Most players would relish being a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft. But, for Jonathan Cooper, it’s become more of a nuisance than anything.
Cooper has had a self-admitted roller-coaster career, battling injuries and bouncing between four organizations in five years. He’s finally found a home at left guard for the Dallas Cowboys on one of the most respected offensive lines in the NFL.
But the top-10 label remains bothersome.
“It’s been one of those of those things where I’ve honestly had to forget it because people are constantly trying to remind you, but not in a positive fashion,” Cooper said. “You were top 10, you haven’t done this, you haven’t done that. If nothing else, it’s just been a motivating factor.
“Yeah, I was top 10 and circumstances happened that have held me back.”
Cooper, 27, is a reminder of what a gamble the draft can be and how fortunate the Cowboys have been with their offensive line picks in recent years. None of their All-Pros along the line were as highly touted as Cooper was coming out of North Carolina.
The Arizona Cardinals made Cooper the seventh overall pick in the 2013 draft. Twenty-four picks later the Dallas Cowboys took center Travis Frederick at the bottom of the first round. Left tackle Tyron Smith was the ninth overall pick in 2011 and right guard Zack Martin was the 16th in 2014.
Frederick, Smith and Martin all have multiple Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections to their names. Cooper, meanwhile, has been largely viewed as a bust after being the highest drafted offensive guard since 1986.
Cooper missed his rookie season after breaking his left fibula in a preseason game. He didn’t make an NFL start until Week 14 of his second season, and then started nine games in 2015 for the Cardinals.
Cooper bounced between the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns and Cowboys last season. The Cowboys added him before the playoffs on Jan. 4, and he showed enough for them to hand him a one-year contract in March to compete for the left guard job.
Quite frankly, Cooper simply liked the idea of being with an organization for more than a few months.
“I was just grateful to be somewhere long enough to learn where the donut shop is, you know?” Cooper said, smiling. “Just to build a little continuity with the room, and still happy to be here, but just keep working.”
Cooper didn’t have an overly impressive training camp, losing the starting left guard job to oft-injured Chaz Green.
Cooper was among the inactives the first three games before becoming the starter in Week 4 against the Los Angeles Rams. He hasn’t yielded the starting the job since.
“He’s a real professional in his approach,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s had some injuries throughout his career. He’s had some different stops. I think he understands that we’re going to give him an honest chance to come make this football team and have an opportunity to come play on this football team.
“He’s learning more and more what we’re asking him to do. I think he has grown from his experiences and he’s fitting himself in really, really well. He certainly has taken advantage of the chance he’s gotten.”
In the process, Cooper’s steady presence has helped the line come together and look more like its former self in recent weeks. The Cowboys have scored 30 or more points and the rushing attack has been more on track in the three games since Cooper entered the lineup.
The Cowboys are averaging more than 205 rushing yards the past three games compared to just 89 in the first three. The Cowboys play at Washington Sunday.
“It took some time,” right tackle La’el Collins said. “Offensive line play definitely takes time and it’s just getting better.”
But that doesn’t mean Cooper is taking anything for granted going forward. He’s been through enough in his career to know nothing is guaranteed in this league.
“It sounds cliché, but I’m just looking to improve each week,” Cooper said. “If I can put up a good performance and improve each week, I know I’ll be OK. There’s no need to feel a sense of entitlement, of arrival, this or that, it’s an opportunity that every day I’m trying to take advantage of.
“They preach don’t get too far ahead of yourself. It’s day to day, not because I’m worried about this or that, it’s day to day because that’s how you stay focused and you can continue to improve.”