Even in what looks like an historically great class of running back prospects, LSU's Leonard Fournette comes out on top. The depth of quality options, though, makes it clear: 2017 is a great year to draft a runner.
27 Feb 2013
by Matt Waldman
There was an important decision to be made at the offices of Futures this afternoon: the boss or the wife? The work boss saw Knile Davis run a 4.30-forty at Indy; calculated the Razorback’s Speed Score; saw my tweet that I’d take Johnathan Franklin over Davis 10 times out of 10; and Monday afternoon asked me to write a Futures piece that addresses my take on the fastest big back at the Combine.
Truth be told, I have mixed thoughts about Knile Davis’ prospects. In some respects his style reminds me of DeMarco Murray. His style also reminds me of Keith Byars and late-career Herschel Walker. As much as I like these two players, this isn’t a compliment to Davis. I’m going to study another game and review my notes of the others before I take a final stand on the Speed Score’s latest darling.
This brings me to the boss at home. My originally scheduled player this week was Jonathan Cooper. My wife is from North Carolina. A Tar Heel through and through, she turned down a track scholarship to Florida as well as a spot on Syracuse’s vaunted women’s team to attend Chapel Hill.
The fact that I still have an office to write from tells you that Carolina won out. Read the section "But My Wife Might Be Smarter," for a greater understanding of her Tar Heel fanaticism and uncanny skill at guessing a prospect’s state of origin by his first name.
On to Cooper, who –- compared to the flashy picks that teams with the top picks in the draft –- is this year’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich; a good, safe choice that will get the job done. Despite the fact that he has been starting since his freshman year, the 6-foot-2, 311-pound left guard still has room to get stronger.
Cooper is the total package who has the potential to work at center and, in a draft where the top end of the player pool lacks the perceived flash of recent seasons, that helps explain the speculation that the left guard might go higher in the first round than guards usually do. Even if Cooper falls to the late first or early second round, he is the type of prospect that a team in need of interior linemen will take in a heartbeat.
Cooper’s ability to move is what gets people’s attention. Whether it’s pulling, working to a linebacker at the second level, or working in space, Cooper’s athleticism makes him a potential fit in any offensive scheme as a guard or center.
This third-and-6 screen pass versus Duke with 13:11 in the first quarter is a visual statement of the obvious: Cooper can run.
Cooper is No. 64, bringing up the rear of the three linemen working to the right flat on this screen pass to fellow top prospect Giovani Bernard. As the play progresses, Cooper demonstrates a skill beyond that of athleticism -– selectivity.
Cooper diagnoses the first opportunity downfield and shows the restraint not to bite. The guard can tell that the defender (No. 38) has no angle to his running back.
This may not be a fantastic physical feat, but it’s a great display of subtlety. Cooper doesn’t get a good block downfield, but his ability to process information and use that in the scope of his athleticism is among the reasons why he has top-shelf potential.
Cooper’s athleticism stands out most when he does engage a defender. Here’s a first-and-10 with 5:35 in the third quarter where Carolina runs from a weak-side trips, 11-personnel shotgun set.
Cooper pulls to left end with a safety at linebacker depth shooting to the flat for Bernard’s legs in the backfield. The left guard may not be fast enough to meet the safety head-on, but he’s still able to extend his arms and get a push on the defender shooting at knee height ahead of him. This leaves the defender on the ground, behind the runner, and Cooper manages to retain his balance and spin up field to attack another defender as the play ends.
Both plays are impressive displays of quickness and agility, but neither resulted in productive contact versus a defender. This second-and-8 run with 0:29 in the first quarter where Cooper takes on the defensive tackle is a nice example of his versatility.
This is an option pitch from the pistol, and the line slants to the direction of the run. Cooper gets his hands on No. 96 and has a decent angle where his back is between the ball carrier and the defender early in the play. However, Cooper knows he’s not going to keep up with the defender in pursuit of the ball carrier and he shoots through the defender’s legs to cut the Hokies tackle a few yards past the line of scrimmage.
At first, I thought Cooper tripped and where he fell was dumb luck. After a number of viewings, though, I determined that this was a calculated move to eliminate the pursuit. While it's doubtful the tackle catches up to Bernard at the right sideline on this particular play, there will be many others where a backside cut block to eliminate pursuit spells the difference between first down and fourth down.
The best of these plays is a third-quarter block on the linebacker at the second level.
From 6:27 to 6:32 of this video, Cooper works downhill and bends his angle of attack to mirror the angle of the weakside linebacker. He uses one hand to slow the linebacker’s back-door angle to redirect to the ball carrier, then brings the other hand to get position inside the defender’s pads. This allows Cooper to drive the opponent behind the runner and out of the play.
Whether it’s his punch or his sticky hands, Cooper displays the mitts to develop into a physical presence on the interior line. One of his flaws is that he’s prone to the push-pull move. Here is a third-quarter running play against Virginia Tech where Cooper faces a stout defensive tackle for the college game and wins the matchup with his sticky hands, good technique, and good athleticism despite the defender’s attempt to "push-pull" in the late stages of the encounter.
This is a first-and-10 run from a weak side trips that Bernard bounces to the strong side perimeter for a nice gain up the left sideline. Cooper begins the play with good technique.
The back is flat, the hips are bent, and Cooper gets his pads under the defender. One of the keys to successfully drive a defender off the line of scrimmage is leverage, and that involves the bend of the back, hips, and knees. It also requires good footwork to maintain this balance in the throes of a collision.
As the defender attempts to cross the face of the left guard, Cooper maintains good leverage with his block and takes a small step with that left foot. If he’s doing what most linemen are coached to do, he’s squeezing that left foot and taking a small step forward with it. The first lineman to earn three small steps usually wins the battle in the trenches. If the offensive lineman gets to two, the contest is generally a stalemate.
If it’s just one, you’re in Word of Muth’s office, getting ready to receive The X of Great Shame.
Cooper gets his three steps and he has the defensive tackle pushed to the right and two yards downfield. This block adds to the picture his running back Bernard sees as he completes the exchange with the quarterback: His job is to work to the left and find a way to beat No. 17, who is unblocked and waiting in the hole.
As Cooper gains momentum, the defensive tackle tries a variation of a push-pull move. You can see his trunk begin to change direction back to the play side and he tries to pull No. 64 to his left as he turns to his right. Meanwhile, Bernard is pressing the hole to the right side to draw No. 17 inside so the back can set up a move to get through the hole outside the left hash.
As Bernard finishes baiting No. 17 for a spin move to the outside, the Virginia Tech defensive tackle on Cooper is in mid-pull of the Tar Heel’s jersey in an attempt to shed the guard. What Cooper does at this point may seem inconsequential because Bernard is about to spin outside and get the left sideline. But if the defensive tackle rips Cooper aside, there’s still a strong chance he can pursue the runner down the line and limit the runner’s gain.
Put a War Daddy like Vince Wilfork on Cooper right now and there’s a strong chance –- according to those who believe Cooper still has weight to add –- that Wilfork is already pursuing down the line with the guard on the ground. The reason is the perception that Cooper can add more weight to his thighs and core.
At 311 pounds, he is in the range of guards like Chris Snee, Logan Mankins, and Andy Levitre. He should manage to do a good job at that weight in a zone-blocking scheme where athleticism takes precedence over bulk. But when looking through the lens of Kris Dielman, Carl Nicks, or Mike Iupati, Cooper is still light in the pants for some teams.
I think the sensible approach is to determine if there is still healthy muscle-weight to add on Cooper’s frame. If there’s room to develop his core and gain explosive strength, then it’s a good idea. If not, then teams who don’t use zone-blocking principles as much will likely pass on Cooper.
As I mentioned before, I like Cooper’s agility and the guard recovers his balance fast on this push-pull move. His hands are strong enough to maintain a grip to the tackle’s chest.
Look at the recovery of Cooper’s form on this play as well. Hips and knees bent, and back angled to drive the defender backwards. Meanwhile, Bernard has cleared the unblocked defender in the hole and is off to the races.
Here is a fun example of a punch. You can hear the pop timed with Cooper's hands hitting the pads of the defender. This might not be the sound of his punch, because there are 21 other men on the field and over 60 percent of them are engaged in contact, but it’s also something you can see on this first-and-10 run inside Cooper’s block with 0:34 left in the half.
Here’s a frame-by-frame of the initial punch that stands up the defensive tackle and gives Cooper an opening to turn the opponent inside and give his running back a cutback lane.
At the snap, the defensive tackle comes off the line lower than Cooper, but it’s the guard who flashes the quick hands to get under the pads and deliver a punch that lifts the defender from his good position into a vulnerable one.
In this four-photo sequence, Cooper throws a double-fisted uppercut under the pads of the defender that snaps the opponent off-balance. The guard gets three steps into the contact to generate a push that opens a hole off his right shoulder for the back to exploit. As the back works through the crease, Cooper has the leverage and grip to turn the defender away from the lane.
Explosive, agile, and purposeful. Cooper has what it takes to play in the NFL for a decade if he can stay healthy.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an online publication devoted to play-by-play analysis of offensive skill position prospects. Now in its eighth year of publication, the RSP provides pre- and post-draft rankings, analysis, and stylistic comparisons. Waldman also includes all of his play-by-play notes, grading reports, and a glossary that defines and explains his grading criteria. The RSP is available for download every April 1 and 10 percent of each sale is donated to Darkness to Light, a non-profit devoted to preventing sexual abuse in communities across the country.
4 comments, Last at 10 Mar 2013, 6:40pm by LionInAZ