Commentary

Staying put best for Decker, Cooper

FA receivers won't find system comfort, elite QB play chasing huge payday

Originally Published: February 20, 2014
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

You can't ever blame a player for chasing the money.

We all know the drill. Careers are short in the National Football League. Injuries happen. Contracts aren't guaranteed.

Players, by and large, are expendable. A younger replacement is always rolling through the scouting combine, entering the draft, ready and willing to snatch a veteran's job.

So when a player finally enters free agency for the first time with the opportunity to cash in, you can't blame him for doing so. Eric Decker wants to take care of his growing family. Good for him.

[+] EnlargeEric Decker
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsWill Eric Decker bolt after serving as a key cog in Denver's record-setting 2013 offense?

But aside from the potential payday, sometimes the best move for a player is not to move. It can be hard to see through the blinding light of big money, but sometimes there really is no place like home.

That isn't the case for Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd, who will become a free agent if the Bills don't use the franchise tag on him for a second consecutive year. Byrd wants out of Buffalo. He isn't invested in the Bills. He wants to play for a contender, to maximize his potential, to get into a stable organization where he can have the same defensive coordinator for more than one season.

That's fine.

But two wide receivers who are set to hit the open market when free agency begins March 11 should consider staying where they are. Decker isn't going to find a better fit than the one he has in Denver. And Riley Cooper isn't going to maximize his potential anywhere else the way he will in Philadelphia.

Decker and Cooper are in the perfect places for them. Money can buy security, but it can't make a career.

Unless New England, Green Bay or New Orleans signs him, Decker isn't assured of playing with a future Hall of Fame quarterback if he leaves Denver. In two seasons playing with Peyton Manning, Decker has caught 172 passes for 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Decker has flourished playing with the best quarterback of this generation. He has had consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He has been to the Pro Bowl. He has caught double-digit touchdowns in consecutive seasons.

Decker is a nice receiver and a solid No. 2. He is not the physical freak that his teammate Demaryius Thomas is. He doesn't excel at gaining separation from defenders and he has a tendency to drop passes.

The last image of Decker was from the Super Bowl, and general managers across the league took note. Decker caught just one pass against Seattle's stifling defense. He was so ineffective in the first half that Denver's coaches moved him to Richard Sherman's side of the field in the second. They weren't going to have Manning throw at Sherman, so they essentially stashed Decker on Sherman's side as nothing more than a not-so-subtle decoy.

While the Broncos likely aren't willing to franchise Decker, much less give him a comparable contract to the two-year, $12 million deal they gave Wes Welker last year, some team will be wiling to pay Decker. And when that happens, the 26-year-old will have to become something he has never been: A true No. 1 receiver capable of putting up 100 yards receiving every time he steps onto the field.

[+] EnlargeRiley Cooper
AP Photo/Mike RoemerRiley Cooper, left, moved past an embarrassing offseason incident to become one of QB Nick Foles' most reliable targets this past season.

Big money comes with big expectations.

Similarly, Cooper is in the perfect system for him to flourish. In his first three seasons in Philadelphia, Cooper never had more than 23 catches, 315 yards or 3 touchdowns in a season.

In his fourth season -- and first with Chip Kelly as head coach -- Cooper had 47 catches for 835 yards and 8 touchdowns. As the Eagles' No. 2 receiver with Jeremy Maclin out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Cooper evolved into a trusted playmaker for quarterback Nick Foles.

Foles targeted Cooper 57 times, completing 59.6 percent of his passes. The tandem had a rapport that Cooper did not have with Michael Vick, who as the starter earlier in the season targeted Cooper only 18 times, completing 44.4 percent of those passes.

Kelly found a way to maximize Cooper's ability. He lauded the 6-foot-3, 214-pound Cooper for his ability to block and gain yards after the catch. Cooper rewarded Kelly by averaging 17.8 yards per catch.

Even if the Eagles bring back Maclin, who like Cooper will become a free agent next month, Kelly could find a role for Cooper in his offense. He typically utilizes three and four wide receiver sets, and Cooper would be an upgrade over slot receiver Jason Avant, who is a steady team leader but caught only 19 of 41 passes thrown his way last season.

Like Decker, Cooper could be seduced by money. No one would blame him. Financial security is a powerful lure in a sport where longevity is not guaranteed.

But in some cases, the better play is to stay put. Decker and Cooper could continue to flourish with the teams that drafted them in 2010. They probably won't stay, but they should.

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