Cooper DeJean's 'very rare' athleticism, versatility make him a top draft prospect

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INDIANAPOLIS — One of the most intriguing, versatile athletes at the NFL combine will not run this weekend.

Iowa defensive back Cooper DeJean fractured the fibula in his left leg while practicing in November — while working on offense, no less — and while he’s been fully cleared three months after surgery, he won’t run at the combine, or at Iowa’s pro day, promising he’ll work out for teams at some point before the draft.

DeJean, 21, is a versatile player, having played outside cornerback at Iowa as well as their “Cash” position, a hybrid linebacker/slot corner role that takes advantage of his size and speed. DeJean is 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, had three pick-sixes in 2022 and a punt-return touchdown this past season, and has been projected everywhere from outside corner to slot to safety as a likely first-round draft pick.

“I’ve talked to a few teams about moving around, being able to play multiple different positions,” he said Thursday. “I think that’s an advantage coming into this league, being able to play wherever they put me … I’ll play anywhere. I just want to play ball.”

DeJean is from Odebolt, Ia., with a population of right around 1,000, and follows in a strong line of Iowa defensive backs now starring in the NFL — Buffalo’s Micah Hyde, Baltimore’s Geno Stone and Tennessee’s Amani Hooker, among others. Longtime Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said what might help DeJean the most in the NFL isn’t as much his physical strengths as his mental approach and competitive nature.

“He’s very humble, and he has the mental capacity to be great, to try to be perfect, in his study and his understanding of the game,” Parker said. “He diagnoses things and processes things faster, and I always think it’s for all the different sports he played growing up. The way his brain thinks, he just sees things faster.”

DeJean is a man without a position, a player without a scheme, used in both man and zone concepts, inside and outside, a plus for any creative defense looking to disguise coverages and move people around within the same personnel grouping. He has not played a traditional safety position but some project him there in open space where his range and ball skills could yield plenty of takeaways.

“He’s a very rare athlete, could probably play all five positions on the back end, at least for us,” Parker said. “I think he could be a very productive player at safety, and if they play single-high, I think he could cover a lot of ground, but that’s not to say he can’t play on a slot receiver or can’t play a guy on the edge, either … It’s very rare to have a kid who can do all those things, and his skill set as far as his hands — to me, they’re almost like Spider-Man, how he can catch the ball.”

DeJean is perhaps best known for a touchdown that wasn’t. Trailing Minnesota with less than two minutes to play, he returned a punt for a touchdown and the lead, only to have officials review the play and determine a motioning gesture he made with his arm before the catch looked like a fair-catch signal, nullifying the score. He said he’s had conversations with NFL teams about the play and whether the touchdown should have counted.

DeJean’s injury will keep him from grabbing headlines with what was expected to be a jaw-dropping 40-yard time. Despite this, he’s still projected by most evaluators as a first-round pick. If he’s in the second half of the first round, that could put him in a starting role with a playoff team. He’s often paired with solid contenders like the Rams (19th), Steelers (20th), Eagles (22nd) or Packers (25th).

“Going to an NFL team, I just want to earn the respect of my teammates, first and foremost, and learn from the guys who have done it before me already, learn from them as much as I can,” he said.

In two months, he’ll have a new city to call home, but he’s grateful for his time at Iowa, getting to play three years at his dream school, and now hoping his success can give hope to other small-town kids who dream of much the same.

“Being able to have the opportunity to play at the highest level, just being an inspiration for those kids back home who may look up to me, just showing them that this is possible,” he said. “If you put the work in, day in and day out, you can create opportunities like this for yourself.” 

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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