Confidence should make Riley Cooper even better

Confidence should make Riley Cooper even better

How much faster can Eagles' offense be in 2014?

June 17, 2014, 4:00 pm
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Riley Cooper had more touchdowns last season (eight) than he had in his first three seasons combined (five). (USA Today Images)

Listen to wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell talk for a few minutes, and you'll get the sense he's expecting big things from Riley Cooper this year.

No doubt the entire organization is.

After Cooper's breakout 2013 season, the Eagles signed the four-year wideout to a five-year, $25 million contract in February with $8 million guaranteed while letting three-time Pro Bowler DeSean Jackson walk to the rival Redskins.

"Riley got a lot better last year because he [utilized] his physical nature," Bicknell said Monday at the NovaCare Complex. "I think it's learning what you have, what you're special at and how to use that against whatever they're trying to do."

Acknowledging that the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Cooper just got better last year is a bit of an understatement. The 26-year-old, who used to be known more for his blocking than his pass-catching ability, posted better numbers in one year under Chip Kelly — 47 catches, 835 yards, eight TDs — than he did in three years under Andy Reid — 46 catches, 679 yards, five TDs.

Apparently, the Eagles' new regime saw something in Cooper from the beginning. Rather than simply cutting him after a video of him using a racial slur went viral during training camp, the team allowed Cooper to apologize and work toward earning back the respect that he had lost from his teammates.

Once Jeremy Maclin went down with a torn ACL in training camp, Cooper was thrust into the starting role. He struggled in the early going with Michael Vick at quarterback, posting just eight catches for 93 yards and a score through the first five games.

But once Vick went down in October and Nick Foles stepped in the starting role, Cooper excelled. In 10 games, he made 39 catches for 742 yards and seven TDs. He also pulled in six catches for 68 yards and a TD in the Birds' playoff loss to the Saints.

The production jump was a big confidence booster to Cooper, Bicknell explained.

"I don't feel like it took him longer to get acclimated [to Kelly's offensive system]," Bicknell said. "In some ways, I'm not sure how much Riley thought of himself as a starter in the National Football League. I don't think he had done that yet — be a guy that was an everyday starter.

"I talked to him this year about how great and how good he thinks he can be. Any player has to gain that feel, and I think he's starting to do that. He'll get better and better with confidence."

Perhaps the most impressive part of Cooper's 2013 season was his ability to catch the long ball. His mark of 17.8 yards per catch was better than both Jackson's 2013 average (16.2) and career average (17.2).

Of course, with the speedy Jackson gone, much of an opponent's downfield attention will shift to the Cooper, but neither Bicknell nor offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is worried about that.

"Deep threats are guys who catch the ball probably over 20 yards down the field," Bicknell said. "[After losing Jackson], I don't personally look at it and say, 'Gosh, we can't go deep.' I think Riley Cooper has some of the best ball judgment on deep balls as anybody."

A skill Cooper likely picked up during his baseball-playing days.

"He tracks the ball extremely well, especially the ones a long way away from the line of scrimmage," Shurmur said. "And he's got size. So he has the ability to go up and over a defender and make a contested catch, which gives him an advantage in some situations."

Cooper is a skilled former outfielder who played baseball for two years at Florida. He was originally drafted by the Phillies in 2006 in the 15th round out of Clearwater Central Catholic High School. He was actually ranked the No. 161 prospect going into that draft by Baseball America, which would project to a fifth- or sixth-round pick, but fell to the 15th because of his known desire to play in college.

In 2009, Cooper was drafted again — this time by the Texas Rangers in the 25th round — and flirted with becoming a professional baseball player before returning to Florida for his senior football season.

It was the right choice. With the Gators, Cooper had by far the best season of his collegiate career, making 51 catches for 961 yards and nine TDs. He became the Eagles' fifth-round pick in the 2010 draft.

It took him another four years to find that kind of production again in the NFL, and he'll enter 2014 with an even bigger role after Jackson's departure.

"Production comes with who's going to go out and make plays," Bicknell said. "Last year, Riley — I'm not sure he knew exactly what he was able to do."

He does now, and so do the Eagles. Or at least they hope. 

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