If you take a glance at the most recent Cleveland Browns depth chart, there are likely a lot of unfamiliar names all over the roster—this is what happens when you add 14 rookies in one draft class. While new additions Robert Griffin III and rookie Corey Coleman have stolen the spotlight during training camp, there are a few players who were on the roster last season who have a chance to shine during the preseason.
In our first “Cleveland Browns Preseason Spotlight” article of the year, it was only fitting to target a player—and position for that matter—the Browns will need a lot from after playing just 34.6 percent of the defensive snaps in his rookie year. That player is 2015 third-round pick out of Washington State, Xavier Cooper.
The Past Can Tell A Lot
When the Browns selected Cooper in the third round last season, many draft pundits thought he could make an immediate impact on the Browns line. He started 25 games his final two seasons at Washington State, becoming a regular visitor in the backfield of opposing offenses with 32.5 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks in his career, according to Sports Reference.
Looking back to his NFL Draft profile from NFL.com, this is what Lance Zierlein had to say of his strengths.
“Former high school basketball letterman and tight end with outstanding foot quickness and an ability to pursue in space. Quick, lateral footwork for plus penetration. Active hands create separation from blockers against the run and help him gain advantage as pass rusher. Rarely gives offensive linemen a static target to strike and it’s hard to land a solid, sustained punch on him. Times snap well and fires off the ball. Has ability to sync quickness of hands and feet for early wins along the line of scrimmage. Can transition fluidly from playing the run to rushing passer against play-action. Played defensive tackle and defensive end.”
When asked to analyze his weaknesses, Zierlein stated, “High-cut frame with smaller calves. Appears on tape to be short-limbed for his size as well. Lacks pure power at point of attack. Must win with hands or he can get pushed off his spot. Pad level rises at times when he’s penetrating. Lacks true core strength to maintain base when being redirected by offensive linemen. Gets run around the arc as pass rusher rather than countering back underneath. Lack of length affects ability to finish tackle opportunities.”
Starting with the strengths, the first thing that stood out was his ability to play defensive tackle and defensive end—something very important when it comes to a defense coached by Ray Horton. At 6’3” and 293 pounds, Cooper is around the size you want in a 3-4 defense for your defensive end. Some prefer guys to be a few inches taller with longer arms, but he makes up for his deficiencies there with his quick first step and active hands, as Zierlein mentioned.
But where Cooper will really have an opportunity to shine is when Horton goes to four-man fronts, because he does have the ability to move inside as a 4-3 defensive tackle as well. With a defensive front seven that is going to be moving so many pieces and parts around trying to find a good fit for all of the players, Cooper’s versatility could make him a three-down player in Horton’s defense sooner rather than later—and we all know the Browns defense needs it in a big way.
Major Losses Open Up Opportunity
After losing Desmond Bryant for the season with a torn pectoral muscle and—according to most recent reports—having John Hughes (played 41 percent of defensive snaps last season) MIA for “personal reasons” recently in camp, the Browns will need someone from last year’s line to step up in a big way. By process of elimination, that person has to be Cooper.
Aside from Cooper and Hughes, Danny Shelton and Jamie Meder are the only other returning members of the defensive line currently “active” from last season. Randy Starks (played 44.6 percent of the snaps) was cut in the offseason, while Armonty Bryant is set to serve at a minimum a four-game suspension, but it could be more thanks to his off-the-field transgressions.
With Shelton expected to man the middle and Meder slotted in behind him at defensive tackle, Cooper is the de facto man the Browns need to step up during the preseason to lock down one of the two starting defensive end positions. Sure, the team added rookie Carl Nassib from Penn State and Emmanuel Ogbah (projected to be at outside linebacker) who both have defensive line experience, but they are rookies so it is tough to gauge just what you will get from them in year one.
Looking Back to Look Ahead to 2016
So, what exactly can Browns fans expect to see from Cooper this year? Well, let’s take a look at last year to see if there is room to grow.
For starters, according to Pro Football Reference Cooper played in 14 games—racking up 1.5 sacks and 19 total tackles on the season. Cooper was inactive for the first two games of the season, but gained the trust of the staff as the season went on and earned more playing time.
One specific quote from last season (don’t kill me for picking one from Jim O’Neil) really stood out. O’Neil said, “(Cooper) is different than probably everybody else. There have certainly been growing pains as he adjusts to the NFL, but the threat he poses as a guy who can make a couple of splash plays in the backfield.”
The reason that quote stands out is simple. It is exactly what his college film showed, and one of the biggest needs for the Browns defensive line heading into this season.
As a team that will look to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback by rushing their outside linebackers, the defensive linemen at the point of attack will be even more valuable this season. If Cooper can disrupt like he did in college and force offensive lines to double team him more along with Shelton next to him, it will open up one on one opportunities and mismatches on the outside for the team’s linebackers.
And that folks, is how you get to the quarterback on a regular basis.
What is not lost on Cooper in all of this is the opportunity he has, either. In a recent article on the Cleveland Browns website, Cooper discussed three goals for himself this season. Cooper stated, “I think there’s three things when I talked to coach Horton about when he asked me what my goals are. One is to become a starter. Two is I want to help the team win. And three is to be a dominant player in this conference.”
Cooper continued, “I just learned about different offensive sets and I think it’s helped me this year. And then Coach Nunn coming in has really taught me to focus on my technique — there’s a lot of things I can do with my athletic ability — but if I focus on my technique I can be that much better of a player. And then we’ve got John Hughes and Danny (Shelton), it’s a good feeling in that D-line room, for real.”
Like so many inside and outside the organization, Cooper realizes the opportunity he has with the team’s new defensive line coach as well. “He’s coached on some really, really good defensive lines. One of them being the New York Giants when they won the Super Bowl with Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. So I think him coming in, that gives us some motivation because we’re like, ‘Hey we can play, too, so you’re coming into to coach some great guys, too.”
Very few fans have high hopes for the Cleveland Browns in 2016, and even fewer are likely expecting much production out of the team’s defensive line after losing Bryant. But if Cooper’s college film, work ethic and relentlessness on the field are any indication, the second-year player could shock the fans this season.