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GIF Horse: How good is Jonathon Cooper?

What’s next after a breakout performance in Dallas?

NFL: Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathon Cooper’s role in the Denver Broncos’ 30-16 victory over the Dallas Cowboys quietly saved Broncos Country from another week lamenting the end of an era. The rookie edge rusher didn’t just embarrass Terence Steele’s switch over to left tackle, he was instrumental in ruining Dak Prescott’s return to the starting lineup. Along the way Cooper notched the first two sacks of his NFL career, held his own as a run defender, and even made a play in coverage.

Cooper’s breakout game put an exclamation point on the seventh rounder’s play in the three games since he replaced Von Miller in the starting lineup. By Sports Info Solutions’ charting, Cooper’s currently generating pressure on 14.9% of his 97 pass rush snaps this season, ahead of luminaries such as J.J. Watt, Cameron Jordan, Khalil Mack, and Shaq Barrett.

It’s somewhat ironic that Cooper fell in the draft due to questions about his heart, because it’s such a strength of his game. There’s no quit in the rookie, which makes him a nuisance for opposing blockers up until the echo of the whistle. That combined with his advanced technique and savvy make him an early steal from George Paton’s first draft class. It’s no secret the Ohio State Buckeyes have the best defensive line coach in college football, and it’s impossible to miss Larry Johnson’s influence on Cooper’s game after his 45 career starts in scarlet and gray.

It also raises questions about his ceiling.

What are Cooper’s strengths?

Cooper’s a good athlete with very good balance to go with good quickness and solid explosiveness. He combines that with very good play strength that shows up in his long arm, bull rush, and run defense. He has very good competitive toughness that shows through an ever burning motor. Across his 229 defensive snaps, he’s shown advanced mental processing for a rookie with his ability to diagnose post-snap and sniff out misdirection.

Most of Cooper’s snaps come from a nine technique, but he’s also played quite a few from a seven. He displays a good burst, he’s adept at keying the ball, and he has a good get-off. When he lines up in a wide alignment, he does a good job challenging tackles upfield. He’s also got meat hooks for hands and his strong grip helps him to set up, counter, and disengage from blockers.

While it isn’t reasonable to expect Cooper to be as strong of a run defender as Von Miller was, he’s looked good at it across the last three weeks. He’s good at leveraging a blocker, and does a good job staying in front of an opponent’s tracks against outside zone coming his way, and he has the strength to play gap and a half when he’s called to. His short stature and strong core also help him to neutralize blocks without giving much ground.

Since he stepped into Miller’s role in the Browns game, Cooper’s looked like a very good pass rusher. He displays very good reactive athleticism when he’s able to pin his ears back, and he attacks with a purpose. The foundation of his pass rush plan is built upon his long arm, and he looks comfortable working off it to a swim, cross chop, and spin. His low center of gravity makes his bull rush a quality change up if an opponent’s on their heels.

The Broncos have used Cooper in coverage on less than two dozen snaps so far, a miniscule sample size to draw any decisive conclusions. It’s worth noting that he’s looked comfortable spot dropping so far. He also contested a catch in Dallas where he showed off an ability to read the quarterback, trigger, and get his hand on the ball.

What are Cooper’s weaknesses?

At 6’2 and 253 lbs., Cooper’s undersized with a stumpy build. His 32 1/8” arms are in the 8th percentile of all edge rushers in the league, which creates challenges he can’t always overcome. Longer tackles who can meet Cooper off the snap have an easier time reaching his chest to lock him up, and it’s something he’ll always have to deal with.

While Cooper’s a good athlete overall, he appears to have adequate lateral quickness, which could limit his impact as a looper on stunts and hurt him in coverage. In the games I’ve studied, he’s shown adequate ankle flexion, a critical part of any edge rushers ability to bend as they run the arc.

Final Thoughts

With only two starts and 229 defensive snaps under his belt, there’s still plenty to learn about Cooper’s game. As one would hope, he did a fantastic job maximizing an advantageous opportunity over the last three weeks.

In Cleveland, he played against a former guard and a banged up Jedrick Willis who’s struggling to live up to his rookie form this year, while Terence Steele looked out of sorts in his first game at left tackle after a standout stretch on the right side. He’s played so well in recent weeks it’s easy to forgive the rookie for being a non-factor during his bit role behind Miller and Reed. The lack of playing time leaves questions, however, such as how Cooper will fare against power running teams that can double down on him.

The former team captain is an easy player to root for. He’s a survivor and all reports suggest he’s the kind of A+ character you want to build your locker room around. It also seems reasonable to expect him to put in the kind of work necessary to maximize his potential, but I do wonder what that means for his ceiling. His combination of adequate bend and lack of length create the kind of physical limitations few truly overcome to any consistent success.

Barring disastrous health luck, I have no doubt Jonathon Cooper is well on his way to being a seventh round steal for the Broncos. Should he continue to play as he has the last three weeks, he should remain in the starting lineup over Malik Reed once Bradley Chubb returns from Injured Reserve. He’s a better run defender, even if some of his pass rush production is inflated.