PHILADELPHIA - AUGUST 13: Riley Cooper #14 of the Philadelphia Eagles points towards the sideline against the Jacksonville Jaguars during their preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on August 13 2010 in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Riley Cooper, a rookie who was Tim Tebow's roommate at Florida, has been a surprise success so far for the Eagles.
Let's hop in the Wayback Machine and set the dial for summer 2009. I'm making lists of college seniors to study in the upcoming season. As I go down the list of players at Florida I see the name "Riley Cooper". I check out his info. He's got good size at 6-3, 215. The downside is that he's only got 30 career catches. Marginal prospect.
So I start watching the Gators during the 2009 season. Cooper makes some plays and gets his name called a lot. I still can't take him all that seriously. He's got a goofy look. He's a baseball star. He's Tim Tebow's BFF. And I can't get over a WR named Riley. Florida is a loaded team so I watch them a lot. Slowly, something strange starts to happen. I notice that Riley isn't just thriving because of Tebow or the spread offense. Riley is a big, strong guy and he manhandles DBs who try to be physical with him. He isn't the fastest guy in the world, but he runs well for his size. I finally give in and admit that Riley is a pretty good player. Now I have to study him closely to figure out if he can play in the NFL.
Put on the South Carolina game. Cooper catches a skinny post and takes it 68 yards for a touchdown. That's good RAC ability. Put on the Arkansas game and watch him come up big on the game winning drive. You can see he's clutch, but also tough. He caught the ball in traffic and took some shots. Put on the Florida State tape and watch him get the best of Patrick Robinson, a first-round pick. Maybe most impressive of all is that you can watch any Florida game and see Riley out there playing on special teams. He was a blocker on the kickoff return unit. He even covered on kickoffs. How good is that?
I rated Riley as a player that would go in the third or fourth round. He slid down to the fifth round and the Eagles happily grabbed him. Cooper had some drops that hurt his value. He can pluck the ball. He can make spectacular catches. As a junior he had an amazing one-hand touchdown grab against The Citadel. The problem is that he occasionally lets the ball get into his body and then drops it. Riley is just raw because he spent so much time playing baseball and then played in a "unique" passing offense at Florida. He doesn't lack the ability to eliminate the drops problem. He just needs a lot of practice.
Riley came up to Philadelphia after the draft and impressed everyone right away. He was good throughout the OTAs. We all wondered if that would carry over to training camp. Yes. Riley looked right at home up at Lehigh. He caught the ball well and out-muscled DBs that tried to cover him. He developed a good rapport with Michael Vick. There was talk about Cooper challenging for the number four role in the receiver rotation.
Last Friday the Eagles played their preseason opener. Cooper caught a 46-yard bomb from Vick shortly after getting into the game. So much for anyone who doubted if he could deliver in a game. Riley then made a beautiful catch of a slant pass. He plucked the ball and got upfield for a first down. He led the Eagles with 3 catches for 61 yards.
Initially I thought of Cooper as somewhat of a project. He only started one season. He played in the spread. This is a guy who would need time to adjust to the pro game and learn the subtleties of playing receiver. Now it looks like that is way off the mark. Cooper isn't a finished product or anything like that, but I'm starting to think this is a player that will contribute for us in 2010. I think he's got a very good chance to be the number four receiver right now.
The Big 3 are set (DJax, Mac, and Avant), but there is room for Cooper. He is bigger than those guys. He is a more physical receiver. We could use him in certain situations. The Red Zone certainly comes to mind. I know a lot of people think of the fade route as being perfect for Riley. I expect us to try that and see how it works. I think Cooper can be an asset running a simple slant. He can beat cornerbacks to the inside. Once he has that position it is just a matter of the QB putting the ball on the money. I'd love to see us mix in the post when we are between the 10 and 20-yard lines. We had success with that in the 1990s when Chris T. Jones and Irving Fryar were our receivers. TO scored a TD against the Bears in 2004 on a post route in the Red Zone.
I'm not projecting Riley Cooper to be a weapon for us in 2010. I do think he can help out as a role player. If he can make a few key plays, that could make the difference in winning and losing a game or two. That's especially true if he does develop into a Red Zone threat. I'll be interested to see if the coaches try to mix Cooper in with the starting offense in the next couple of preseason games. They know he can beat backup DBs. The question now is what he'll do against starting caliber players.
Think about what Cooper does for the receiving corps. We have an explosive playmaker in DeSean. Jeremy Maclin is a complete receiver. Jason Avant is a great route-runner with great hands. Cooper completes the group by giving us a big, physical receiver who is tough for DBs to match up with. That is one of the best sets of receivers in the NFL, in terms of both talent and versatility.
The other big benefit you get with Riley is that he'll play on special teams. Some young receivers don't embrace the role of blocking for returners or covering kicks/punts. Riley was a good special teams player in college and should be in the NFL. He's got plenty of size and strength. Heck, he's almost as big as a couple of our LBs.
Cooper has had a great spring and summer so far. He's a lock for the roster, but needs to keep up the good work to secure a spot in the gameday rotation. Good games against Cincinnati and Kansas City will impress the coaches and encourage them to include Cooper in the offense. Riley has passed every test with flying colors so I expect him to continue playing well. He doesn't seem to understand that he's a rookie or a project. I hope nobody tells him. He just might be a part of the puzzle we've been lacking the last couple of years. Not bad for a receiver named Riley.
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Eagles fans were merciless in their criticism of receivers coach David Culley for years. It is hard to blame the fans based on how poorly our receiving corps looked from 1999-2005. Things started to change in 2006 with the arrival of Avant. Suddenly we had a young receiver that looked like a keeper. DeSean came along in 2008. Maclin in 2009. Now Cooper in 2010. Don't forget about Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola from last year. Or Chad Hall from this year.
I think we now have to give David Culley some credit. When he finally got the right players, he was able to develop them into pretty darn good receivers. Not bad for a worthless bum who couldn't coach his way out of a paper bag, huh? Amazing the difference that talented pupils make.
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There were plenty of players who stood out in the preseason opener. I want to mention how impressed I was with LT Austin Howard. Coach Juan Castillo has done a great job with him. Howard is a big guy with some athletic ability, but he was very raw when we signed him in April. Howard only played LT for a couple of years at Northern Iowa. I definitely saw him as a project. Against Jacksonville he played LT for about three quarters of the game. Howard looked good. He did a good job in pass protection. He moved his feet and used his arms. He was physical when he got the chance. He looked like a natural. Austin Howard could be our best UDFA signing in a long time.
Linebacker Keenan Clayton was a fourth-round pick. We wanted him for his speed and playmaking potential. He blitzed 3 times against the Jaguars. One blitz resulted in a sack. Another blitz almost forced an interception. We have lacked good blitzers at the LB level for a while. Nate Wayne is probably the last guy we had who could regularly make things happen when attacking. Clayton looked very fast when on the run or playing in space. He's only going to be a role player this year, but Clayton has a very bright future.