Every team needs to have the depth to spell its starters on the defensive line. Having different skillsets provides variety in sub packages. That’s essential in today’s game.
In free agency, you look for players that seem to fit your scheme. Once they’re in camp, you find out the details of their strengths and weaknesses. You do the same in the draft. You get to test, drill, and interview them with extreme thoroughness. Drafts often turn on how well you match player and scheme. That’s why a failing fourth-rounder with one team can play like a first-rounder with the right team’s approach.
Among the Phillips defense’s unique features is its focus on penetration. That gives you the ability to employ a lighter, faster nose guard. In Dallas, they ran the Phillips effectively with Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff. Denver could decide to build their depth immediately in a later round. Xavier Cooper is almost exactly Ratliff’s size: he’s 6’3”, Ratliff was 6’4”+. Both were/are officially 293 lb. Cooper has Ratliff’s overall and foot quickness and his skill in technique. His length permits him to use his hands effectively to get good results in a one-gap system. He’s also fast off the snap.
Single-gapping is what suits his body and natural skillset. That’s where his length and quickness can make him an immediate weapon. It always matters how quickly a player gets used to NFL speed. Cooper's own speed could make him useful from the start. Over time, he could develop the power that would round out his game. We talk at times about drafting for the present and future. He could provide that, perhaps even immediately.
Sly Williams hasn’t emerged yet. Word from Cecil Lammey at Dove Valley’s QB Club (thanks, WRR) is that Marvin Austin’s up to compete for nose guard. Williams hasn’t shown Cooper’s foot quickness. This would be the ‘make or break’ season for him at a new position. Marvin is a ‘maybe’, but Wade was taken by him before the 2011 Draft. A backup plan with upside might help both now and later.
The last time Denver drafted a lineman around Cooper's size was when Malik Jackson (6'5", 284) arrived in the fifth round of the 2012 Draft. That pick has gone beyond success. While he will probably be at right defensive end this year, Jackson has played nose guard in the past. Malik often two-gapped from the nose. It was nearly always on downs where you expected a pass, and he was up front to provide pressure. Generally, it was in an odd front defense. It’s a strategy that’s worked before for Denver.
Cooper has less strength, where Malik’s arms are very powerful. Cooper does have Jackson’s athleticism. It’s would be an example of taking a player, perhaps later in the draft, that other teams don’t have a clear role for. Cooper has his high-level technique going for him. He’s going to get stronger over time to augment it.
What impresses with Cooper is twofold. First, he’s long and he’s fast off the snap. He’s not a heavyweight - at 293 lb, he’s more of a massive linebacker. Secondly, he has very quick feet and advanced hand techniques. That combination keeps bigger offensive linemen off his body. It lets him shed them. In turn, it allows him to penetrate effectively.
To be clear, Xavier’s not a powerful run-stuffer like Jackson or Derek Wolfe. He’s not ready to start. He needs time, work, and strength to get there. He’s never likely to be a two-gapper. He’s a specific sub-package weapon with upside. His hand-fighting is unusually advanced for a college player. I always like seeing that. It matches the efficiency in his footwork. He’s lengthy and he’s quick.
It’s counterintuitive for those who are used to the huge nose guards of two-gapping defenses. For Cooper, the Phillips is the perfect situation to playing time in the NFL. On Day 3, most likely, someone will take advantage of this solid player. He has limits, but his value is in attacking the QB. Obviously, he could attack from other positions as long as he plays a single gap.
He could go earlier, too. A lot of people were surprised when Seattle used a similar strategy when taking Bruce Irvin early in the draft. I don’t think of Xavier as having Irvin’s level of effectiveness. But when used properly, Cooper is a plug-and-play pass rush option.