Pharoh Cooper’s emergence key to Rams’ special teams sweep in Pro Bowl voting
NFL players often shy from sharing their personal goals before the season.
Not Pharoh Cooper.
From the moment coach Sean McVay tabbed him as the Rams’ kick returner, Cooper said he wanted to be recognized as the best in the league.
He said it again in Week 6, when punt-return duties were added to his workload.
Cooper got affirmation this week when fans, players and coaches voted him into the Pro Bowl as a return specialist.
“It means a lot,” Cooper said. “I give credit to the other guys blocking for me. It’s very exciting.”
Cooper, a 2016 fourth-round draft pick from South Carolina, has been instrumental in the Rams’ turnaround under McVay. The Rams are 10-4 and can clinch the NFC West with a victory Sunday at Tennessee.
Cooper, who also plays receiver, is averaging 26.2 yards per kickoff return and 13.4 yards per punt return. He leads the league in total kickoff-return yardage (845) and is second in punt-return yardage (390).
Cooper was one of five Rams voted into the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s annual all-star exhibition that will be played Jan. 28 in Orlando, Fla. Rams running back Todd Gurley, defensive lineman Aaron Donald, punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein also were voted onto the NFC roster.
Hekker was voted in for the fourth time, Zuerlein and Cooper the first, as the Rams swept voting for the special teams spots.
“From a coach’s perspective, it doesn’t get much better than that,” special teams coordinator John Fassel said. “For Johnny the fourth time still feels like the first time for him. I think about Greg, who’s worked so hard to get that, and for Pharoh to kind of come out of the blue, it’s really special to them.”
Zuerlein had back surgery this week, ending his season. But Hekker and Cooper will try to help the Rams win their first division title since 2003.
Cooper has been dynamic on kickoffs since early in the season.
At Jacksonville, he caught a kickoff three yards deep in the end zone and returned it for a touchdown. In that same game, he supplanted Tavon Austin on punt returns.
In last week’s 42-7 rout of the Seattle Seahawks, Cooper nearly returned one punt for a touchdown, and consistently gave the offense field position inside the 50-yard line.
Fassel said that when the 5-foot-11, 207-pound Cooper returns kicks, he runs more like a running back than a receiver or defensive back.
“You see the broken tackles against Jacksonville and Seattle, which only bodies like that can do,” Fassel said. “He’s not much of a make-you-miss guy as is he is just a powerful tackle-breaker.”
While honored to be voted to the Pro Bowl, Cooper said he would not mind missing it if the Rams are playing the next week in the Super Bowl.
Fassel said he told Cooper to cherish the honor, that it would be something to tell children some day.
“That’s really cool,” Fassel said he told Cooper. “Let’s make it more than one, though.”
Back in force
After sitting out two games while recovering from surgery for a fractured forearm, linebacker Connor Barwin returned last week with no ill effects. The ninth-year pro recorded five tackles, including a sack.
Now he is poised to help the Rams clinch the NFC West.
“I can feel it when I get hit on it, but once the adrenaline and the game starts you don’t even think about it,” Barwin said. “Every week it’ll get a little better, so I expect this week to feel even better.”
Barwin was injured in last month’s victory over New Orleans. The next day, a surgeon inserted a plate and six screws.
Barwin had experience coming back from a broken bone. In his second season he suffered a dislocated ankle. It took him nearly a year to fully recover.
“In your arm,” he said, “it can heal that much faster.”
Outside linebacker Matt Longacre did not practice and will not play Sunday because of a back injury, McVay said. He will be evaluated again next week. Carlos Thompson will play in place of Longacre in the rotation. … The Rams departed for Tennessee on Friday afternoon.
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein
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