During the Urban Meyer Era at Florida there were three skill guys who caught my eye and held serious intrigue as future NFL players: Aaron Hernandez, Tim Tebow, and Riley Cooper. Hernandez’s potential as a game-changing weapon were apparent whenever he saw a target where he could turn up field. Tebow was the lightning rod for debate. Former CBS Sportsline/NFL Draft Scout and NFL.com film analyst Chad Reuter and I had our first fun debate over Tebow. Reuter was convinced Tebow would be a first-round pick and he was right.
While I thought Tebow would have a tough time developing the skills of a traditional pocket passer, I have to credit Reuter for seeing ahead of the curve and having an understanding that the read-option was coming to the league. While Tebow may never get a long-term opportunity again as a starter, there may be a similar dynamic in play that held back Doug Flutie. Different style players, but both thrived as improvisers and leaders and could win with the right offensive system.
But it was Cooper who I thought was sliding under the radar. Tall (6’4″), built (224 lbs.), and swift enough to get separation down field, Cooper didn’t benefit from playing in a system where the quarterback could make multiple reads and execute the vertical game efficiently. Those weren’t Tebow’s strengths, but there were still enough examples on tape where Cooper flashed the potential to develop a complete game.
I wasn’t alone. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah was between scouting gigs that year when Cecil Lammey and I caught up with him at the Senior Bowl. Cooper was one of Jeremiah’s favorite receivers at the practices and I could see why. Cooper was consistently working open on intermediate routes, earning separation deep, and making difficult targets look easy. He wasn’t flashy, but he was sound.
It may not be how it went down, but it’s no coincidence to me that Jeremiah took a job as a scout with the Eagles soon after the Senior Bowl and Philadelphia drafted Cooper in April. Now that Jeremy Maclin is out for the year, Cooper earns a golden opportunity to start for the Eagles. It seems most observers and fans aren’t impressed with Cooper.
With the exception of some nice work with Vince Young a couple of years ago, I haven’t seen Cooper do much since his days at Florida so there’s a chance he hasn’t developed his game for the pros at the expected trajectory I thought he was capable. However, I have a sneaky feeling that those who are underwhelmed by Cooper are those who need to see a flashy game to be impressed by a skill player.
Here’s my predraft take of Riley Cooper from the 2010 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Cooper was my No.8 receiver overall behind the likes of Dez Bryant, Damian Williams, Golden Tate, Arrelious Benn, Andre Roberts, Eric Decker, and Blair White – and of course, Demaryius Thomas.
Cooper scored a 74 and an 81 on two game reports I performed on him as a Senior against Alabama and Cincinnati in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. These reports are on a 100-point scale and Cooper’s scores placed him in the range of a bench player with the skill to contribute immediately in selected packages if needed. These evaluations were done a year or two before I began documenting a “Ceiling Score,” which is my way of gauging his potential at the NFL level based on the ease or difficulty of what he needed to learn.
Looking back through my notes, I think Cooper’s ceiling score would have been in the high 80s – low 90s, which is starter material. Below are cleaned up play-by-play notes from these two games. Cooper’s stats versus Alabama:
- 7 Targets
- 1 Missed Target (QB)
- 2 Drop
- 2 Dropped After Contact
- 77 Yards
- 51 YAC
Cooper’s stats versus Cincinnati:
- 8 Targets
- 1 Missed Target (QB)
- 7 Receptions
- 2 Difficult Receptions
- 181 Yards
- 60 YAC
- 1 TD
Here are my overall summaries of these two games as well as my actual play-by-play notes of Riley Cooper that describe what I saw.
Overall Strengths (vs. Alabama): I think Cooper has a lot of potential to be a starting NFL receiver. He is a physical player against press coverage and uses his size to his advantage to get open. He has enough speed to separate vertically and he can adjust to the football in the air. He demonstrates some facility with pro-style, intermediate routes. He is a good runner in the open field who can dip in and out of traffic and shows good balance to get yards after contact. He is a physical player as a blocker and can help on special teams.
I don’t think Cooper is as athletic as Jordy Nelson, but he might be a better receiver at this stage of his development. Michael Irvin would be at the top of the spectrum of receivers to compare Cooper (stylistically). I think he has more upside and down field speed than Malcolm Kelly.
Overall Strengths (vs. Cincinnati): Good route runner. He sets up defenders in single coverage on deep routes with subtle, but very effective moves to get defenders to turn their hips at the wrong time. he can adjust to the ball in the air and make catches with his hands away from his body in tight coverage. Combine these skills with what I think is good speed and Cooper has NFL potential.
Overall Weaknesses (vs. Alabama): Cooper dropped the tough catches after contact that an NFL receiver needs to make. He has good, but not great speed. He needs to prove he can run the entire route tree. Cooper also lacks dynamic athleticism to become a major open-field threat.
Overall Weaknesses (vs. Cincinnati): I didn’t see him face press coverage. he will need to work on extending his routes in the pros because he’ll be playing with quarterbacks that will have the ability to look to more than one quadrant of the field.
What To Look For In Eagles Camp
Cooper will need to catch the ball in tight coverage and after contact. If he still has consistency issues against physical play as the ball arrives, he’s only going to be a role player because his athleticism is good enough, but only good enough to get initial separation and then use his frame to shield the defender from the ball. This means Cooper will be a better fit for the quarterback capable of squeezing the ball into a tight window. If you hear about Cooper working extra with quarterbacks to get more rapport this will be a good sign, because he’s not going to get two steps on defenders and run the ball down as much as he’ll have to make a catch with a defender draped over his back.
Cooper’s size and strength makes him a good candidate for red zone targets on fades, crossing routes, and plays at the end line. If Nick Foles or Matt Barkley see the field, Cooper could earn a lot more targets in the red zone than I think he will with Vick under center. Foles was a pretty good fade route passer at Arizona and Barkley to Woods was often a thing of beauty at USC.
As I mentioned earlier, I did see some nice work with Cooper and Vince Young on scramble drills and I think this is where he may shine with Vick for some big plays behind the defense. However, this is contingent on Vick not leaning heavily on zone-beater Jason Avant, who has some of the most reliable mitts on the team and works a shorter-safer range of the field.
I expect DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, James Casey, and Zach Ertz to earn the most targets this year. Cooper might threaten Casey or Ertz’s standing on the totem pole, but I think it’s more likely that Jason Avant, Damaris Johnson, and even Russell Shephard will earn some looks in a rotation that limit Cooper’s targets. However, if Foles or Barkley earn time, Cooper might surprise in the way fellow teammate David Nelson did with the Bills during the Ryan Fitzpatrick era.
For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.