Guard Jonathan Cooper sets for a pass block during a preseason game against Dallas this season.
Jonathan Cooper was put on the backburner after his season-ending broken leg injury in August, both with the team when he was put on injured reserve and on the priority list for the Cardinals' athletic trainers.
The team's first-round pick has a bright future, but since his rehabilitation process was going to be lengthy, the focus shifted more to the players with immediate needs.
Now that the offseason has arrived, Cooper's return to health is a key storyline as the Cardinals look forward to 2014. He still has a similar treatment schedule, but nowadays, there are fewer injured players surrounding him, giving trainers more time with the team's projected starting left guard.
On Monday, he received treatment alongside safety Tyrann Mathieu and nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu. During the season, the training room is standing-room-only.
"They definitely show you more attention," Cooper said. "All the focus is on you. You have to be prepared to do a little more work. Usually (in-season) they'll tell you what to do and they may write it out, or they'll just come and watch a few reps, but then they'll go and tape or go give a player who is actually playing some treatment. This time, they're watching every rep, looking at getting every detail correct so we can really focus on strengthening. It's definitely paying off."
The addition of Cooper – who said he's started jogging and is on track to participate in OTAs -- is one change for an offensive line
which could be getting a makeover in 2014. The unit improved from 2012 to 2013 – from 26th to 13th in pass protection and from last to 17th in run blocking, according to FootballOutsiders.com – but it's an area both General Manager Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians have specifically targeted as a spot to improve.
Center Lyle Sendlein seems likely to return, as does guard Daryn Colledge. Cooper should fill out the interior of the line in place of Paul Fanaika, but the tackle positions are up in the air. Eric Winston signed as a free agent late last offseason and played well at right tackle, but is a free agent again. Bobby Massie backed him up, and the Cardinals' brass must decide if they should give him an opportunity in his third season, bring back Winston or go in another direction.
Winston believes the job he did against some elite defensive ends will bolster his chance at receiving interest from the Cardinals and other teams.
"Like anything, you are going to have some good games, you are going to have some bad games," Winston said. "I am proud of the effort. I am proud of the effort of all the guys on the line."
Left tackle is also in flux. Keim has said he will try to add a top-tier player this offseason, either through the draft or via free agency. Chiefs Pro Bowler Branden Albert may be the highest profile blind-side protector on the free agent market, and the Cardinals could make an attempt to land him.
Bradley Sowell started the final 12 games of the season at left tackle after replacing Levi Brown, who was traded to the Steelers. Sowell didn't grade out very well according to advanced metrics, but could still play a significant role next year if the Cardinals are unable to find a better option.
"The left tackle, you can't create them," Keim told Arizona Sports 620. "It's tough. You have to do your due diligence and look in free agency and look in the draft and if the player doesn't fall to you, you can't force it. We'll continue to try to add more depth and try to see if we can grow in that position."
Like the entire team, the offensive line seemed to find its footing as the season went on. Arians mentioned the final game of the year as a performance that stood out, when quarterback Carson Palmer was sacked only one time. It was a stark contrast to the opener, when the pressure put on by the Rams' pass rush may have been the biggest factor in a 27-24 loss. The improvement by the group is an aspect Arians and Keim must consider.
"They're a bunch of battlers," Arians said at his season-ending press conference. "I can't say enough about (offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin), Larry Zierlein and David Diaz-Infante, the three guys that worked with them technically all year. They're still talking about techniques right now as I walk back to the room. That's what offensive linemen do: they get beat up when they give up a sack (even though) they block a guy for 49 plays."
The Cardinals gave up 41 sacks in 2013, 17 fewer than 2012. There's little question the offensive line improved over that time span, but the team wants the number to be lower. The running game also found better footing as the season went along.
Keim proved adept at finding key pieces in his first offseason as general manager, and the offensive line figures to be one of his main focuses in the next several months. Cooper's addition should strengthen the unit, but other changes could be coming.
"The biggest difference from college, it was like, 'That was a great team we had last year, and we lost one or two seniors, maybe a really good junior, but we have generally the same team,'" Cooper said. "In the pros, I've recently learned that nobody's guaranteed tomorrow. A team can have a completely different makeup.
"That's the only thing that's, I guess, worrisome, per se. But I am excited. If we can bring back the talent we had plus whoever else they bring in, we can plug them in. And hopefully I can come in and play and do well. It's exciting to think about the potential we have for next season."