Vikings center Jon Cooper had more than one reason to sign with the Minnesota Vikings, but one reason stood out – the chance to compete for playing time.
With Matt Birk moving on to the Baltimore Ravens and John Sullivan the favorite to win the starting job at center with no regular-season NFL experience on offense, Jon Cooper looked at his options after going undrafted and was convinced the Vikings gave him the best opportunity for playing time.
"My whole mindset from Day One is to compete to play. I want to compete to play," Cooper said. "I'm going to try to learn the playbook, learn the system, pick (offensive line coach Pat) Morris' brain. Pick guys like Steve Hutchinson, Bryant McKinnie, the guys that have been around here a long time and know the system, know how to play the game, go to Pro Bowls every year – learn from them and try to put myself in the best position to get on the field."
Cooper called Sullivan a "great" center, but even before the draft started, the Oklahoma center was looking at depth charts and realized Minnesota was thin on experienced centers. The Vikings worked him out at his pro day and their post-draft interest in him made it an easy decision.
"Why wouldn't I go to Minnesota?' Then it becomes a case of dollars here and there and it wasn't worth it to go anywhere else," Cooper said. "They've got one center who I hear is a great player and I'm going to get to compete against him and play with and learn from him, so that puts me in a great situation and a great chance to make the team."
While Cooper watched 256 prospects get drafted and wasn't part of them, going undrafted has benefits as well. Once the final pick went off the board on April 26, he was mostly in control of his situation. About 16 or 17 teams called, he said, but even before the draft he, his college coaches and father sat down and started looking at the possibilities if he didn't get his name called as part of the draft.
"It really started in the fifth round. A bunch of calls started coming, whether they were going to draft me or (sign me as) a free agent. Then, about as soon as the seventh round hit, my phone, my agent's phone, started ringing off the hook (with people saying), ‘If you don't get drafted, think about us.' By the end of the whole thing, about 16 or 17 teams offered me free-agent deals. It started going pretty crazy, even before I knew I wasn't getting drafted, I had to think about where I'd want to go," he said.
"I'd like to think (I'd have been drafted) and that's what I got told a lot of the time. That's kind of what I had on my mind, but my coaches from Oklahoma, my dad, we all kind of sat down and said, ‘Worst-case scenario, if you don't get drafted, we've got to figure out your best situation,' and Minnesota is where I want to be."
He also has the benefit of joining a team that values its undrafted rookies. The Vikings still have on their roster three undrafted rookies from last year that made their 53-man roster. Of the 84 players currently on their roster (the five draft picks aren't signed yet), 16 of the rookies went undrafted.
Another benefit to joining the Vikings is Cooper's familiarity with a couple of them. Cooper blocked for Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma and played on the same offensive line with second-round pick Phil Loadholt for the last two years.
"It doesn't hurt that Big Phil (Phil Loadholt) and A.D. (Adrian Peterson) are here, guys that I've played with and I'm familiar with. I worked out with (offensive line coach Pat) Morris and Coach (Brad) Childress at my pro day. I really like working with them. It all clicked."
That's not to say Cooper didn't want to be drafted. He started watching the draft on its first day but knew he wouldn't be selected then. That was mainly to see where Loadholt and other players he knew would end up.
He was hoping to be selected on the second day, but he's happy with where he's at now.
"It's mainly a pride thing when it comes to that, getting drafted," he said. "But when I get to pick and put myself in such a good situation like I am here, hindsight is 20-20. Yeah, this is great when I could have gone to a team where there is no chance to compete and I'm sitting on the bench for two, three, four years. Yeah, I'm in a great situation."
That leaves him with a lot of work to do so he can have a chance to compete for playing time, which will continue this week with the start of the team's organized team activities. The first thing to improve, he said after a rookie minicamp practice, is the learning the Vikings offense.
"Right now, it's the playbook. I need to get the mental aspects. That was one of my biggest strengths at Oklahoma is I knew the system. I got along with the coaches; we were on the same page," he said. "So right now, that's my main goal, to learn the terminology, learn the system and learn all the plays."
Center is in Minnesota to compete
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