TeX’s and O’s: Edgerrin Cooper could buffer Texans in AFC South arms race

The Houston Texans are without a first-round pick.

Ever since general manager Nick Caserio pulled the trigger on a trade that sent the 23rd overall pick to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for the 42nd overall pick and a second round pick next year, the Texans draft discourse has been in disarray.

Originally, Houston seemed very well positioned to attack their biggest needs in the first round. They were perfectly slotted to take either the first or second defensive tackle off the board, one of the elite cornerback prospects, or even benefit from one of the best wide receiver classes in recent memory.

Now, still armored with two picks in the second round but without a clear path to top talent, the Texans’ draft strategy is murkier. There are a variety of strong players that they could look to add on Day 2 of the draft, but none of them are as clear a fit from either a position perspective or a talent perspective as names that were mentioned around 23rd overall.

One of the new names is Texas A&M linebacker Edgerrin Cooper.

Cooper, the consensus All-American and First-Team All-SEC player, has a Top 30 visit scheduled with the Texans and also saw heavy interest during the Aggies pro day, with Caserio himself in attendance to watch who many consider the draft’s top linebacker.

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker had 84 total tackles with 17 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks during his senior year with the Aggies. Cooper, a great athlete, further solidified his draft status when he ran a 4.51 40-yard dash and measured with 34-inch arms during the NFL Combine. Explosive, lengthy and productive in college football’s best conference.

It should be no surprise that Texans head coach and former linebacker DeMeco Ryans might be interested in the local Texas product.

The team’s interest has still perplexed some fans. The Texans have breakout second year linebacker Christian Harris on the roster, as well as priority free addition Azeez Al-Shaiir from the Tennessee Titans. In a league where ‘nickel’ defense (two linebackers, five defensive backs) is the primary package, would it really be prudent to invest a high pick in someone who may not see all the snaps?

Although it may not be the strongest value play, the tape suggests that Cooper is someone who could help transform Houston’s defense and may represent the natural evolution of how Ryans wants to play football.

Cooper was the twitchiest athlete on the field at Texas A&M and nowhere did that better show up than how he plays the run. He trusts his eyes and commits once he’s read out the play. This allows his excellent athleticism to trigger and make excellent plays on the football.

Against Alabama, Cooper’s skills were on display against a team that loves to run and a quarterback who represents a serious threat on the ground. This play is a great example of Cooper reading the option play, correctly diagnosing that Jalen Milroe kept the football, and committing to make a tackle for loss.

Whether it’s against a quarterback or navigating traffic in the box to stuff the running back, his skills against the run show up time and time again. Notably, especially for tackling big backs, Cooper is a violent and disciplined tackler. He rarely misses available plays and his long arms make it difficult for offensive players to escape once they’re within his grasp. It’s also a punishing experience for whoever has the unfortunate privilege of taking the tackle.

That same twitchiness and athleticism becomes an additional asset on passing downs, particularly against quarterbacks that can move.

Cooper is more than capable of running down great athletes at the quarterback position and his ability to both commit early and take good angles can quickly eliminate running lanes for passers that might believe they have an easy first down available on the ground.

Factor in his ability to blitz, as evidenced by his eight sacks on the season, and a fascinating player is available to be selected.

This is a linebacker that is capable of lining up on the line of scrimmage to show a ‘simulated pressure’ and equally capable of doing three things. He can use his strength and athleticism to blitz the quarterback, he can drop back into coverage and change the passing equation or he can simply stay home and spy the quarterback. It’s a headache for opposing passers to diagnose after the snap and a huge asset for defensive coaches.

He’s not a perfect prospect. There are times where his eagerness to make a play and quick commitment can leave him out of position to play the run. Cooper is also not someone who, when blitzing, you would task to take on an offensive lineman 1-on-1 at this point in time, rather the blitzes would likely need to be built within the scheme.

Where does that leave him for the Texans?

If drafted in the second round, Cooper is a player who could develop into an every down middle linebacker for Ryan’s defense. As a rookie, he could immediately contribute on passing downs and gradually take more and more passing responsibility from Al-Shaiir during obvious passing situations as he becomes more ready.

In San Francisco, Ryans was able to run 4-3-4 on 27% of their defensive plays. With the Texans in his first year, that value was just 18.7%. It is not difficult to imagine that Ryans might return to playing more defense with three linebackers on the field with better personnel.

Similar to Harris, Cooper’s athleticism is a legitimate asset on passing downs and the team would be less vulnerable than they were last year when playing their base 4-3 defense. Cooper could either play the middle linebacker position or start at the strong side while he figures out the responsibilities of the defense.

Beyond his fit on the team, his fit against an evolving landscape in the AFC may be even more compelling.

Last year, the Texans defense struggled the most against mobile quarterbacks such as Lamar Jackson and Anthony Richardson. Notably, those two players represent important hurdles. Houston will have to work past Richardson and the Indianapolis Colts if they want to continue to win the AFC South. They’ll have to find a way to beat Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens if they ever want to go to the Super Bowl.

That’s before you mention other stars such as Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert who are also more than capable of scrambling to move the chains.

Even during Week 18, the Texans nearly missed the playoffs because of their inability to stop Indianapolis on the ground. Running back Jonathan Taylor had a dominant day and the task would have been even more difficult if Richardson had been under center. They were bailed out by Gardner Minshew, but they can’t count on that again.

Drafting Cooper with their first pick at 42nd overall would signal that the Texans refuse to be run on. They would upgrade their ability to play the run at the second level from their linebackers and also create a defense that is more comfortable living in base (three linebackers) when they can, rather than constantly needing to play nickel because of how porous their linebackers were in coverage last year.

The Texans would also give themselves an avenue to finding their middle linebacker of the future and have a prospect that Ryans could develop into his next Fred Warner, a player who defined his dominant defenses with the San Francisco 49ers.

It may not be the biggest need for Houston, but it certainly would not be a redundant choice for the Texans. Don’t rule out the star linebacker when the NFL Draft comes later this month.

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TeX’s and O’s: Edgerrin Cooper could buffer Texans in AFC South arms race

Author: John Crumpler

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