- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2012

Chris Cooley ran around the Washington Redskins‘ indoor practice facility Monday with his bare left knee exposed for all to see. He wore no brace, no wrap, no nothing. He just played football.

Cooley blocked the defensive end on one play during the team’s spring practice and later slipped out on a pass route. It felt like old times.

“This is the best I’ve felt in a while,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to be back.”

The Redskins‘ all-time leading tight end is working his way back this offseason from the nadir of his eight-year career. His role was reduced last season, and he ended the year on injured reserve. That created considerable uncertainty about his future.

Cooley on Monday acknowledged the difficulty facing him this summer, but he believes he finally is healthy enough to return to the form that once made him a star in this town.

“For me to contribute the way I would like to contribute, I think I have a big challenge ahead of me in proving that I’m still the player I think I can be and I’m still the player I was,” he said. “That’s something that I’m honestly excited about.”

Lingering soreness and swelling in his knee finally slowed him enough last season that coach Mike Shanahan promoted Fred Davis to No. 1 tight end.

While Davis led the team in receptions and receiving yards at the time of his December drug suspension, Cooley finished the season on injured reserve. He broke his hand in a vicious tackle Oct. 23, but his knee was what ended his year.

Cooley repeatedly had it drained of fluid during training camp and the regular season, and it affected his speed. He was highly critical of his performance when speaking to reporters Monday.

Now, with his 30th birthday July 11, he returns to a crowded tight end depth chart. Davis is back from his suspension, and the Redskins converted wide receiver Niles Paul to tight end. Shanahan hopes he can fill the role Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe did for his championship teams in Denver.

Whether Cooley’s roster spot is secure remains unclear.

The Redskins would save $3.8 million in salary cap space by releasing him after June 1. At the very least, his role is in doubt. That’s a bit of a shock considering he is only two years removed from tying his career high in receiving yardage.

“The NFL changes fast, and it’s a drastic business,” he said. “It’s tough for athletes, but I put in so much work. It’s a job that I love, and it’s a job that I’ve really treasured for a long time. It’s something I want to continue to do well.”

Shanahan is pleased with what Cooley has shown him so far. He was unable to comment Monday after his involvement in an on-field collision near the end of practice, but he has closely followed Cooley’s progress throughout the offseason.

Cooley is looking very good,” Shanahan said earlier this month. “There’s been no setback with him working out, him being able to run his routes, any swelling in the knee area.”

That’s an important first step for Cooley. The next involves regaining his speed.

He was displeased with how slow he appeared on game film in October. Regaining his speed is an essential component of re-establishing himself as an explosive player.

“I think that’s something you get back,” he said. “It’s been a while since I’ve run as fast as I think I am, and I’ll get to it.”

At that point, he’d have his eye on Davis‘ top spot. His goals are high. Now he believes he’s fit enough to obtain them.

“I feel like even if I’m not the guy - which is what I want to be, what I’m going to try to be - I’m going to still be a major factor on this team and on this offense,” he said. “But that’s not enough for me. So I want to be the guy that catches a lot of passes, gets a lot of first downs, scores touchdowns.”



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