What Riley Cooper's Breakout Season Means for Philadelphia Eagles' Future at WR

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What Riley Cooper's Breakout Season Means for Philadelphia Eagles' Future at WR
USA TODAY Sports

In a matter of months, Riley Cooper went from being an inadequate No. 2 receiver replacing a fallen Jeremy Maclin to enjoying an improbable breakthrough campaign in his fourth NFL season.

The Philadelphia Eagles will take it—for now at least.

Cooper’s been in the news a ton since Maclin suffered a torn ACL back in July, albeit not always for the right reasons. What almost always goes overlooked, however, is the fact that the 2010 fifth-round selection out of Florida is scheduled to reach free agency in March, and it’s becoming increasingly likely there will be competition for his services.

Add in the fact that Maclin is set to hit the free-agent market as well, and the Eagles’ front office is facing some difficult decisions in 2014. With DeSean Jackson already under contract—not to mention on pace to break the franchise record for receiving yards in a season—is there room for all three?

It’s complicated.

For starters, the Birds would probably prefer to bring Maclin back, as he was arguably their top all-around wide receiver to begin with. The organization traded up in the 2009 draft and invested the 19th overall pick in the Missouri product, and losing him before the season began was thought to be a huge blow.

It would’ve been had Cooper not blown up. Since totaling eight receptions for 93 yards and one touchdown through the season's first five games, the 26-year-old has exploded for 23 catches, 499 yards and six scores over the last six contests.

He’s emerged as a legitimate threat, and Philly’s record is 4-2 from that point on.

That said, nobody is suggesting the Eagles don’t miss Maclin anymore. Cooper is currently on pace to finish with 861 yards. While Maclin has yet to take the next step to superstardom, the 25-year-old also hasn’t recorded fewer than 857 yards receiving in a season since his rookie year either.

Cooper may be averaging an astounding 19.1 yards per reception to go along with seven TDs, but there’s no telling what the vastly more talented Maclin would be doing in first-year head coach Chip Kelly’s offense. Cooper hasn’t even proven viable for a full 16-game season yet.

Okay, so Maclin has value, and as long as the contract makes sense, the Eagles should bring him back. There’s probably not much—if any—opposition to that.

What does it have to do with Cooper?

He’s playing Maclin’s position, for one. Like Maclin, both Cooper and Jackson primarily line up on the outside. To get all three receivers on the field, one would have to take on a new role as the primary slot receiver. It’s not outside the realm of possibility—Jackson already lines up in the slot on 25 percent of the team’s snaps this season, and Maclin lined up there 31 percent of the time in 2012, per Pro Football Focus (subscription only).

But will Cooper be necessary at that point? Jason Avant is under contract for one more season. Arrelious Benn will be returning from a torn ACL. The recently signed Brad Smith has vast experience in the slot. The Eagles could always add another receiver through the draft as well.

Given the size of the contract Cooper could be playing his way into, he might be deemed a luxury by this franchise. Nobody is going out and making Cooper their No. 1 wideout or anything, but it’s not unreasonable to envision a receiver-needy organization throwing some years and a fat signing bonus to land a veteran just coming into his own.

Plus, although the incident seems to be behind him now, it’s fair to speculate whether or not the organization will be willing to reward Cooper after a video of the receiver using a racial epithet went viral over the summer.

Of course, another team could always be willing to take a chance on Maclin, too. It’s not written in stone that he’ll be back either, even if the front office does its best to make it happen.

In terms of body of work and overall talent, though, there’s little doubt the Eagles would rather have a healthy Maclin over Cooper. The only question really is whether or not that will be an either/or proposition.

But based on the anticipated offers rolling in for Cooper and the numbers crunch at wide receiver for the Eagles assuming Maclin returns, it’s hard to envision where this season’s No. 2 receiver fits into Philadelphia's future.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable at all to think Cooper will be catching footballs in a different uniform next season.

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