How does baseball help Riley Cooper?
Riley Cooper has six catches this season of 40-plus yards. (AP)
Riley Cooper is not a burner. That’s putting it mildly.
Cooper ran 4.53 at the 2010 NFL scouting combine, which ranked him 21st out of 35 wide receivers who ran the 40-yard dash that February day at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
That helps explain why despite terrific hands and very good size -- Cooper stands 6-foot-3, 222 pounds -- Cooper wasn’t drafted until the middle of the fifth round, when the Eagles took him with the 159th pick.
Cooper was the 19th wide receiver taken in the 2010 draft, and the 4.53 is one of the main reasons.
For a linebacker, that’s fast.
For a receiver, it’s slow.
In fact, since 1999 -- the span of 15 drafts -- Cooper’s 4.53 ranks in the 31st percentile among all wide receivers who ran the 40 at the combine.
According to data collected by NFL Combine Results, Cooper’s 4.53 was tied for 312th out of 450 wide receivers that ran the 40 from 1999 through 2013.
So, with all that said, here’s the reality:
Fourteen weeks into the 2013 season, Cooper leads the NFC with 19.3 yards per catch and ranks second only to Josh Gordon in the entire NFL in yards per reception. The explosive Gordon is averaging 19.7 for the Browns.
Cooper is also fifth in the NFL with six receptions of 40 yards or more, just two fewer than Gordon and one fewer than DeSean Jackson.
Cooper can’t run like Calvin Johnson, Mike Wallace or Santana Moss, who all were timed in 4.35 seconds or better at the combine, but he’s somehow got a higher average and more long receptions than any of them.
All of which proves one thing: Speed isn’t the only factor when it comes to making big plays.
It may not even be the biggest factor.
“Speed isn't the [biggest] factor, because if it was, then the fastest guy in the NFL would catch the most deep balls,” head coach Chip Kelly said. “It's not that. There's a lot more to it.
“This isn't a track meet. It's who has the ability. ... There's a lot of fast guys that run down the field, but when the ball is not thrown directly to them, they can't adjust to it. They are straight‑line guys that can't veer off course.
“I think the ability to adjust to the ball and the ability to understand leverage of the defensive player and the ability Riley has of being big enough not to get knocked off-track, when obviously the defensive player knows where the ball is going ... is a huge component to it. It’s more than just the speed factor.”
Cooper points out that he averaged 18.8 yards on 51 catches as a senior at Florida, second-best in the SEC behind Joe Adams of Arkansas, and he led the Eagles with 19.7 yards per catch in 2011.
Among all Eagles with 75 or more catches, Cooper’s seventh all-time with 16.8 yards per catch, and he’s also eighth-highest among active NFL players.
“I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done, I’m just glad it’s kind of coming to light that Riley can run,” he said.
“I see the ball in the air, I just think it’s mine, it’s mine, and I’m going to do everything I can to go get it. I think my baseball background helps me make adjustments on the ball more than a guy maybe with straight go-get-it type speed, but for whatever reason, luckily, I can adjust to balls in the air.
Cooper, a one-time draft pick of the Phillies, has been one of the big surprises of the season for the Eagles, who are in first place and take an 8-5 record and five-game winning streak into Minneapolis this weekend.
He’s 37 for 714 with seven touchdowns overall, but in Nick Foles’ seven starts, he’s got 27 receptions for 608 yards and six touchdowns.
Pro-rated over a full season with Foles at quarterback, Cooper would have 61 catches for 1,389 yards and 13 touchdowns.
All this from a guy who had 46 catches for 679 yards and five touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons.
Cooper had two catches of at least 40 yards in his first 3½ NFL seasons, both on passes from Vince Young back in 2011.
He has six in the last eight weeks.
Even though Cooper started six games with Michael Vick at quarterback, 13 of Cooper’s 15 longest receptions this year have come from Foles. The other two were from Matt Barkley.
Since Week 6, Cooper actually has the sixth-most receiving yards in the NFL.
During that same eight-game span, Cooper is fourth in the NFL with 12 receptions of 20-plus yards and third with seven catches of 30 yards or more.
It’s all about the big plays, big catches.
None was bigger than his acrobatic, tumbling 44-yard catch Sunday that finally kick-started the Eagles in their 34-20 win over the Lions.
Like many of his big plays, speed wasn’t the key. Working a defensive back and adjusting to the ball were.
“One of the things that Riley is, and got a great background in baseball, he does a great job of tracking the ball while it's in the air,” Kelly said. “I think a lot of it is he has some background in being an outfielder.
“That catch he made on the post route [Sunday], he just did a great job at tracking the ball, and he's very, very good at tracking deep balls.
“When you watch him every day in practice, you can see him, he can adjust to the thrown ball, and it's not an easy thing.
“Sometimes it's got to be a great pass by the quarterback for it to be a successful play. I think with Riley, you can miss him a little bit, but because of his ability to adjust to the thrown ball in the air, it's really one of his strengths and it's what I think really separates him from other people.”
The Eagles have had a lot of unlikely stars this year, most notably Foles.
But Cooper might be a close second.
Who expected any of this from the former fifth-round pick?
“You’ve got to give you a lot of credit to your quarterback,” Cooper said. “Quarterback putting the ball right where it needs to be and you both just being on the same page and having great chemistry.
“Really all I’m doing is running the route, and [Foles is] doing all the rest. Throwing you open (throwing the ball in a way that gets the WR open) if you’re not. He’s doing a great job.”