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Receiver, runner, returner, passer: Pharoh Cooper adds more versatility to Rams offense

LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher speaks of newly drafted multipurpose receiver Pharoh Cooper in similar terms as he used for Tavon Austin back in 2013.

"We’ve been watching ‘Coop’ seems like for a couple years now, and he is (South Carolina's) favorite player, their best player," Fisher said. "They figure out a way to give him the ball. The statistics are obvious. You watch him and he is throwing the ball, his return skills, his run after catch, his ability to get open. He is a strong player. We felt like he would give us an additional target inside to uncover and do those kinds of things.”

Buzz words such as versatility are at the top of the list of words thrown toward Cooper after a college career at South Carolina in which he did a little bit of everything. But if the Rams already have a smallish receiver capable of lining up all over offensive formations in Austin, where does that leave Cooper?

“I mean, if we were to both come in the starting lineup, that’d be great," Cooper said. I’m not going to go in there and say I should be starting right away. I am going to have to prove to the coaches that I’m worthy and that I’m going to work hard. That’s the main thing I’m going to do -- I’m going to work hard. If we are both on the field at the same time, it could be dangerous.”

Don't scoff at the idea that Cooper and Austin could be on the field at the same time on a fairly consistent basis as Austin's role has evolved in his three seasons with the Rams.

When the Rams drafted Austin, he was viewed as more of a slot receiver and that's where he spent the bulk of his time as a rookie. But Austin has run fewer routes from the slot in each of his seasons. He ran 236 routes with 54 targets and 30 catches inside as a rookie. In 2014, those numbers dipped to 174 routes, 22 targets and 14 catches.

Last year, the Rams began using Austin more outside, where they could get him moving before the snap and hand him the ball on jet sweeps and reverses. He ran just 88 routes from the slot with 17 targets and 11 catches inside.

In fact, the Rams got minimal production from all of their receivers in the slot in 2015. Austin, Wes Welker, Stedman Bailey, Bradley Marquez and Brian Quick combined for 69 targets from the slot in 2015 and finished with 38 catches for 330 yards (8.7 yards per catch) and one touchdown.

Cooper, who primarily worked from the slot for the Gamecocks, averaged 8.2 yards after the catch per reception alone in his college career. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he averaged 8 yards after the catch per reception in 2015.

That ability to get open, catch the ball and get extra yards comes from Cooper's former life as a quarterback.

“That’s just my mark," Cooper said. "Catch the ball, make yards, that didn’t really come from anywhere. I played quarterback in high school, so I got hit a lot. So getting tackled and running through holes, and getting extra yards and fighting for extra yards -- that is just what I love to do. That’s just the biggest part of my game.”

Cooper, who got his unique first name from his father drawing inspiration from Egyptian royalty, earned first-team All-SEC honors each of the past two seasons. He had 69 catches for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore and 66 receptions for 973 yards and eight scores as a junior last year.

In addition to his slot duties, Cooper also lined up as the Wildcat quarterback often during his time at South Carolina. He rushed for 513 yards and four touchdowns in his three collegiate seasons and completed nine of 16 passes for 118 yards and four touchdowns. He also returned punts and kickoffs.

“(I can) play anywhere on the field," Cooper said. "Punt return, kick return, you can line me up in the backfield, slot, the outside."

Even quarterback?

“Yes, sir," Cooper said. "If they need me to throw the ball, I’ll throw the ball for them. Whatever they need me to do, I'll do it. I’m just happy to be a part of the organization. I’m ready to start playing now.”

Assuming Cooper is able to quickly grasp the Rams offense and the NFL route tree, it's not out of the question that he'll be asked to contribute right away. In terms of slot receivers, the Rams have not re-signed Welker and Bailey's status remains uncertain after he suffered two gun shots to the head last November. Marquez returns and figures to be the most likely competition for work inside.

If that means sharing time with another smaller wideout capable of doing it all, that's fine by Cooper.

“I look at it as just an opportunity to get on the field," Cooper said. "Go out there, work hard and do my best. Wherever they play me, that is where I’m going to try to excel and do my best to excel. You know the receivers … I’m happy to go in there and work with Tavon. I followed his career when he was at West Virginia and I’m excited to line up (with him) while I’m on the field.”