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Kelly covets hidden value in his wide receivers

DeSean Jackson, gone. Jeremy Maclin, gone. Riley Cooper, here. Chip Kelly's decision to keep Cooper rather than his most productive wide receivers over the last two years might not make much sense, but the Eagles coach has never been one to evaluate based on paper.

(Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)
(Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)Read more

DeSean Jackson, gone. Jeremy Maclin, gone. Riley Cooper, here.

Chip Kelly's decision to keep Cooper rather than his most productive wide receivers over the last two years might not make much sense, but the Eagles coach has never been one to evaluate based on paper.

That may be most apparent at the receiver position.

Understanding how Kelly values receivers can help explain Cooper's place on the roster and the departures of Jackson and Maclin. It also points out how Kelly intends to replace the 42 percent of receiver receptions, 47 percent of receiving yards, and 46 percent of receiving touchdowns that left with the two Pro Bowlers.

To get a sense of that, one would have to sit in team meetings in which the coach's film is reviewed. Kelly isn't the only coach to praise performance away from the ball, but he takes it to extremes and has done so since he first became a head coach at Oregon.

Players who were integral to a big play but didn't have the ball in their hands or weren't credited with a tackle are celebrated. Selflessness over selfishness is celebrated. Toughness when it's unconventional - with receivers that often comes in the form of downfield blocking - is celebrated.

Kelly's receivers at Oregon were often as tough as any other player. Cooper is an above-average blocker. So are Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff. Jackson and Maclin actually improved in Kelly's system, but neither could be described as a proficient blocker. Of course, as the primary receiving targets, they had fewer opportunities to block.

But the praise goes beyond just blocking. When a receiver runs a route in which he has little chance of seeing the ball, but draws defenders and clears space for the No. 1 target to make a catch, the coaches pay it special notice. Anyone can catch a pass in open space, goes the thinking.

There isn't as much space in the NFL, though, and Kelly certainly recognizes the value of having elite receivers who can get open and catch the ball under difficult circumstances. He was willing to pay Maclin almost $10 million a year.

But he wasn't willing to fork over $11 million a year, which is what the Chiefs ended up offering the 26-year-old. Kelly's reluctance to meet the market may have said as much about his opinion of Maclin as anything, but on the heels of releasing Jackson a year prior, it suggests that he is reallocating money under the salary cap.

Cooper's salary will cost $4.8 million against the cap in 2015 - a large number considering his production, but still less than the highest-paid receiver on 20 other teams. With Matthews ($1.1 million) and Huff ($633,000) penciled in as the second and third receivers, only six others teams (the Dolphins, Jaguars, Panthers, Chargers, Ravens, and Texans) currently allocate less of their cap to the position than the Eagles.

Does Kelly's shifting of funds represent long-term thinking? It's difficult to say for certain. But he was more willing to spend on the running back position - signing DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews two weeks ago - after he traded away LeSean McCoy and lost out on Frank Gore.

There are still a few free-agent options - Michael Crabtree being the most prominent - but Kelly seems inclined to go with what he has on the roster and to explore another deep draft for receivers.

"We think, in terms of our model, that it's a really good draft for wide receivers," Kelly said on March 12. "We also have a lot of confidence in some of [our guys]. Jordan Matthews had an outstanding year for us as a rookie. He's going into Year 2. We've got a lot of high expectations for Josh Huff. We're excited about him. We have Riley Cooper back."

Matthews could see his numbers jump in his second season in the slot. And Kelly also mentioned underutilized tight end Zach Ertz and "Swiss army knife" Darren Sproles as ball-catching options to help replace what left with Maclin (85 catches, 1,318 yards, 10 touchdowns).

But there is little evidence to suggest that Cooper and Huff will be top producers on the outside. Of the 141 receivers who ran more than 100 routes last year, Cooper was 106th in yards gained per route run (1.02) and Huff was 119th (0.92).

At this point in his career, Cooper is what he is. Huff still has room to grow, but he didn't look like a receiver who could be a consistent downfield threat as a rookie. Not having Jackson to blow the top off defenses hindered the Eagles running game in 2014. Imagine it without Maclin.

Kelly could solve that problem by selecting one of several explosive receivers in the draft. His moves have suggested he prioritizes size, but he may see the need for a game-breaker. Amari Cooper, Kevin White, and DeVante Parker will likely be gone when, or if, the Eagles pick at No. 20.

Dorial Green-Beckham has remarkable ability for his size (6-foot-5, 232 pounds) but has character concerns. Jaelen Strong (6-2, 217) or Breshad Perriman (6-2, 212) could be late first-round options. There are handfuls of other talented prospects who could slip into Rounds 2-4.

But Kelly's offense as currently constructed will shift the balance back to the run game, as it was two seasons ago. If Cooper, Matthews, and Huff can't draw an extra defender out of the box to stop the run, they can certainly aid the cause with their blocking.

They may draw scorn from outside if they can't put up respectable numbers, but inside the meeting rooms, they'll be hailed as long as they fulfill their responsibilities away from the ball. And that would be just fine with Kelly, as long as the Eagles are scoring points.