BEREA: Early in his career at Oklahoma State University, Josh Cooper paid his dues by practicing as a member of the scout team offense along with Brandon Weeden.
After those humble beginnings, each player evolved into a college standout. Now Cooper and Weeden are on the verge of trying to establish their wide receiver-quarterback connection for the first time in an NFL regular-season game. They’ll have a shot Sunday when the Browns (0-5) host the Cincinnati Bengals (3-2) in an AFC North rematch from Week 2.
“It’s unbelievable,” Cooper said. “It’s something you don’t really see happen too much with other players.”
On Friday, the Browns elevated Cooper from their practice squad to their 53-man roster. He will assume the role of slot receiver Jordan Norwood, who was placed on injured reserve and designated for return.
Norwood, who’s on crutches and has been wearing a walking boot on his left foot after recently injuring it, will be eligible to practice in six weeks and allowed to return to the active roster in eight weeks. In other words, he could still play the final four games of the season.
Norwood was inactive for the first three games before tallying 13 catches for 137 yards in the past two weeks. He had a career-high nine catches for 81 yards Sunday in the Browns’ 41-27 loss to the New York Giants.
Meanwhile, Cooper, an undrafted rookie, has spent all season on the practice squad. His promotion was foreshadowed during practices this week when he worked with the offense in team drills.
The Browns need Cooper to bolster their short-handed receiving corps. Starting wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (hamstring) has been ruled out for Sunday, and rookie wide receiver Travis Benjamin (hamstring) is listed as doubtful despite returning to practice Friday.
“I feel really prepared,” Cooper said. “I’ve been working with offense a little bit, and I understand the game plan.”
Cooper knows Weeden, the 22nd overall pick in this year’s draft, better than anyone else associated with the Browns. The two lived together upon arriving in Northeast Ohio this past spring.
Cooper expects their chemistry to carry over to Sunday.
“He usually knows where I’m going to be, and I know where he’s going to put the ball,” Cooper said. “So, yeah, he depends on me, and I’ll be in the right spot for him. We developed that in college, and he just knows when I’m going to come out of a route and where I’ll be.”
Unlike the Browns’ other receivers, Cooper grew accustomed to handling the zip on Weeden’s sharp passes a long time ago. He even has the medical history to prove it.
“Three or four dislocated fingers,” Cooper said. “Not too bad.”
Can the connection translate to the NFL?
“We hope so,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “I think we saw them connect quite a bit when they were both learning the system in the preseason and in the offseason practices. Hopefully that connection is still there.”
Weeden turns 29 on Sunday, and Cooper is looking forward to helping him out.
“It’d be nice,” Cooper said. “It would be a good birthday present for him.”
Weeden believes his friend is capable of making a difference.
“Everybody compares him to Wes [Welker of the New England Patriots],” Weeden said. “They’re just football players. They have a knack for making plays.”
The Bengals co-lead the NFL with 18 sacks, and Browns offensive coordinator Brad Childress said he believes their defensive line is a “more talented line right now than the New York Giants.”
Rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz agrees.
“Yeah, I definitely can see that, and I think they’re also a little more consistent as well,” Schwartz said. “The Giants’ D-line is good. They know how to play very well, but I think the Bengals’ guys are probably across the board more talented, more depth. So it’s as big of a challenge or more of a challenge than last week.”
The Browns didn’t allow any sacks Sunday against the Giants. In Week 2, they gave up two sacks against the Bengals, who were without defensive end Carlos Dunlap because he had an injured knee at the time.
Schwartz expects to face Dunlap for the majority of the game Sunday. Dunlap has one sack this season. He had 4½ last season and 9½ the year before.
“He’s obviously a very good player,” Schwartz said. “Physically he’s a big guy, long guy, long arms, long legs. He’s quick. He covers a lot of ground with his strides because his legs are so long. Physically he’s a very imposing player. He’s got the speed and he’s got the power.”
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins leads the Bengals this season with six sacks.
The Browns have ruled out cornerback Dimitri Patterson for Sunday with a sprained left ankle, so Buster Skrine will be counted on to cover Bengals slot receiver Andrew Hawkins. In Week 2, Hawkins lost Browns rookie cornerback Trevin Wade in coverage and scored a 50-yard touchdown. Hawkins has 20 catches for 294 yards and two touchdowns this season.
“He’s an explosive player,” Skrine said of Hawkins. “He has good speed, good quicks. You just got to stay latched on.”
Opposing quarterbacks have gone after Skrine in recent weeks and he has taken some lumps. However, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron remains confident in him.
“I just have a lot of admiration for the way he plays, the toughness he plays with,” Jauron said. “Clearly he’s learning a lot. He’s getting schooled at times and he’s making plays at times also. I have a lot of respect for his toughness. Clearly his speed and his quickness are things you can’t teach. He’s gifted in that regard and he’s a guy that really does want it badly.”
Skrine said he’s comfortable covering the slot.
“That’s what I really played last year,” Skrine said. “So I remember everything, the scheme, and I’m just ready for the challenge.”
Ready for action
Rookie James-Michael Johnson is ready to fill in for starting strongside linebacker Scott Fujita if needed. Fujita is listed as questionable with a shoulder/neck injury.
“I would anticipate that he has a pretty darn good shot to play,” Shurmur said of Johnson.
Johnson missed the first four games of the season with a ribs/oblique injury, but he played special teams Sunday. He’s eager to enter the action on defense for the first time in the regular season.
“I’ve been waiting a while to get in, but I think I’m ready,” said Johnson, a fourth-round pick. … “I’m just a guy who loves playing football. I’m gonna be out there, high motor. I just love having fun. So when I make play, I’m gonna let my teammates know, and we’re gonna have fun.”
Fujita and the other three players disciplined in the NFL’s bounty investigation appealed their suspensions, league spokesman Greg Aiello confirmed. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reduced Fujita’s suspension from three games to one game on Tuesday.
The Browns ruled out undrafted rookie safety Tashaun Gipson (knee). … Starting defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (calf), safety Ray Ventrone (hand/calf) and strong safety T.J. Ward (hand) are questionable. Rubin is the only one who didn’t practice this week, and rookie John Hughes has prepared to replace him in the starting lineup. … Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (concussion), defensive end Frostee Rucker (shoulder) and tight end Alex Smith (concussion) are probable. … The Browns lifted their roster exemption for cornerback Joe Haden, meaning he’s officially back on the 53-man roster after serving a four-game suspension. The Browns waived third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis on Thursday to make room for Haden. Shurmur said the organization hopes to bring Lewis back. He is eligible for the practice squad.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.