When he finally got his time to shine, “Sunshine” did just that.
It was a painstaking wait for Philadelphia receiver Riley Cooper, but it happened in Week 11 when he got his first start of the season. The Eagles had a big game against the NFC East-rival Giants with Vince Young filling in for Michael Vick at quarterback and Cooper stepping in for second option Jeremy Maclin. Cooper finished with a team-high 12 targets and had 5 catches for 75 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown grab with 2:45 left.
Over the next couple weeks, Cooper would go on to have two more big efforts with Young under center as his chemistry with the backup was clearly better than the one he had with Vick. Cooper added 3 catches for 71 yards vs. the Patriots in Week 12 and 3 catches for 91 yards at the Seahawks in Week 13. The rest of the season, Cooper only managed a total of 5 receptions for 75 yards.
In that three-week span alone, Young targeted Cooper 27 times. That’s in stark contrast to Vick, who didn’t even target Cooper until Week 8 and only looked his way a total of five times.
The uphill battle to get attention will continue this season for the 2010 fifth-round draft choice out of Florida. Questions that surrounded the top two receivers on the team, DeSean Jackson and Maclin, don’t exist anymore. Jackson was slapped with the franchise tag on March 1, but he got his contract two weeks later and seems engaged again this spring. Maclin was dealing with a mysterious illness, but now he’s looking healthier than ever. After losing weight and missing most of the Eagles’ offseason preparation, he’s added seven pounds of muscle and bulked up to 205 pounds. Meanwhile, third option Jason Avant has produced consistently and his job there seems secure.
But now Cooper, who’s spent the last two years chasing those three players for playing time, is having to look over his shoulder at another player who may cost him a roster spot. Sixth-round pick out of Iowa Marvin McNutt has showed off good hands and strength all through the offseason and left a good impression on coaches at OTAs, which concluded last Thursday.
McNutt became the Hawkeyes’ all-time leading receiver with 2,861 yards and 28 touchdowns on 170 receptions. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as a senior in 2011 after finishing with 82 catches for a conference-best 1,315 yards and a school-record 12 touchdowns. Another young wideout fighting for a spot is undrafted free agent from Tulsa Damaris Johnson, a dynamic player who left college as the NCAA’s career all-purpose yardage leader.
Even more unsettling for Cooper may be the fact that this marks the third year of the four-year deal that he signed with the Eagles in 2010, and the Philadelphia media has kept an eye on the receiver position — a place that pass-happy coach Andy Reid always has his eyes on.
The running game isn’t the source of anger in “The City of Brotherly Love” these days. Not with LeSean McCoy at fourth in the league in rushing last year (1,309 yards) and first in rushing touchdowns (17). It’s the passing game that needs help. Vick regressed last year, finishing 14th in the NFL in QB rating (84.1) a year after being one of only four QBs to boast one over 100 along with Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers.
Vick and the offense’s biggest problem was the red zone, where the Eagles committed nine turnovers inside their opponents’ 20-yard line. As a result, Philadelphia finished a disappointing 14th in red-zone conversions on offense.
A big target at wideout would go a long way to solve those problems as the team’s top three wideouts, Jackson (5-foot-10), Maclin (6-foot) and Jason Avant (6-foot) are all undersized. That’s the role that the 6-foot-3 Cooper can claim, but he has to do it before the equally tall McNutt does.
Cooper has been spectacular as a special teams gunner, and that will likely leave him with a spot on the team regardless. But the player who chose to have a career in football over a promising one in baseball has higher expectations.
“I’m the fourth guy. I accept that,” Cooper told The Philadelphia Inquirer on May 31. “I’ve just got to go out every day and try to get better, same as everybody else.”
Wide receivers coach David Culley also has higher hopes for Cooper.
“I expect him to really make a jump and be the kind of player he’s capable of being,” Culley said.
The Eagles’ first preseason game is set for Thursday, August 9 at home against the Steelers.