I've gone back and looked at preseason footage of Riley over the last three seasons to try and get some idea of what he brings to the table and what this could mean over the next few weeks and beyond.
Riley went to Duke and started 40 games for them, catching over 140 passes at almost 17 yards per catch. He even managed to set a few school records. A big target with good hands and terrific athletic ability, Riley was unlucky not to be drafted, as many sites had him rated as a late round pick. One thing that may have counted against him was his arrest in 2008, when a policeman apparently saw him hit someone at a bar.
After going undrafted in 2009, Riley joined the Baltimore Ravens but didn't make the active roster. However, he was back in 2010 to compete for a roster spot, having spend the 2009 season on the practice squad. He again failed to make the team and was on the practice squad for a couple of teams before the Broncos put him on their practice squad last October. He was signed for the 2011 season and played for them in preseason, but was cut and placed on the practice squad before the regular season began. The Jets picked him up this week.
Riley is 6-foot-3, but only 207 pounds according to his officially listed NFL weight. However, that was his combine weight back in 2009 and I expect one of the reasons the Broncos had him on their practice squad was to bulk him up, so it's unlikely he hasn't put any weight on since then. He has some enticing Pro Day numbers, including 4.29 for the 40-yard dash, a 40-inch vertical and an 11-foot-2 broad jump, underlining his athletic potential.
In three preseason campaigns, Riley was targeted 17 times. These were all in the fourth quarter, apart from one in his rookie season that was in the last minute of the third. He caught a total of 11 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns. Even if you omit his longest gain (an 89-yarder), that's still over 20 yards per catch. He also had one special teams tackle.
In his rookie season, Riley was targeted six times. Three were incomplete and one was a 10-yard gain. Unfortunately footage of these four plays was unavailable.
In the final preseason game of his rookie year, Riley made an impact with two big catches on the same drive, late in their game with Atlanta. He was going up against Chris Owens, who at the time was also a rookie but is now Atlanta's number three cornerback, playing regularly in the NFL (109 snaps this year).
- Riley went deep down the sideline and caught a 47-yard pass. The ball was underthrown and he had to slow down and wait on it, otherwise it would have been a touchdown.
- Riley ran a comeback route and made a leaping catch. As he landed, he made a nice move to avoid Owens' tackle and then dived in between two defenders to get into the endzone for a 15-yard score.
In the first preseason game of 2010, Riley was targeted once:
- Riley ran a quick slant with the defender playing off him. He looked like he had a chance to slip between two defenders for a first down and maybe more, but unfortunately he was unable to make the catch on what looked like a well thrown ball.
He didn't contribute again until the fourth game against the Rams where he was targeted three times:
- On third and ten, he found a gap in the zone 25 yards downfield, but Troy Smith overthrew him by about ten yards.
- He ran a quick slant, caught the ball and then avoided a tackle and ran right across field for extra yardage, eventually falling forward for a 19-yard gain.
- With eight seconds left, the Ravens were down six at their own 45. Riley ran a comeback route, leapt to catch the ball on the sideline for 14 and stepped out of bounds.
After joining the Broncos in 2011, Riley caught all three passes thrown his way in the first preseason game against Dallas:
- Riley came back to the ball and caught it downfield, then turned upfield and made a couple of extra yards, for 17 overall.
- He dodged the jam at the line and got a step on his man on a skinny post route, securing the catch over the middle for 19.
- With the ball at the 8, he was initially covered, but found some space at the back of the endzone and made a leaping grab, landing with both feet just in bounds.
After missing the second game, he was targeted once against the Seahawks:
- On third and 13, he made like he was going to run deep, then stopped on a dime and turned around for the ball. Had he caught it, he'd have had a chance to get the first down because the man covering him was about ten yards off him. Unfortunately, it was batted down at the line.
In the last game against the Rams, he made a huge impact. He was going up against Fred Bennett who is currently not on a roster but has started 18 games and picked off five passes in the NFL since being drafted in 2007:
- Ran a comeback route and caught a pass for a 12 yard gain.
- Ran a go-route and burned his man easily for a 43-yard score.
- Made a juggling catch on the outside as the man covering him made a despairing dive, then cut back across the field to avoid a tackler at the 25 and raced down the sideline, finally getting knocked out of bounds inside the five for an 89-yard gain. Marshay Green had the angle to make the tackle, but his speed down the sideline was impressive.
In the footage I saw, Riley was never really asked to do anything other than block downfield. He played to the whistle, but they rarely ran the ball in his direction. I read a comment on a Broncos blog that said he was too lightweight to block effectively in their system, but I didn't really see enough of him to make an assessment either way.
Riley saw some time on the punt return unit as a punt rusher, but was easily handled by his blocker on the few examples I looked at. He also seemed to lack blocking instincts in open space. I also saw him get some reps as a punt gunner. Again, he didn't seem to be physical enough to get downfield. The one tackle he had was on a play where he was blocked away from the return man, but the returner slipped and Riley put a hand on him to make him down by contact.
Riley did return 11 kicks in college for a 23.3 yard average, but was unable to beat out any of the return men they had in Baltimore or Denver to even get a shot at returning one in a preseason game.
I did not see any signs of cockiness from Riley in any of the footage I watched. One concern may be durability though. As noted, he hurt his calf after one of the above catches and I also note that he injured his arm in practice and missed time with the Broncos and had leg and hand injuries while at college.
As we've learned from David Clowney, major preseason production late in games, doesn't necessarily mean that you're ready to contribute at the NFL level. However, Clowney did have his moments, so if Riley joins the team as a 4th or 5th receiver, perhaps they can get something from him.
From what I've seen, I don't think he's likely to contribute much on special teams, so they've brought him aboard for his receiving ability. As a receiver, he seemed much more impressive than when I scouted Mardy Gilyard, who did look good as a special teamer. This could be a warning shot to Patrick Turner or just a temporary move to get a look at him for a few weeks while they wait for Logan Payne to get healthy.
In terms of that receiving ability, what impressed me was his ability to get separation. Yes, burning guys deep and making yards after the catch is always impressive, but Riley seemed to have a knack of getting open on comebackers and slants. Since I've been watching a lot of footage of Jets receivers not getting separation over the last few weeks, that could be something that he brings to the table that could get him on the field.