Saturday, June 16, 2007

Bounding up a flight of stairs yesterday afternoon following a Washington Redskins minicamp practice, tight end Chris Cooley sounded surprised at himself when asked if he has successfully separated his on-field work from his agent’s contract talks with the team.

“Actually … I think I have,” he said.

Cooley couldn’t be faulted for thinking about his future. He has entered a new world, one of negotiations, a likely multimillion dollar signing bonus and long-term financial security. This for a player who was a third-round pick from a non-power school (Utah State) and arrived at training camp in 2004 just hoping to play any kind of role.

In three years, Cooley has played a big role in the Redskins’ offense, becoming a go-to target for each of the three quarterbacks he has played with. He has 165 catches and 19 touchdowns as a pro, which means his pay day is coming.

Cooley has an $850,000 base salary in the final season of a four-year contract, a bargain for a player of his caliber. The Redskins have engaged in discussions with his agent, Gary Wichard.

“We discussed it early in the offseason and I was very excited about it,” Cooley said. “It’s something you definitely play for. But it’s been a slow process. I guess that’s understandable. I can’t think about it every day.”

While some players request that negotiations end when training camp or the regular season begin, Cooley, who talks two to three times a week with Wichard and wants to be kept in the loop, didn’t place a deadline on the talks.

Cooley’s numbers since 2004 don’t match up with franchise tight ends like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates but are comparable or better than those posted by Todd Heap, Dallas Clark and Bubba Franks.

Gonzalez is the NFL’s highest paid tight end (his new contract includes $17.75 million in guaranteed salary). But Cooley could be in line for the kind of deals signed by Franks (seven years, $28 million) or Gates (six years, $24 million) before the 2005 season. If he’s lucky, Cooley will get a deal like Denver gave blocking tight end Daniel Graham this offseason — five years, $30 million ($15 million guaranteed).

“It’s not something I’m super involved with right now,” Cooley said. “I trust my agent and it’s between him and the team. Ultimately, I have to make the final decision on what happens. But as of now, it’s been a slow back and forth so it hasn’t been a big worry for me.”

With most of the contract minutiae being handled for him, Cooley has been more involved this offseason in working with Jason Campbell and learning the nuances of associate head coach Al Saunders’ offense.

“The thing Chris has done a terrific job of doing in terms of elevating his play is the speed he plays at and his ability to run routes,” Saunders said. “His route running ability and ability to separate from defenders has gotten better and better. … He has mastered [the route running] at this point and does it in a proficient fashion.”

The way Cooley runs routes is different than how he ran them at Utah State and in his first two seasons with the Redskins. On a 10-yard in route, he used to run to the spot, shuffle his feet, make a head and/or shoulder fake and then turn inside. Now, he runs to the spot and turns inside instantly without losing any momentum.

“He has the intelligence to adapt to anything and has good instincts and awareness,” tight ends coach Rennie Simmons said. “Everything now with our routes are speed cuts instead of teaching the receiver to set the defender up with fakes and movement. It’s become more critical that the receiver and the quarterback are on the same timing.”

During the Redskins’ hour and 40-minute practice yesterday, Campbell found Cooley open several times and at different parts of the field.

“I had a great day with him,” Cooley said. “We got together five or six times. Jason’s making huge strides. I feel good about what I’m doing. … He threw me a ball today that was two feet behind me because he said he saw some room in the zone. He sees things that are unbelievable for a young quarterback.”

Cooley became one of Campbell’s top targets once the then-second-year quarterback took over for Mark Brunell. In the nine games Brunell started, Cooley had 27 catches for 323 yards (11.9 average) and three touchdowns. In seven games with Campbell, he had 30 catches for 411 yards (13.7 average) and three touchdowns.

If the comfort zone expands starting in Week 1 against Miami, the Campbell-Cooley combination could pay big dividends on the field and, eventually, in Cooley’s bank account.

“I would love to help as much as I can and be a big part of the offense,” Cooley said. “Obviously, I want 100 catches but it’s a big deal for me to get first downs and yards after the catch, too.

“Both Jason and I feel very comfortable finding openings in defenses where a lot of other people don’t. I think I’ve always had a knack for it and Jason has done a really good job finding me and seeing a hole develop before it does. He really trusts me.”

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