In car-racing lingo, South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper essentially lapped his fellow Gamecocks pass-catchers in production last season — maybe three or four times.
His rock-solid tallies of 66 catches, 973 yards and eight touchdowns more than doubled every other South Carolina’s receiving threat’s numbers — including Jerell Adams, one of the most attractive tight end prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.
What’s more, Cooper claimed five of the Gamecocks’ six 100-yard receiving efforts last year (Adams had the other one). Plus, Cooper was the only South Carolina receiver to score a touchdown in back-to-back outings — a modest accomplishment that only partially accounts for his November stretch of a touchdown in four consecutive games.
Put it all together, and it’s no wonder Cooper (two-year averages: 68 catches, 1,055 yards, 10 total TDs) drew plenty of interest at South Carolina’s Pro Day.
The outdoor workout took place at Williams-Brice Stadium. Cooper’s 40 time? Early clock readings indicate the high 4.5s. It’s a good number for a slot receiver who’s more lightning-quick than fast.
On the down side, it’s a dramatic departure from Phillip Dorsett’s 4.33 40 just one year ago; and that’s a tangible comparison, body-wise.
Which brings us to this: Should NFL scouts be apprehensive or excited about Cooper’s recent dominance among the Gamecocks pass-catchers?
Take this highlight film, for example: In one regard, the vast majority of touchdowns stem from porous coverage. On the other hand, you won’t find a single defender matching Cooper’s speed-quickness combo before or after the receptions.
Perhaps Cooper (NFL combine results: 31-inch vertical leap, 115-inch broad jump) shouldn’t be harshly judged by a so-so 40 time in an empty stadium … on a Wednesday morning. On the flip side, there are legitimate questions concerning Cooper’s pass-catching ability amid tight coverage.
And next year, there will be tight coverage.
Here’s one more conflict to solve: Yes, the Havelock, N.C., native only stands at 5-foot-11, 203 pounds, but just imagine Cooper’s slot-receiver potential in the NFL — when he’s not the sole focus of a middling offensive attack, thus subject to perpetual double coverage.
There’s a consensus among experts that Ole Miss’s Laquon Treadwell, Baylor’s Corey Coleman, TCU’s Josh Doctson and Notre Dame’s Will Fuller will be the first four receivers selected in the draft (the order can be argued) .
Each prospect listed above has the potential to be a No. 1 receiver at the NFL level — lining up wide. However, there’s no guarantee they’ll be more productive than the slot options from the Class of 2016.
Starting with Cooper.
Do you remember Cooper’s catch-and-run-forever touchdown against Auburn (above), circa 2014?
It was a game-changing moment for the sophomore (Twitter handle: @KingTutt_chdown), the NFL equivalent of a speedy wideout ripping the top off a double-safety zone defense, thus allowing for massive receiving lanes with underneath routes (12-15 yards downfield).
In fact, it might have been enough to cement Cooper’s standing as a mid-to-late pick in Round 2 — at least to those who favor game-tape heroics over workout numbers.
As such, in today’s pass-heavy age, when even the run-oriented Chiefs averaged 29.6 pass attempts last season, high-upside slot guys, like Cooper, should be treated like gold on draft weekend.
The last four drafts have produced noteworthy performers at the “slot” position — Brandin Cooks, Mohamed Sanu, Tavon Austin, Travis Benjamin, Jamison Crowder, Tyler Lockett, Josh Huff, and the aforementioned Dorsett (Round 1 choice in 2015 … but only 18 catches as a rookie).
And if Cooper should land in a slot-friendly offense (Patriots, Chargers, Lions, Eagles, Bengals, Saints), he could become a candidate for 60-plus catches or 1,000 receiving yards within his first two seasons.
However, there’s a fine line separating productive and pedestrian in NFL circles; and Cooper might be stuck with the latter. His first pro home means everything.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.