As Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper barrel toward unrestricted free agency, it’s tempting for Philadelphia Eagles fans and analysts alike to suggest the team re-sign both. The question most people haven’t even bothered to ask is can the organization afford to?
The Birds were second in the NFL in salary cap space with over $19 million allotted to wide receivers in 2013, according to Spotrac.com, and that was with Maclin and Cooper playing on their rookie contracts. The team already has that much money committed to the position again next season before signing either one of them—not to mention both players are due significant raises.
Despite missing all of ‘13 with a torn ACL, Maclin figures to be a commodity in a barren free-agent market. He may have to settle for a short-term deal coming off of an injury, but the fact remains he’s a 26-year-old, first-round talent who averaged 67 receptions, 893 yards and seven touchdowns per season between 2010-12.
Mike Williams for Tampa Bay averaged remarkably similar numbers over the same time period with 64 receptions, 910 yards and eight touchdowns. The Bucs awarded him with a multi-year extension worth nearly $8 million per year.
Maclin may have to settle for less right now, but somewhere in the $6-7 million range at least seems likely, which would be more than twice what he was earning with the Eagles.
If Maclin’s salary is set to double, Cooper could be worth nearly 10 times what he was making. The 2010 fifth-round pick was earning six figures when he turned in his breakout year. Now, all of a sudden, he’s poised to strike it rich as a free agent.
With 835 yards and eight touchdowns, Cooper proved he could be a viable No. 2 receiver in the NFL, which doesn’t come cheap. There’s no direct comparison out there, but just take a look at the average salary of some of the recently-signed contracts at the position (all figures via Spotrac): Brian Hartline, Miami, $6.1 million; Danny Amendola, New England, $5.7; Nate Burleson, Detroit, $5.0; Eddie Royal, San Diego, $4.5; Nate Washington, Tennessee, $4.4 and Lance Moore, New Orleans, $4.0. Only Royal’s deal was less than five years.
These are all complimentary receivers, several of whom never had a season as good as the one Cooper just posted prior to signing. Adjust for inflation—the value of contracts is always on the rise—and the 26-year-old could potentially crack the $5-6 million range, if not higher. Free agency gets crazy sometimes.
There is a line of thinking that Cooper’s price could be driven down by the fact that he’s only had one good season. He’s also less than a year removed from an incident in which he was caught using a racial slur.
No doubt those issues will turn some teams off, but not all. Cooper finished third in yards per catch and sixth in receptions of 40 yards or more. Some desperate franchise will pay for a receiver who can make plays down the field like that.
The Eagles already have an average of $11.6 million invested in DeSean Jackson over the next three seasons. Even if Maclin and Cooper re-signed at the lower end of the spectrum, that’s roughly another $10 million. Plus, assuming Maclin only signs a short-term deal, he could be due another raise a year or two down the road if he exceeds his previous numbers.
Let’s face it, the only way Philadelphia can keep both Maclin and Cooper is if one of them comes back for below market value. We’re talking, at most, a third wide receiver in the $3-4 million range, which would still be more than the team has been paying Jason Avant in that role the past four seasons.
That’s not likely to happen.
So if the Birds can only have one, who’s it gonna be?
Maclin is the obvious choice, for several reasons. One, Maclin has better production, and two, he has more overall talent. Cooper’s breakout campaign still falls short of what Maclin has been able to accomplish through four NFL seasons—and Mac is the one with the upside.
After watching both Jackson and Cooper post career years in Chip Kelly’s offense, what do you think Maclin could do?
What Cooper brings to the offense is more limited in scope. He only had 47 receptions, which is low volume for a No. 2, and he was most effective on deep passes, which Jackson and Maclin both bring to the table.
Cooper has trouble getting separation at the line of scrimmage, he can be single-covered by most corners, and the idea that his size makes him effective in the red zone is a bit of a fallacy. His production inside of 20 yards (7 REC, 58 YDS, 4 TD) was almost identical to Jackson in 2013 (6 REC, 55 YDS, 3 TD).
The biggest difference between Cooper and Maclin is Mac moves the chains. He’ll go deep, over the middle and catch passes in the red zone just as well or better, but he can also get open within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles set an NFL record for plays over 20 yards in 2013. They can afford to give up a few of Cooper’s in exchange for Maclin’s ability to keep drives alive.
Remember, Cooper was a fifth-round pick. Players exceed their draft position all the time, but he doesn't have any skill or ability that, in theory, couldn't be replaced through the draft. Yes, Cooper did a serviceable job for the Eagles in '13, but it's probably time to start thinking about life without him.