TEMPE, Ariz. – Six years after the Cardinals selected left tackle Levi Brown with the fifth pick in the 2007 draft, they finally saw fit to address their much-maligned and often-neglected offensive line with another high pick.
“I think the question was first posed to me at the combine in Indianapolis, whether I thought seven was too high to take an offensive guard,” general manager Steve Keim said after the team selected North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper. “I think that we have our answer.”
Cooper started 48 games in his college career and was a three-time All-ACC pick as well as a consensus first-team All-American in 2012, when he was also named a finalist for the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best lineman. Last season, he was the only FBS guard to grade at least 90 percent for blocking consistency in more than seven games (he did it 10 times).
Not bad for a guy who didn’t even start playing football until seventh grade because he was too big to join his brother in Pop Warner.
“I would have had to play like five age groups up just to make weight,” Cooper said. “I was not ready for that, mentally or physically.”
By the time he got to North Carolina, however, Cooper’s play elevated him to the point where he was the top-rated interior lineman in this year’s draft.
“When I watched Jonathan, I thought he was going to come out and be a top-15 pick last year,” Keim said. “I truly believe in my heart that he would have been the first guard off the board in the 2012 draft.”
The Cardinals are impressed with a number of areas in Cooper’s skill set. They think he has quick feet, he’s good in space, he has the ability to pull and he possesses excellent pass-blocking skills. Cooper said he trained recently at Athletes’ Performance in the Valley to work on his run-blocking skills.
Keim and Arians were impressed with that work ethic as well as his ability to shed weight last season at UNC to play in the Tar Heels’ up-tempo offense.
“So many times with linemen, you worry about them being able to control their weight,” coach Bruce Arians said. “This guy absolutely can control his weight, but I told him he never had to get back to 285.”
As the seventh pick in the draft under the NFL’s rookie scale, Cooper will sign a four-year deal worth about $14.5 million, including a signing bonus of about $10 million.
Keim said he expects Cooper to play between 310 and 315 pounds, but the weight does not impact his movement, with Keim calling him one of the most athletic linemen he’s seen in his 15 years in the business.
“As I indicated in Indy, we have conviction that the player is a Pro Bowl-caliber player,” Keim said. “The choice was easy.”
Keim and Arians both said last week that they expected the No. 7 pick to play right away, and Arians reiterated that on Thursday, calling it a “pretty good bet” that Cooper will start.
That statement calls into question guard Adam Snyder’s future with the team. While Cooper can play either side, Daryn Colledge is expected to remain at left guard. Snyder, who signed as a free agent last season, was disappointing when he played last year, missing a couple games and battling an elbow injury for even longer.
Snyder is due to make $4 million in salary next season. The Cards won’t save anything against the cap if they cut him, so he could remain as a valuable backup, or the Cards could choose to move on.
The pick may signal that the Cards are ready to move forward with tackles Levi Brown, Bobby Massie and Nate Potter — unless they select a lineman on Friday in the second or third round or find a free agent when the draft smoke has cleared and cuts take place over the next few months.
Keim said the first six picks of the draft played out largely as he expected, with the top three offensive tackles — Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson — all going in the first four picks and pass rushers Dion Jordan, Ezekiel Ansah and Barkevious Mingo rounding out the top six.
Since those two positions were ones the Cards had also been eyeing, the subtraction of those players led them to Cooper, whom they suspected all along would be their pick.
“A lot of people have talked about those top three tackles and the fact that they were all on our radar,” Keim said. “You could easily argue that offensive guard was just as important as offensive tackle for us.”
For his part, Cooper was just happy to see his brethren feeling some love.
“I do feel we do deserve to go that high. We’ve put in the work, put in the time and I feel it’s shown on our film,” he said. “I’m really excited to have such an offensive-line-heavy draft.” Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter