The curious case of Cardinals guard Jonathan Cooper

Guard Jonathan Cooper was the Cardinals first-round draft pick in 2013 but has yet to start a regular-season game.

Mark J. Rebilas/Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. — Cardinals coach Bruce Arians admitted the interior of the offensive line got their "asses whipped" against the Rams on Sunday and it led to an ineffective run game (28 yards) against the league’s 29th-ranked run defense. But when asked the chances guard Jonathan Cooper starts this week against Detroit, Arians answered quickly: "None."

GM Steve Keim two weeks ago said he thought Cooper would play more and said it needed to happen sooner rather than later. On his weekly radio appearance Monday, however, he backtracked a bit. 

"Any time you are 8-1 there is a certain chemistry, and a lot of times coaches don’t want to mess with chemistry, which I certainly can’t argue with," Keim said. "I’m the general manager. It’s my job to add players to the roster, help pick the players, but I am always going to defer to the coaches when it comes to playing the players. 

"It’s not my job to tell Bruce Arians or Harold Goodwin who to play from a personnel standpoint. That’s a decision those guys have to make, and if those guys think it’s in our best interests to play the two guards we currently have out there right now, that’s what I’m going to go with."

The Cardinals’ play from guards Paul Fanaika and Ted Larsen has been average this season, particularly in the run game, so it’s a curious decision to keep Cooper, the team’s top draft pick in 2013, on the bench. His forte is supposed to be the running game and he has the ability to pull, opening things in space for a back like Andre Ellington, who excels in space. 

The Cardinals are ranked 29th in the NFL in average rushing yards per game (83.6), 30th in average yards per carry (3.2) and are one of 13 teams without a run of 40-plus yards. Cooper didn’t play a single offensive snap against the Rams and has barely played this season. All five members of the starting O-line played all 66 snaps on Sunday.

Continuity is critical on an offensive line to make sure all five guys are operating on the same page, but it’s hard to believe the Cardinals couldn’t find some snaps for Cooper this season. Maybe in mop-up duty against the Raiders or the Redskins?

And when you’ve just admitted that the interior of your line hasn’t performed up to snuff, isn’t a change warranted, particularly when it involves your No. 1 pick from 2013 who is collecting the second year of that rookie-scale salary for sitting?

"If I thought that was going to fix it, hell yeah, I would make the move," Arians said. "I ain’t an idiot." 

"The best players are on the field. If he was one of the best players it would be different. He hasn’t shown that he’s one of the best players. He’s getting a lot better than he was and I think he has a great future as long as he continues to improve the way he has improved."

Cooper continues to say the right things, that he needs to keep working, and that he knows he isn’t playing up to his abilities. But at some point, the Cardinals’ decision to draft Cooper in the first round will be called into question.

Cooper missed all of last season with a fractured fibula, but he’s had enough time to digest the playbook, and enough practice reps. If the team’s 2013 first-round pick can’t beat out Larsen or Fanaika, that’s either a poor reflection on him and the selection process, or a reflection of the coaching staff’s stubbornness.

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