IRVINE — Only on this team, in this situation, could Pharoh Cooper be considered a veteran.
Cooper is in his second NFL training camp and has caught 14 passses in regular-season games. Among the 12 receivers on the field for the Rams at UC Irvine on Thursday, only one other guy could say that.
So, Cooper, at age 22 and entering his second season, is someone being looked upon for leadership. He has the makeup to handle it, and the Rams hope he has the on-field skills to handle a bigger role in 2017, and perhaps (in the short term) fill the spot vacated by Tavon Austin.
“I’m just kind of embracing the role of being a vet, as you say, with all the rookies coming in,” Cooper said. “I’m trying to help them learn what I experienced last year, all the little tools I can give them. I’m not the top receiver in the game right now, but there are little things I’ve learned that they can add to their game. So it’s fun.”
It’s an odd camp for the Rams at receiver. Last year’s top two targets, Kenny Britt and Brian Quick, left via free agency during the offseason, and Austin hardly has been on the field at all since January, because of an offseason thumb injury and a hamstring injury suffered early in camp.
Robert Woods, imported via free agency from Buffalo, has become the de facto “old guy,” at age 25 and with 203 career catches. Then there’s Cooper, a 2016 fourth-round pick out of South Carolina who had 14 catches for 106 yards last season.
Beyond that, the Rams are extremely young and inexperienced. Cooper Kupp, this year’s third-round draft pick, is expected to start, and the Rams have a cluster of first- and second-year players (Mike Thomas, Nelson Spruce, Paul McRoberts, Shakeir Ryan) with little or no NFL experience.
That’s why Cooper’s progress is so important to the Rams. With Austin out (and with no indication when he might return to the practice field), Cooper has been lining up on the outside as one of the Rams’ primary deep threats for quarterback Jared Goff.
But Cooper, listed at 5-foot-11, 207 pounds, also can play in the slot, and the Rams also intend to use him as their primary kick returner. Among a competitive group of receivers, Cooper’s versatility stands out.
“That’s the goal,” Cooper said. “I want the coach to be comfortable putting me anywhere on the field, knowing I can make a play. I can make plays outside, special teams, kick return, just being on the field making a play.”
Cooper hopes for a…