Though undrafted free-agent rookies are generally long shots to make an active NFL roster, it happens every year on practically every team. Someone overlooked in the draft manages to shine in mini-camps, OTAs and training camps and ends up being a surprise addition or even a major contributor.
Let's take a look at the undrafted rookie most likely to make an impact in the Cleveland Browns' upcoming training camp and why he's got such a good shot at making the 53-man roster this year.
The Contender: WR Josh Cooper
Josh Cooper comes from Oklahoma State, the alma mater of rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, who is projected to be the team's starter this year. Cooper was Weeden's go-to slot receiver in 2010 and 2011. He averaged around 70 receptions and over 700 yards per season during that period and scored a total of eight touchdowns over those two years.
At 5'10" and 190 pounds, Cooper is well-built to continue playing in the slot in the NFL. His connection to Weeden helps him immeasurably. Having a familiar target around for the rookie quarterback is a great way for Weeden to become more comfortable with his new team.
The knocks against Cooper are that he's not particularly strong or explosive. But his route-running is sharp, and if he can create separation, he's a good threat to get yards after the catch.
Cooper isn't the only receiver vying for the starting slot job in Cleveland. There is incumbent Jordan Norwood, who got the first-team reps in OTAs and minicamp, and fellow rookie Travis Benjamin, who may prove more useful as a backup wideout rather than a slot player.
Norwood had just 23 catches for 268 yards and one score last year with both Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace under center. Cooper, in contrast, was Weeden's second most-targeted receiver at Oklahoma State.
Once camp starts, Cooper will likely get much more time with the first team as the coaching staff tries to evaluate just how good the chemistry is between him and Weeden and how best they can translate that to the professional field.
Though Norwood has the experience, Cooper has the benefit of familiarity with Weeden and the potential to get regular targets as a result. Though it's uncommon that an undrafted rookie beats out an established starter, the Browns need to get their receiving corps tightened up, and they'll prefer to go with what works, no matter the player's pedigree.
The Browns will likely have six receivers on their active roster this year: Greg Little, Josh Gordon and Josh Cribbs are locks, while the other three jobs will be fought for between Cooper, Norwood, rookie Travis Benjamin, Carlton Mitchell and Mohamed Massaquoi.
So, not only is Cooper trying to secure himself the starting slot receiver job, he's also trying to simply make the active roster. However, with how well he's already looked (ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi thinks Cooper will be the starter in the slot), he should be one of the six to stick.
What He Needs to Do
Simply put, Cooper needs to keep it up. He impressed in OTAs and minicamps, and now that he has the opportunity to display his talents in full pads, he can't slip up.
Luckily for Cooper, he already has a rapport with Weeden that will earn him more reps. Otherwise, he'd be in trouble of being lost in the shuffle, considering that undrafted rookies simply do not get a lot of time with the first team to make an impression.
Cooper needs to keep taking full advantage of every opportunity he gets, whether he's working with Weeden, Wallace or McCoy. He needs to outshine Norwood consistently in order to unseat him. And he needs to hope that Mitchell and Massaquoi sign their own pink slips by continuing to underwhelm, freeing up a roster spot that Cooper can make his own.
To make a 53-man roster while going undrafted takes a lot of hard work, much harder work than someone taken in the first few rounds of the draft. Cooper has circumstances working in his favor and the athletic gifts to make an impact on the field as a rookie.
Keep a close eye on his development in camp this summer (as well as noting which receivers seem to underperform). Cooper's chances of not only making the roster but being a starter are both quite high.
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