Apr 26, 2013 12:15 AM
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) - As one tackle after another was taken ahead of them, it seemed the Arizona Cardinals' bid to land much-needed help on the offensive line was dwindling.
Turns out, they were just as happy taking a guard as a tackle, particularly one with the skill set of North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper.
Arizona bolstered its offensive line by taking Cooper with the No. 7 overall pick of the NFL draft Thursday night, adding an athletic guard who can pass protect and pull out ahead of running backs in the ground game.
"We truly believe this guy could be a 10-12 year pro and a Pro Bowl-caliber talent," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. "He has a unique skill set, maybe one of the more athletic offensive linemen I've seen in 15 years I've been in the business, has tremendous feet, athleticism, space skills, the ability to pull and play on the perimeter."
The Cardinals went into their first draft under Keim and new head coach Bruce Arians with plenty of needs, particularly on offense.
Arizona finished last in the NFL in total yards, allowed a league-high 58 sacks and was 31st in scoring while losing 11 of the final 12 games.
Coming off a season like that, the projections were that the Cardinals needed offensive line help, possibly with the No. 7 pick and throughout the draft.
But as the draft board unfolded, the available offensive linemen quickly disappeared, with three tackles going in the first four picks.
Kansas City took Central Michigan's Eric Fisher with the top overall pick, Jacksonville selected Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel with the second pick and Oklahoma's Lane Johnson went to Philadelphia at No. 4.
That didn't bother the Cardinals.
Keim had Cooper pegged as a first-round pick last season and the coaching staff liked his versatility and durability.
So when it came time to pick, there was no question who they were taking.
"A lot of people have talked about those top three tackles and the fact that they were on our radar, but you could easily argue that offensive guard was just as important as offensive tackle for us," Keim said.
Cooper should be a good fit.
An athletic 6-foot-2, 311 pounds, Cooper has the quickness to get out on the edge as a pulling guard in the running game, but also has the power and skill set to pass protect.
Cooper was an Outland Trophy finalist for the nation's best lineman, was a consensus All-American and was voted the ACC's best blocker. He also was the only guard in the Football Bowl Subdivision to grade out at at least 90 percent in seven games - he hit the mark 10 times - and proved to be durable, setting a North Carolina record with 48 starts.
"He has a raw skill set of athleticism and power," Arians said. "Most of the time when you think of athletic guards, you think of smaller guys out in space, but this guy can really bring it at the point of attack. But he's got feet; when he's out in space, he looks like a fullback out there running around with his change of direction, but then he hits you so hard."
Cooper is the first offensive lineman taken by the Cardinals in the first round since Levi Brown went at No. 5 overall in 2007. Brown is expected to give the Cardinals a boost this season after struggling with injuries last year and Arians has said he likes the group of linemen they have.
Cooper should only add to that, fulfilling the dreams of someone who was once too big to play on his brother's Pop Warner team.
"All my family was crying so I had to look off into space," Cooper said "It meant the world to me to have that phone call."