Welcome back to Vikings Territory’s annual series, Sleeper Sunday. In addition to the team’s regularly scheduled scouting reports, we plan to bring you quick profiles of a few lesser-known players; the prospects who could be a good fit for the Minnesota Vikings on Day 3 of the 2017 NFL Draft.
While this series is meant to highlight college’s under-the-radar names, it’s also an experiment of sorts. Mike Zimmer enters his fourth year as head coach of the Vikings having established a clear-cut, defense-first identity. Above him, Rick Spielman serves as general manager, picking and choosing the players Zimmer adds to the initial 90-man roster.
Together, they’ve concocted one of the league’s deepest, most talented rosters. And in doing so, they’ve established patterns in the way they approach the NFL Draft. A friend of the site, Ryan Boser, identified these trends two years ago, giving readers a peek into Minnesota’s war room.
What he found helps to inform the players we choose as part of Sleeper Sunday. Knowing Spielman likes to end the draft with defense and has used a Round 7 selection on linebackers in five straight drafts, it’s reasonable to assume the Vikings are targeting a defender in the later rounds. Hence, my first choice for a Sleeper Sunday profile, Kentucky Christian linebacker Aaron Cooper.
Follow along these next few months, and hopefully, in April, we’ll hit the mark on one or two names.
Aaron Cooper — OLB, Kentucky Christian University
Height – 6’4″
Weight – 231 lbs.
Age – 21
At First Glance
Cooper was a two-sport star at Graves County High School in western Kentucky, where he thrived on the basketball court and football field. As a senior, he averaged 15.7 points and 11.9 rebounds for the Eagles, leading Graves County to an 8-0 record in district play. But as Kevin Colley with the Journal-Times noted, it’s the football field where Cooper made himself known.
His junior year, Cooper recorded 105 tackles, then topped his mark by setting a school record with 139 tackles as a senior. Cooper added 19 tackles for loss that year and eventually committed to play football in-state at Kentucky Christian University. At the NAIA school – where Division I football is comparable to the NCAA’s Division II – Cooper quickly became a standout player.
He finished his four-year career with 373 total tackles, notching 160 and 130 respectively his junior and senior seasons. Cooper also ended his collegiate play with 10.5 sacks and 40 tackles for loss operating primarily as an outside linebacker. Coaches recognized Cooper’s dominance in 2015, naming him a NAIA/AFCA All-American.
“I just made the plays that I had to make,” Cooper said when describing his achievements. “When I’m playing the game, I’m just trying to do what I have to do to help my team, and the stats just ended up being the way that they were.”
The lack of film on Cooper makes a valid evaluation challenging, but what you’ll find below is a compilation of his quotes and my observations based on his highlight reels.
In an interview with NFL Draft Diamonds, Cooper called his length and his speed his differentiators. The film shows a player with said length and speed, though Cooper’s speed is most notable when blitzing or attacking the quarterback. He often blitzed (on a delay) from space or rushed the passer (usually untouched) off the line of scrimmage, hitting the quarterback with positive force and explosion. Cooper’s technique is raw and at times undisciplined, which is likely a function of him being the most athletic, explosive player on a NAIA field.
Cooper’s also the first player to pop out on tape, as he’s the tallest, biggest, and twitchiest presence on screen. At 6’4″ and 231 pounds, he has the size to make the transition from pseudo-Division II football to the NFL, but only if he adds some bulk to his frame. Pushing around NAIA tight ends and running backs is much different than rushing the quarterback in the NFL, where smaller, quicker, and younger defensive ends often struggle early against average offensive tackles.
When asked point-blank his greatest strengths, Cooper listed his tackling, versatility, and athleticism – traits that translate well to the NFL – at the top of the list.
“I am a coachable athlete that continues to get better every year. I am good at what I do, but I also know that I have things that I need to work on. I am very versatile and feel like I can play multiple positions which help me fit in a lot of different defenses.”
As mentioned above, the best player on the field can often be the laziest, and Cooper addressed this stereotype in his interview with Draft Diamonds. He pointed to his reaction off the snap as a weakness, but also said he could rely on his ability over his technique.
These points are evident at certain points on tape, as Cooper’s footwork is sloppy in space and his motor less-than-100 percent when acting as a “chase” player. It appears Cooper coasts when he knows he can beat the tackle, tight end, or running back in front of him, only exploding through contact if necessary. Again, his length and general strength make him a superior player at the NAIA level, but small school players have to be technician masters and extremely detail-oriented to make an NFL roster.
Things like knee bend, pad level, and effort are essential for an outside linebacker, and they’re all areas Cooper will need to improve if he’s to stick with an active roster or practice squad come April, May, and June.
NFL Player Comparison
Jarvis Jones, Pittsburgh SteelersBarkevious Mingo, New England Patriots
Barkevious Mingo, New England Patriots
The Vikings Slant
Like many small-school prospects, Cooper is a bit of a “tweener.” He isn’t a traditional pass rusher like Danielle Hunter, nor is he a sideline-to-sideline linebacker like Anthony Barr. Many players with Cooper’s size make the transition to safety, but there isn’t evidence he can suddenly transform his game to become an impact, half-field defender for Mike Zimmer.
Continuing the tradition of players like Edmond Robinson – another Sleeper Sunday selection – and Kentrell Brothers, Cooper could first see a role as a wing defender on punts, a gunner on kickoffs, or lead blocker on punt returns. The Vikings have a tendency to draft linebackers late and throw them on special teams, where Cooper’s natural athleticism, explosiveness, and straight-line speed could be an asset.
If he were to make a sudden, unlikely jump to the active roster, he’d logically end up as a weak-side linebacker. With Chad Greenway likely retiring, a hole remains next to Barr and Eric Kendricks. Right now, Emmanuel Lamur is the obvious replacement, though Robinson could make a push to start during training camp. Depth at linebacker remains an issue for the Vikings, and Cooper is a productive college player who fits some of Zimmer’s defensive criteria.