is a free agent and it’s likely the Cardinals would like to find someone who is both younger and more talented to man the position.
Cooper, 26, played some center in college, but was a top draft pick because of his prowess at guard. It remains to be seen if he can handle all that comes with playing center in the NFL, which as Starks noted, requires more than just physical ability.
At 6-foot-2 and 311 pounds, Cooper has enough size to play the position — in fact, he may even be a little big for a center. Starks said in that regard the most advantageous thing Cooper could do is find a good weight and maintain it, but otherwise it will be important for him to really focus on his strength training as he prepares to play center.
“There’s a lot more independent punching because you lose one hand in the process, so that off hand, that non-ball snapping hand, is going to have to be a lot stronger,” he said, pointing out how defensive linemen will attack Cooper’s snapping hand first. “So his off hand is going to have to be a lot stronger, a lot faster, to get hands on guys, get the ball snapped and get your hand back up there so you don’t have one hand for too long.”
He will also need to learn to become a more vocal player, as he’d be the leader of the offensive line.
“It’s a crucial part of playing the position of center because not only do you have to bark out the commands, but you have to do it confidently,” Starks said.
Cooper is not known for being a particularly fiery player, and Starks said that is fine because it’s not so much about changing personality as much as it is just being confident in your calls and what you are doing.
“I think that is a very key part because you have to be confident at the center position because you are in charge of the other four guys on your line,” he said. “And you have to get them set and get them straight and it takes more time in the classroom to make sure that you know every little front and nuance and any type of trickery that the defense might throw at you or that the front is trying to do. Or even what the safeties are trying to do on the back end to disguise the front.
“So it’s going to take a lot of extra time in the playbook, knowledge and understanding. But it all starts with the confidence at the position — make the calls, identify the front and then identify your middle backer or the fifth man that you’re declaring in the box for the lineman assignments. So it is a big part, but I think what is going to be most important for him to get in that weight room and to continually work that muscle memory of being able to snap the ball, get your hands back up and get into a steady position because if you can’t snap and at least create space between the defender and the quarterback, it doesn’t matter how confident you are, the guy’s going to be on his back regardless.”
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