One of the ongoing questions regarding the Packers' upcoming free agent class concerns the price tag for wide receiver Randall Cobb. Cobb had hoped to sign a new deal prior to the start of 2014, but concerns over his health (he missed 10 games last season) made the team cautious about consummating a long-term deal. Rather than take a below-market deal, Cobb chose instead to bet on himself to deliver a career year and improve his market.
And what a smart bet it was. Cobb produced career highs in receptions (91), receiving yards (1,287), and touchdowns (12). Better still, no quarterback had a better passer rating throwing to a single receiver than Aaron Rodgers' 134.3 rating on passes to Cobb. The wideout also played in all 16 games for the first time in his career. Cobb now enters free agency with considerably more leverage than he began the year with.
But how does Cobb's great season translate into dollars and cents? The Packers' last big wide receiver expenditure came in the form of the four-year, $39.05 million extension Jordy Nelson signed back in July. Like Cobb, Nelson entered 2014 with just one year left on his deal. But Nelson was 29 at the time, making him five years older than Cobb will be when free agency begins in a few months. Many have read this as a sign that Cobb's next contract with dwarf Nelson's in average salary. While anything is possible in free agency, precedent suggests this will not be the case.
While age remains an important factor in contract discussions, a more determinative force for wide receiver negotiations has been where that player lines up in the formation. Wideouts that play primarily on the boundary are compensated at a much higher rate than those who spend most of their time in the slot.
Such is a long documented trend. In 2013, Mike Wallace, an almost exclusively boundary wideout considered among the premier deep threats at the time, netted a five-year, $60 million contract from the Miami Dolphins. Meanwhile, Victor Cruz, a receiver who played approximately 70 percent of his snaps in the slot, signed a five-year, $43 million extension with the New York Giants. Other slot receivers like Wes Welker (two-years, $12 million with Denver) earned even less. If it wasn't apparent before, the league had clearly delineated between boundary and slot receivers.
Based on that pattern, Cobb's next deal will probably fall short of Nelson's extension. Though the Packers have lined Cobb up in the backfield from time to time to create mismatches, he has run 87.6 percent of his routes from the slot position over the last three seasons according to Pro Football Focus. Nelson by contrast ran just 29.8 percent of his routes from the slot over the same time frame, and considering that the majority of his slot usage came during Cobb's 10-game absence in 2013, the difference between the two is even further highlighted.
As such, it doesn't make sense to use Nelson's extension as a model for Cobb. Instead, here's a look at the receivers with the most similar slot usage this past season:
- Victor Cruz, NYG, 89.2 slot percentage, 57.1 catch rate,
- Wes Welker, DEN, 88.9 slot percentage, 75.0 catch rate
- Randall Cobb, GB, 87.3 slot percentage, 70.8 catch rate
- Eddie Royal, SD, 86.2 slot percentage, 69.7 catch rate
Each of those receivers was a top target for their respective teams in 2014, and while all besides Cobb are signed to a second or third contract, none are supremely compensated.
As discussed earlier, Welker makes just $6 million on average, though he signed his current deal after his 30th birthday. Still, his slot usage historically is the most similar to Cobb's. Eddie Royal's one-year, $3.5 million is lowest figure after Cobb's rookie contract. However, Royal's previous deal averaged $4.5 million. Then there's Cruz. He signed his current deal, which averages $8.6 million, at age 26. He was also coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Though not a perfect comp, Cruz's situation best mirrors Cobb's entering the negotiation period.
Accordingly, even the high end of Cobb's market is still likely fall short of Nelson's near $10 million average salary. Packers GM Ted Thompson is reputed for not going over his bid for a player, and as talented and productive as Cobb has been it's difficult to envision Green Bay breaking precedent for a slot receiver.
More likely, the team and player will settle on an arrangement that pays no more than the 2015 equivalent of Cruz's deal. That would give the Packers two outstanding wideouts next season for less than what Calvin Johnson will count against the Lions' salary cap.