The Denver Broncos selected Ohio State defensive end Jonathon Cooper with the 239th pick in the 2021 NFL draft. This was a surprise draft-day slide for a talented player, and the Broncos seem to be reaping the benefits.
When future Hall-of-Fame pass rusher Von Miller went down with an injury in Week 7 against the Cleveland Browns, the starting job became Cooper's to lose. The rookie's strong play, plus an enticing offer from the Los Angeles Rams, led to Miller being traded at the NFL trade deadline.
With the starting job now firmly belonging to Cooper, the young pass rusher has quickly made a name for himself accumulating two sacks, three quarterback hits, and eight hurries in his 3.5 games as a starter. His pass-rush win percentage ranks second among all NFL rookies over that span.
So, is this strong play just a flash in the pan or is it a sign of things to come? I dive into all of that in today's film room.
Flashes of Elite Play
A good way to tell whether a pass rusher's success can continue long term is by looking at the quality of the rushes. Is the player cleanly beating his man or is he getting free rushes off of stunts or blitzes?
Luckily for Cooper, he is simply beating his man with ease. His flashes look like some of the best speed pass rushers in the league, and he is showcasing some outstanding ability.
This first rush against the Browns displays Cooper's athleticism and motor well. He quickly works around the chip off of the edge and crashes downhill from his wide-nine position. He quickly engages, then disengages, with the right tackle by using a nice two-hand swipe before bending around the corner to nearly comes up with the sack on the play.
The Broncos are no strangers to seeing late-round/college free-agent pass rushers break out. During the team's last Super Bowl run, Shaquil Barrett became a contributor pretty early on. Recently, Malik Reed has also taken up that same status as a former undrafted free agent.
What do those two and Cooper all have in common? Being relatively unheralded as draft prospects and the ability to bend around the corner.
Cooper, like Reed and Barrett, hit that patented sub-seven-second three-cone time in drills this past offseason. On film, that ability to turn around the corner has been a big part of his development. Here, he quickly accelerates and bends around the edge for another quarterback hit.
The key for any pass rusher to find success in the NFL is finding a few go-to moves that work for them, and then building successful counters off of those moves. Cooper shows a little bit of that here.
Up until this point in the game, Cooper had been beating the Browns' tackles constantly with his speed rush to the outside. On this play, he sells the speed rush so he can quickly spin back inside. He executes this counter flawlessly and nearly comes up with the sack.
While the flashes have been outstanding, he is still learning and growing as a pass rusher. He is creating a lot of pressure and winning off of the line quite a bit. The next step is turning these wins into more QB hits and sacks.
This next play is a great example. This is a phenomenal rush, as he uses hesitation to freeze the left tackle. Once Cooper has the tackle where he wants him, he is then able to swipe and bend around the corner to the quarterback. The only issue is that he is unable to get the quarterback to the ground, and the result is a huge gain for the offense.
As Cooper continues to grow and find success as a rusher, he will convert on these plays. For now, they are slight growing pains for a promising player.
Overall, Cooper has been outstanding over the last past four-game stretch. He is still a bit raw, but he is producing more than anyone could hope from a rookie seventh-round pick.
On his first career sack, he absolutely destroys the left tackle before turning the corner to the quarterback. This is a great rush and a high-quality win on the outside.
We are currently 11 weeks into the 2021 season and I am still baffled that the Broncos were able to steal Cooper in the seventh round. His college film flashed legit ability, and he is showing that as a rookie already.
The biggest thing for him going forward is continuing to grow with playing time. Cooper is showing great flashes, but he needs to start turning that into real production to solidify this breakout.
So far, though, it's easy to be impressed by the play of this rookie pass rusher.
Follow Zach on Twitter @ZachHicks2
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