NFL Draft: UNC's Cooper (7th), Williams (28th) picked in 1st round
Offensive guards don’t usually go in early in the NFL draft. Arizona general manager Steve Keim was glad to make an exception for Jonathan Cooper — even though the senior left guard went to North Carolina.
The Cardinals selected Cooper with the seventh pick Thursday night. The Wilmington native became the first guard taken in the Top 10 since 1997, and he became the highest-drafted guard since Brian Jozwiak was picked seventh in 1986.
“When you have conviction that the player is a Pro Bowl-caliber player, the choice is easy,” said Keim, who played guard at N.C. State. “The hardest part about the selection for me, being an N.C. State alum, is taking a Tar Heel.”
UNC added a second first-round pick for the first time since 2002 when defensive tackle Sylvester Williams went 28th to Denver, completing a remarkable journey. The senior worked at a factory making radiator parts after high school and then went to junior college before coming to UNC for his final two seasons.
Cooper wore a Carolina blue tie and pocket square to the draft at New York City, though he quickly put on a Cardinals red cap as he got to the stage. He became the sixth-highest pick all-time from UNC, and the first Top 10 pick since Julius Peppers went second to Carolina and Ryan Sims went sixth to Kansas City in 2002.
“I was shocked when (Arizona) called me,” Cooper said. “My family was crying so I had to look off into space so I could concentrate and not start crying. Man, it meant the world to me to have that phone call.”
The Wilmington native should shore up an offensive line that allowed a league-high 58 sacks last season. Arizona also finished last in the NFL in total yards and 31st out of 32 teams in scoring.
ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said that Cooper, who is 6-2 and 311 pounds, was one of the most athletic guards he’d seen in 35 years. The senior’s athleticism — combined with his power — is what stood out to Arizona coach Bruce Arians.
“Most times when you think of athletic guards you’re thinking of smaller guys out in space, but this guy can really bring it at the point of attack,” Arians said. “When he’s out in space he looks like a fullback running around, with his change of direction, but then he hits you so hard.”
Keim also mentioned Cooper’s versatility — the UNC senior took snaps at center during his pro day earlier this month, and said he felt comfortable on the left or right side.
Cooper started 48 games with the Tar Heels and was a three-time all-ACC pick. This past season he was one of three finalists for the 2012 Outland Trophy, which goes to the nation’s best offensive lineman.
“He provided great leadership and character during his career at UNC and I’m proud of him for earning his degree,” Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said in a statement. “Arizona is getting an outstanding player who is an even better person.”
Cooper became the fourth offensive lineman and the second guard from UNC to be selected in the first round.
Two hours later, fellow senior Sylvester Williams went off the board, providing the Tar Heels with their sixth first-round pick in six years — four of whom have been defensive lineman.
“Boy is this kid quick,” Kiper said after Williams was selected. “He can penetrate, he can make some plays behind the line of scrimmage. He can be a disruptive force on a consistent basis. He could have been a top 15 pick and nobody could have argued.”