Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Updated: April 21, 4:50 PM ET
Latest Gator WR has a lot to offer
By Len Pasquarelli
Maybe the 2009 successes of Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy means the worm has turned for former University of Florida wide receivers. If so, Riley Cooper is ready to take advantage of that turnaround.
"You're judged [in the NFL] on what you do, not somebody else, and I'm sure it's a case-by-case basis," assessed Cooper, when asked at the combine in February about the collective success, or lack thereof, of Florida wideouts. "But what those two guys achieved as rookies [in 2009]
it sure can't hurt."
Projected as a third- or fourth-round choice in this weekend's draft, a far different kind of receiver than the Gators have sent on to the NFL in recent years, Cooper figures to be the latest Florida wideout placed under the league's bright spotlight. Yet because of Harvin and Murphy, and his own combination of size and physicality and a projected ability to play the slot in a league increasingly skewed toward three- or four-wide receiver spread formations, Cooper likely will be able to withstand the heat.
Certainly, the recent history of the NFL draft is littered with former Florida receivers who wilted under the focus.
Perhaps spurred by the sophisticated passing games implemented by coach Urban Meyer and predecessor Steve Spurrier, the Gators have had at least one wide receiver chosen in eight of the past 10 drafts, and 14 of the past 16 years. In nine of those years, Florida had at least one wide receiver selected in the first three rounds. Included in that group were four first-round picks.
The litany of draft misses includes big-time prospects such as Chad Jackson, Taylor Jacobs, Travis Taylor and Jacquez Green. Guys like Jabar Gaffney, Darrell Jackson, Reidel Anthony, Ike Hilliard and Ricky Nattiel had some solid moments in the NFL, but none became stars.
Not until Harvin (first round, Minnesota) and Murphy (fourth round, Oakland) last year had the NFL performances of Florida wideouts approximated their glittering press clippings. Harvin earned offensive rookie of the year honors, tying for the NFL lead in receptions (60) by a first-year player. He also averaged 27.5 yards on 42 kickoff returns, posted two return touchdowns and had five runbacks of 40 or more yards.
Murphy started nine games for the Raiders and provided the team with the deep threat that disappointing first-rounder Darrius Heyward-Bey was supposed to supply. Murphy averaged 15.3 yards per catch, fifth-best among rookies with more than 30 catches.
Suddenly, it seems as if Florida wide receiver prospects, who rarely fulfilled anticipated potential, are viewed in a more favorable light. The exploits of Harvin and Murphy, as Cooper noted, haven't hurt. Nor has the flattering assessment of Cooper by Murphy done any harm to the draft status of the latest Gators' standout pass-catcher.
"He's big, quick, catches the ball and blocks," said Murphy recently of Cooper. "What else can you want in a wide receiver?"
Perhaps if NFL scouts had their druthers, Cooper would be a few tenths of a second faster, having clocked a 4.55-second time at the combine and a 4.48 in private workouts. But he plays faster than his stopwatch speed and is surprisingly fluid for his size (6-foot-3-⅜, 219 pounds). He typically gets a clean release from the line of scrimmage, is regarded by NFL scouts as sneaky fast on deep boundary routes, is an aggressive blocker, and tracks the ball well because of his baseball background (as an outfielder, he was drafted by Philadelphia in the 15th round in 2006 and by Texas in the 25th round last year).
"You don't have to tell him stuff twice," said Meyer, who has rated Cooper the best-blocking wide receiver he has ever coached. "And you usually don't have to ask him to do something, because he's ready to do it anyway, you know?"
That includes off the field as well.
Cooper, 22, is a regular at the Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Fla., where he has spent time with dozens of kids undergoing chemotherapy. A few years ago, Cooper honored the request of Kayleey Cooper -- a young cystic fibrosis patient who had chosen the Florida wide receiver as his favorite player -- to meet him. Two weeks later, Kayleey passed away. Riley Cooper, unable to serve as a pallbearer because of a commitment to the Gators baseball team, sent flowers.
"You just try to do the right thing, whatever the [undertaking]," Cooper said.
The right thing in the NFL could be playing slot receiver, where -- because of his size, knack of avoiding the initial jam, short-area quickness and ability to work adroitly between the hashes -- Cooper might evolve into an excellent inside No. 3 receiver. Defensive backs have a difficult time matching up with Cooper and, aside from some mental lapses catching the too-easy pass at times, he has good, usually sure hands.
Unlike many prospects in the 2010 draft, he has played special teams (the thankless gunner role to be exact), which should be appealing to most teams.
"I don't mind getting my hands a little dirty," Cooper said.
For the most part, though, Cooper would prefer his hands be filled with catches. Although he doesn't have the degree of hype that has accompanied several former Florida wide receivers, Cooper nonetheless latched on to 81 passes for 1,496 yards and 18 scores (a touchdown every 4.5 receptions) in his career, starting in 27 of 51 appearances. In 2009, he had 51 receptions for 961 yards and nine touchdowns.
His perceived lack of speed notwithstanding, Cooper had eight games in which he caught at least three passes and averaged more than 16.0 yards per reception.
And in the Sugar Bowl against Cincinnati, he registered seven receptions for 181 yards and a touchdown.
"Clutch guy, and he plays big when you need him," Meyer said. "And he saved the very best until last."
Come the weekend, there will be teams gambling that, for Cooper, the best is yet to come.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.