As we delve further into the offseason, most fans will turn their focus to the excitement of the upcoming draft and the free agency period. There will be endless lists of enticing talent that may or may not be available to us, but many of us will completely disregard some of the fringe players that are barely sticking with the team through the spring and summer months. Given the recent success of guys like Victor Cruz and the "Linsanity" sweeping the streets of New York, I thought that now is as good a time as any to profile the backups and practice-squaders that most casual fans have never even heard of. The first edition will feature WR Eron Riley, who possesses all the physical tools to become a star in this league.
Brief Biography: Eron Riley was born on August 5, 1987 in Savannah, Georgia. After high school, he was an impact player for Duke University, where he racked up 144 catches, 2413 yards, and 22 touchdowns over his 4-year career. He led the ACC in yards per reception twice (2006 and 2007), in the process building up quite an impressive highlight reel. Duke's football program was horrendous during his time there, so Riley received minimal attention and even less hype. His stock rose with a blistering 4.29 40-yard dash and 40 inch vertical at his school's pro day, and his 6' 3'' frame made him an attractive prospect. Most mock drafts had him pegged as a late round pick in 2009, but Riley was surprisingly not among the 256 players to hear their name called. This might have been due to slight character concerns stemming from a 2008 arrest, but was nonetheless unexpected. He has bounced around NFL practice squads since then, including stays in Baltimore, Carolina, and Denver. The New York Jets signed Riley to their active roster on October 19, 2011, and reassigned him to their practice squad in December.
Why should he be given a chance? Riley's physical attributes are truly a gift from a higher power. It is not often that a player with Riley's mix of height and speed comes around. His 4.29 40-yard dash places him among the fastest receivers in the NFL, and his height allows him to play above most cornerbacks, especially in the endzone. He has soft hands, is very good at creating separation, and his 40-inch vertical makes his height even more intimidating. He isn't a finished product by any means, but there are only a handful of receivers in the NFL that are more physically gifted than Riley, so he should be given every chance to succeed for that alone.
Things to Improve On: Given his 6'3'' frame, measuring 207 pounds at Duke's pro-day was disappointing. He may have put on some weight since then, but he still looks wiry and lanky in the more recent highlights. This lack of build contributes to his lack of physicality, and he hasn't often shown a willingness to run routes over the middle of the field. He was a basketball and track star in high school, and didn't focus on football until college. Thus, his technique still needs refining.
NFL Resume: Riley has not recorded a single catch during his brief NFL career, but his promising play during preseason games has won him many admirers in Baltimore and Denver. In Riley's rookie year, he was largely ineffective until the Ravens' final preseason game, against the Falcons. Riley was absolutely dynamic, making a good adjustment on an under-thrown ball for a 47-yard gain. He then ran a comeback route, and dragged two defenders into the endzone for a 15 yard touchdown. He didn't see many targets in his second year as a member of the Ravens (he made 2 catches for 33 yards), and joined the Broncos shortly thereafter. In Denver's first preseason game, Riley recorded 3 catches for 43 yards and made a leaping touchdown catch from Brady Quinn. He failed to record a catch in the Broncos' next two games (he only saw 1 target), but announced his presence in his team's final preseason game with a 3 catch, 144 yard day, including a 43 yard TD and an even longer 89 yard catch. The touchdown was a case of Riley getting by his man and Tebow identifying the mismatch in time to avoid safety help, and the 89 yard catch was a simple out-route that saw Riley juke a few tacklers and jet down to the two yard line. I realize that preseason play is largely meaningless, but the potential that Riley flashed last summer should not be ignored.
Give Eron Riley's highlight reel from Duke a look. Chances are, you'll be impressed.
This is the recap from Baltimore's game vs. Atlanta during Riley's rookie season. Skip to 2:58 for two consecutive Riley highlights.
Check out Riley's leaping touchdown catch from Brady Quinn.
Check out the recap of Riley's 144-yard day as a member of the Broncos. Skip to 2:39 for two consecutive Eron Riley highlights.
How he fits into the Jets' 2012 plans: One of Gang Green's most noticeable problems last season was their painfully predictable offense. Due to a lack of personnel, the Jets simply refused to send any receivers deep. The results were as to be expected: without a threat of a pass over the top, defenses were able to take away the middle of the field and neutralize the Jets' offensive weapons. Santonio Holmes seemed to be most affected by the lack of a down-field wideout, as he found that his trademarks slant routes were being double teamed. The Jets need to address this need during the offseason, but they might already have an in-house alternative. Riley's height and speed is exactly what the Jets are missing, and if he puts it all together he might be in line for a serious jump in production next season. Assuming that the Jets sign a #2 reciever this offseason, it'll be difficult for Riley to contribute. Nevertheless, similar journeys are not unheard of. In fact, 7 of the NFL's 19 1000-yard receivers last season were drafted in the 6th round or later. Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, and Miles Austin are all examples of star WRs that were originally undrafted. Gang Green kept Riley on their active roster without playing him for almost the entirety of the season, which indicates that his potential is not unnoticed in the organization. If he manages to breakout, it'll be in the nick of time for both the Jets and for Riley. Given the Jets' substantial salary cap commitments, finding a young talent at a position of need would be tremendous. As for Riley, his window of making it in the NFL won't be open much longer. He is entering his fourth season, with his fourth team, and will be 25 by the start of the year. Given his immense talent, I think that fans will learn the name "Eron Riley" sooner than later.