Receiver draft class may determine Eagles future of Cooper, Maclin

Posted: January 27, 2014

MOBILE, Ala. - The Senior Bowl, once again, was not the place to find wide receivers who will be selected in the first round of the draft.

But buzz had already developed here about a group of underclassmen who could make the 2014 draft the deepest at the receiver position in years. And that could affect how the Eagles approach re-signing Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin.

Free agency is more than six weeks away, though, and a poll of coaches, executives, scouts, and agents suggested the Eagles would likely keep both wide receivers. As one NFC executive put it, "Who else will like Cooper as much as Chip [Kelly]?" And as an AFC coach posited, "Only the Eagles know how healthy Maclin is."

The market will ultimately decide the worth of both players, but the Eagles have exclusive rights to re-sign Cooper and Maclin before March 11. The team and each player's representative have already had communication, but the receivers could opt to test the market.

Cooper's value is up for debate. He had a career year filling in for the injured Maclin, catching 47 passes for 835 yards and eight touchdowns. His 17.8 yards per reception was third best in the NFL.

Before 2013, Cooper caught 46 passes for 678 yards and five touchdowns in three seasons, mostly as a fourth or fifth receiver. He said the significant increase in production was due to his taking advantage of an opportunity.

Some have argued - and general manager Howie Roseman could certainly make the same claim in negotiations - that Cooper benefited from Kelly's system. The Eagles head coach, though, has given the majority of credit to the 26-year-old receiver.

Kelly's commitment to Cooper goes beyond his performance. While he admired the receiver's toughness and willingness to block, Kelly appreciated Cooper's response to adversity the most, according to a source close to the coach. Cooper rewarded his coach after he stood behind him when his racial slur threatened to derail Kelly's first season before it even started.

But the Eagles are sure to use the incident as a bargaining chip. In December, one NFL executive told The Inquirer that he would pause before signing Cooper because the addition could disrupt locker-room harmony. But, he added: "Doesn't mean I wouldn't do it."

"It's hard for me to predict how another locker room would handle it," Roseman said last week in Mobile. "I know what kind of player [Cooper] is to be around. . . . He's a very up-front guy. He knows that he made a mistake. He's a guy that we drafted. Had a good year for us. Works really hard. And so, he's a young asset."

Maclin was drafted a year before Cooper, but he's 10 months younger. His resumé is longer, too. He has 165 catches, 1,939 yards, and 13 touchdowns more than Cooper. But Maclin has torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee twice - the second time occurring at the start of training camp in July.

He said after the season that he realized he may have to accept a one-year contract to prove his health. The Eagles will have firsthand knowledge of his progress. Maclin will rehab at the NovaCare Complex over the next six weeks.

If he remains unsigned after March 11, any other team would be free to work Maclin out. With a thin free-agent field - the Broncos' Eric Decker, the Giants' Hakeem Nicks, and the Seahawks' Golden Tate are three of the most attractive - Maclin could get a multiyear offer despite the injury.

But the wide-receiver depth in the draft does provide alternatives. Seven receivers, all underclassmen - Sammy Watkins of Clemson, Mike Evans of Texas A&M, Marquise Lee of Southern Cal, Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State, Allen Robinson of Penn State, Odell Beckham of Louisiana State, and Brandon Cooks of Oregon State - could go in the first round.

The talent doesn't end there, though, and the Eagles could look to the later rounds for replacements if either Cooper or Maclin leaves or veteran Jason Avant is waived.

The Eagles have around $20 million in salary-cap space, but they don't have a franchise quarterback contract, and they need to look ahead, especially if their young core improves and the team plans on retaining its own draft picks.

"Can we keep this team together?" Roseman said. "These drafts come around really quickly, so all of sudden, you get there and you go: 'Wow, this guy is going to be [beyond] his third year next year. We want to keep him here.' "

So the Eagles will look to save a buck here and there on their own players, even if they're under contract. And there could be a trade or two, although predraft swapping is hard to pull off. But there likely won't be as much cost-cutting and movement as some expect, judging from the consensus among NFL people during Senior Bowl week.

The Eagles like all three of their tight ends - Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, and James Casey - and just because Celek ($4 million salary) and Casey ($4 million) get raises in 2014, it doesn't mean they won't be back.

Todd Herremans ($3 million) should return at right guard. Inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans ($6.8 million) will likely have to take a pay cut. Outside linebacker Trent Cole ($5 million) could be easier to trade this offseason. Brandon Graham's future as an outside linebacker with the Eagles could depend upon Cole's whereabouts.

The Eagles may want to extend left tackle Jason Peters ($9.65 million), who has one year left on his deal. Cary Williams ($4.75 million) and Bradley Fletcher ($3.275 million) are relatively cheap for starting cornerbacks.

Even though a former coach said free agent Nate Allen's biggest drawback was that he was "afraid to hit," the safety ought to be back, although there are no guarantees. The only Eagles free agent who appeared to be a slam dunk to return was punter Donnie Jones.


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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