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Value is the key to the NFL Draft. Snagging a player in the third or fourth round who becomes a borderline Pro Bowl player is not only a win in itself, but it gives a bit of comfort and security if that homerun-swing first round pick doesn’t turn out like he should have. The problem with this concept of value is that it causes people (#twitter) to overreact to mid-to-late round players and pump them up as a bit more than they are for the sake of them being some type of underdog story. While that is great and all, over-drafting these players is diminishing what made them so appealing in the first place: value.
In what appears to be a stacked defensive line class, Washington State’s Xavier Cooper should be someone that slips through the cracks and out of the first 75 picks, but some are clamoring for him to be more than that. Not only is he being misvalued, he is being misinterpreted. Many have compared Cooper to fellow PAC-12 player Leonard Williams, which will raise the bar for what people think Cooper is on its own. Their size is near identical (both roughly 6’4″ and 300 pounds) and they will technically play the same position at the next level, but the difference between the two’s roles, especially as rushers, is a lot bigger than many are simplifying it as.
Cooper wins with his burst off of the snap, as well as his coordinated ability to win inside/outside shoulder leverage and drive through the arms of the blocker to the quarterback. If he can’t get an immediate win with either this or a quick ‘rip’/’swim’ type move, he is defeated. His feet begin to slow down and he does not correctly utilize the adequate upper body strength that he has to keep fighting a lineman and drive him into the pocket.
Unlike Cooper, Williams wins by having a play develop for a second in front him and blowing it up. Now, him letting a play develop is related to his slow release from the snap, but it poses no threat to his overall ability. Williams eats a lot of ground quickly once he gets up and off the line, then plows into blockers with menacing force. His punch is absurd, forcing linemen off balance and allowing him to continue to ride them into the quarterback. Williams is so dominant with this punch/drive combo because of synchronized hand/feet movements coupled with his God given strength.
There are a couple more areas in which the two differ, but this area of their rushing is so vastly different that it is tough for me to see the two in the same archetype.
But do not get me wrong, Cooper is a respectable prospect. His quickness, movement in space and functionality in the run game will make him a sound prospect, even if the top 60-ish hype is a bit too sweet.
Despite not being undersized, Cooper’s game revolves around how well he moves in every aspect. Both shooting off the snap and moving laterally, Cooper’s quickness can be too much for opposing guards and tackles to handle. A single false step from the offensive lineman could be the difference between a successful block vs a sack. In the run game, this could be the difference between sealing the lane vs Cooper forcing the running back elsewhere. Below, Cooper does not make the tackle, but his burst off the snap gets him in the backfield fast enough for the intended lane to close and allows a teammate to make a critical 3rd-and-1 stop.
To compliment this quickness that can get him free is Cooper’s mobility in space. Once he gets off his block, Cooper eats up space very quickly and attacks the ball carrier. If necessary, Cooper has even shown a tad bit of bend for someone his size.
Marcus Mariota escapes two rushers in the play above, but Cooper closes on him and slows him down to allow the fallen rushers to catch up and force the fumble.
As lethal as he can be with his movement skills, his functional strength is a concern, at least when he is rushing. With more direct approaches, Cooper is forced to initiate with a punch to the chest, but Cooper does more “pushing” than “punching.” That is just one of the factors that hints that the question is not necessarily the strength itself. Isolated, his strength is about average, but he fails to get the most out of it because of his lack of how he uses it, mostly referencing synchronization in movements.
As stated before, Cooper depends on dipping around a shoulder and running through that, so when he is forced to rush directly, his legs slow down and his arms stay dormant and too tight to the blocker’s body. More often than not, Cooper gets caged in the blocker’s frame and fails to pick the lock.
Granted, Cooper seems to know this isn’t his strength and does his best to avoid that sort of contact as a rusher, but he tends to do more harm than help. Cooper will often win the snap, but the guard will recover just enough to where Cooper would be forced to go take him on more directly, in which Cooper responds by continuing to run his path and end up out of the play. It may appear like disruption, and to some degree it is, but it is such an easily avoidable situation for the quarterback because all he needs to do is take one or two small steps on the opposite direction of Cooper.
Oddly enough, Cooper anchors rather well and can hold, or even reset, the offensive line as a run defender. His explosion can help him be a pure disruptor, but when asked to stand strong in a gap, he can. He can hold his own, extend his arm to the blocker and keep himself in position to guard a large potential rushing lane. Cooper will not throw blockers out of the way, but he will make little adjustments to get himself in the position he was assigned to be in. He may have his struggles with staying true to containment responsibilities if he is set out on the edge, but a smarter team will do their best to keep him a bit more in-line.
One situation specific concern with Cooper is how similar the rest of his fellow defensive linemen seem to be. Cooper does look a bit better and quicker on a handful of plays, but without the DraftBreakdown annotation, it is rather easy to lose Cooper in the shuffle and mistake him for one of the multiple WSU linemen that look/play just like him. Maybe it is unfair to Cooper, but because of this continuity throughout the line, one has to at least bring to light the thought of scheme having some part in masking Cooper’s deficiencies.
Coming back to the central talking point: what is Cooper’s draft value? First, you have to define and accept what he is. Cooper is a 3-tech/5-tech who thrives off of his ability to win immediately and anchor a line against the run, but will struggle against blockers who figure out his game. Can he be a productive player in the league? Certainly, but enough to be worth a top 50 pick? No. Anywhere in the 2nd day is a bit sweet for me, though the second half of the third round is understandable, especially for a team like Baltimore who has a bit of flexibility to role the dice on his potential.
Xavier Cooper is appealing as he is because he is someone with intriguing upside who may end up slipping a bit, not someone who gets hyped up at the right time and goes before a number of other, more talented prospects. If some team jumps the gun and Cooper goes earlier than he should, like some are calling for, he will be looked at as an average pick, especially in a class this stacked with front-seven players. But if Cooper goes early in the fourth round and becomes the very good rotational (or even average starting) 5-tech he seems to be? People will applaud whichever team made the pick. Cooper will be one of this draft’s ultimate tests of value.