PULLMAN – There is no starting gun for NFL prospects when they run the 40-yard-dash, the most universally understood drill to measure athleticism in football players.
So when Xavier Cooper got into his pre-sprint crouch he had all the time he needed to think about the tens of thousands of dollars riding on every hundredth of a second and about how close he is to achieving the highest level of his chosen profession.
The former Washington State defensive lineman had space to reflect on how many times he’d covered this exact distance – almost never in a game – in preparation for the one time it would actually matter, and how his life would change in less than five seconds whether he ran a fast time or a slow one.
A thousand such thoughts could have whirred through his head before he began running, but when he exploded out of his stance there was nothing but the same instinct he used at WSU to earn an NFL Scouting Combine invite in the first place: Get after that quarterback.
“I think of the finish line like that quarterback and I run as fast as I can to that quarterback,” Cooper said. “That’s all I was thinking about out there.”
At the week’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, he “got to the quarterback” in 4.86 seconds – faster than all but one other player projected to play defensive tackle. It was a game-changing performance for a player who needed one.
Pundits have had a tough time coming to a consensus of where Cooper projects to be drafted. At one end, CBS considers him a solid second-round pick. At the other end, NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys VP, wrote after viewing the defender’s tape that “he’ll probably be somewhere between a sixth-round pick and a free agent.”
NFL Network analyst Willie McGinnest said on the air that he was “highly, highly impressed with the defensive line group” and Cooper stood out even in impressive company.
NFL draft analyst Rob Rang of CBS Sports wrote that Cooper, “showed off the athleticism that could result in a late charge up draft boards,” and various other pundits were even more effusive in their praise.
Cooper performed well in the other agility drills that are these days considered better indicators by scouts and team executives of a player’s eventual impact in the pros. If Cooper is ever chasing a running back for 40 yards then his team has some problems.
But while his work in the agility drills – 7.23 second three-cone shuttle and 4.37 short shuttle –will confirm NFL scouts’ perceptions that he has size and athleticism to make an impact in the league, it’s his 40 time that will establish the perception of Cooper as one of the draft’s most athletic interior defensive linemen.
The Cougars had a couple of other representatives in Indianapolis during the weekend in quarterback Connor Halliday and receiver Vince Mayle. Because Halliday is still recovering from a broken ankle suffered during WSU’s game against USC he didn’t throw or do any drills but spent the week speaking with team representatives in what he said was a straightforward series of interviews.
Mayle was somewhat limited with a broken thumb but participated in running drills, posting a 4.67 40 time that was judged to be slower than expected but perhaps not a killer because of his size – the Biletnikoff Award semifinalist checked in at 6-foot-2, 224-pounds, five pounds heavier than he was listed at WSU.
The drills aren’t the only part of the combine of course and Cooper went through a wringer of medical tests, psych evaluations and interviews. Teams wanted to get to know him, sure, but also to poke, prod and test players and see how they respond before making multi-million dollar investments.
Like when personnel from the Lions pulled up a clip of one of Cooper’s worst plays from last season they interrogated him about whether he was a player that does what’s needed from him.
“It was pretty awkward because they were expecting me to make up an excuse, pretty much,” he said.
But by and large the scouts who will decide the Tacoma native’s fate will do so based on his ability to stop the run, occupy blockers and get after that quarterback.
Last week he showed he could do the latter, at least, just as fast as his competition.
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