The Philadelphia Eagles enter the 2014 offseason with ten players heading to free agency. Some of them are players the Eagles will clearly re-sign, like defensive end Cedric Thornton and punter Donnie Jones. Others are obvious departures, like quarterback Michael Vick (who wants a shot at a starting job elsewhere) and pass rusher Phillip Hunt. But there are several players who are on the fence, and none of them is a bigger question mark than wide receiver Riley Cooper.
Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin’s situation is relatively simple. The Eagles value him, but he’s coming off an injury. They won’t overpay to keep him, and if a team falls in love with him they just might overpay. The Eagles have a number in mind and will let Maclin walk if he finds a better one.
Cooper’s more of an interesting case. You can hardly come across a mention of his name these days without the words “breakout season” next to them. After Nick Foles became the permanent starting quarterback and the team as a whole settled into Chip Kelly’s offensive scheme, Cooper’s production increased significantly, and he finished the season having put up solid numbers in a contract year.
Entering this offseason, it’s important to understand exactly what Cooper is. He’s a bigger wide receiver, which is a big hit with Eagles fans who have pined for years for size at the wide receiver position. He has above average ball skills and solid hands (though his drop in the Wild Card game against the Saints may have been the biggest play of the game). Cooper is also a good blocker, something we know Chip Kelly values.
That said, he’s not fast. He doesn’t get good separation on the outside and generally can be taken out of plays with one-on-one coverage by the typical opposing cornerback. Where Cooper’s blocking helps the run game, his lack of speed hurts it—teams don’t need to employ safety help on Cooper the way they do on DeSean Jackson.
It’s for this reason that Cooper has likely hit his ceiling already. As a No. 2 wide receiver, he’ll put up some numbers, especially against weaker defenses. But he’s not enough of a downfield threat to open up the offense in the way Kelly would like.
The “big wide receiver” phenomenon is more of a fan-made concept than a general manager concern. Speed, and consequently the ability to get open, is the most important part of being a wide receiver. That Jackson is small is rarely actually a problem. That Cooper is slow is quite frequently a problem.
Foles has been criticized for holding on to the ball too long under pressure, this despite having the best quarterback rating in the league when under pressure. And the offensive line has been blamed for not providing him enough protection, despite being one of the strongest and most consistent units in the league.
The reality is that the biggest problem for the Eagles passing game has been players not getting open. With only one speedy wide receiver in Jackson, teams don’t need to employ extra resources to take on Cooper and Jason Avant. A spread offense is predicated upon skill position players who can actually spread the defense out. At the wide receiver position, the Eagles didn’t do that on a consistent basis in 2013 because of Cooper and Avant.
That’s not to say that Cooper doesn’t have value. He does, and it’s clear that he can be a productive player in this offense. But as a No. 2 wide receiver, he can easily be upgraded. It could be Maclin, or it could be a draft pick, but I would be stunned if Cooper is back in the same spot next season. He’s simply not good enough to be there.
This is what makes Cooper’s situation interesting. The Eagles likely want him back as a number four wide receiver. He can get some snaps on offense to give guys a breather and he can play special teams. But it’s unlikely that Philadelphia will want to pay much for him to do so. It’s Cooper’s contract year and likely his last chance to cash in. If another team is enamored with the potential he showed in the second half of 2013, they’ll likely be in position to outbid Philadelphia for his services.
That said, he’s a known commodity who has a level of comfort with Foles and the Eagles organization. His situation last summer is known in all corners of the professional level, and it’s unlikely he can find a locker room situation as comfortable for him as the one he has in Philadelphia. How much does he value that? There may be teammates where he goes who are not as understanding of his situation. It’s a valid concern.
Ultimately, it’s a question of how much the Eagles value his skill set. I’m not sure they value it as much as some fans think because I think fans overvalue the importance of size at the wide receiver position. Nonetheless, this will be an intriguing situation for the organization this offseason, perhaps the most interesting case of all.