As incredible as it sounds, a player fresh off setting the Packers' all-time record for single season all-purpose yards is about to take on a bigger role this year.
In just his second season, Randall Cobb became the Packers' breakout star on offense. With Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson missing time, Cobb became Aaron Rodgers' go-to option. Not only did he lead the team in receptions and receiving yards, but Cobb also assumed the vaunted slot role while still operating as the team's primary returner.
Don't expect a repeat performance in 2013, however. With Jennings and Donald Driver departing and only seventh rounders and UDFAs acquired as replacements, Cobb is likely done returning kicks. The additions of running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin probably signal the end of his time as a ball carrier as well. By all indications, Cobb's snaps will now come exclusively from the receiver position. The only question is how much Cobb can produce as a full time wideout. To find the answer, we need to look to similar players and see how their performance reflects on Cobb.
Unlike superficial comparisons like Steve Smith and Percy Harvin that focus solely on height and speed as opposed to actual production and usage, Cobb's usage is almost perfectly in line with Wes Welker. Both Welker and Cobb are high target, low yards per catch slot receivers on teams that don't have a dominant wideout on the outside, and each plays with an elite passer.
Last year, 84.4% of Cobb's offensive snaps came at slot receiver. He also averaged 11.9 yards per reception. Both figures are right in line with Welker (82.2% slot usage, 11.5 yards per catch). Building a model around Welker should give the best insight into the player Cobb could become. Since joining New England, Welker has been targeted an average of 154 times a season. Using that number and Cobb's career catch rate of 77.8% projects to a season of about 120 catches and 1425 yards. Such is Cobb's best case scenario.
The Packers haven't historically leaned on one receiver that heavily, however. Cobb was targeted 104 times in 2012, the most a single Packer receiver had been targeted since Greg Jennings' 125 targets in 2010. Only once in the Mike McCarthy era has a receiver matched or exceeded 154 targets (Welker's yearly average since joining New England). That year was 2006, and the receiver group included Donald Driver in his prime, rookie year Greg Jennings, and little else.
Ignoring that outlier, the top target for the Packers has on average been thrown at 118 times yearly. That's only 14 more targets than Cobb had last year, a season in which he began as the team's number 4 receiver. As such, 118 targets is Cobb's basement if he stays healthy. Assuming Cobb's career catch rate holds, those targets project to 92 catches and 1095 yards.
So where between these two scenarios will Cobb fall?
This year, Green Bay's receiver group isn't quite as crowded as previous seasons. At the same time, this isn't a Patriots receiving corps either. Nelson and Jones should each command a lot of targets from Rodgers and thus prevent Cobb from getting upwards of 150 targets. Last season, Cobb didn't become the go to receiver until the Houston game. From that point on, Cobb averaged 7.9 targets a game. That's probably around where Cobb will be used in 2013. That would project to about 126 targets, 98 catches, and 1170 yards. If the Packers get that from Cobb, no one will complain.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn