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Examining Randall Cobb's free agent value and the "slot receiver" label

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There has been much debate about Randall Cobb's value on the open market, but we look through the stats to explain why teams should be wary of Cobb's potential productivity on the boundary instead of in the slot.

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$9 million per year$12 million? We're still likely a week or so away from learning just what Randall Cobb's true market value is. While his agent, Jimmy Sexton, apparently is trying to play him up as a bona fide inside/outside receiver worthy of #1 money, we at Acme Packing Company remain skeptical.

We recently discussed the various rumors about Cobb's market value and referenced our previous contract estimate, which assumes that he is exclusively a "slot" receiver, and therefore should have a different market for his services than top threats on the boundary. However, that assumption has come up for debate in some circles, so we decided to examine just why he should be treated as such by fans, Ted Thompson, and General Managers around the NFL.

Of course, this argument comes in light of a report from late Tuesday by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Bob McGinn, who reports the following:

According to sources, Sexton has been told by the Packers they'll sign Cobb to a five-year contract averaging in the $8 million to $9 million range. Sexton basically has told the team he's confident more lucrative offers await come Saturday.

If Sexton does talk to other teams and finds that the market exceeds what the Packers are offering, we at APC believe it would be a mistake by those teams if they are substantially exceeding the $9 million per year number.

The bulk of this argument boils down to skills vs. scheme. How can Cobb show off his abilities on the outside when the Packers' offense limits him almost exclusively to the slot? The short answer is that he can't, but the long answer is that he can't because his skill set limits him to the slot, and the Packers coaching staff recognizes that.

We will attempt to prove that point by looking at Cobb's statistics, comparing them to renowned inside/outside threat (and Cobb's teammate) Jordy Nelson, and analyzing just how heavily Cobb has been used in the slot throughout his career. In doing so, that should underscore the reason why we believe $9 million per year should be Cobb's ceiling in free agency.

Stats

Since Jordy Nelson and Cobb work together and off of each other within the Packers' offense, we need to determine which player has the bigger impact. Offense of course consists of two things: moving the ball, and scoring. The first category is a tie, as each player scored 13 touchdowns during the 2014 season (including playoffs). As for moving the ball, that's a pretty easy comparison as well, and thanks to Pro Football Focus, we can see that it favors Nelson (and boundary receivers in general).

Using PFF's Yards per Route Run stat, we see that Nelson averaged 2.51 receiving yards for each time that he ran a passing route in 2014, the 7th-best mark in the NFL. Cobb still had an excellent number at 2.26, good for 12th in the league, but that's a 1/4-yard fewer that he contributes compared to Nelson each time the two takes the field.

In addition, while Cobb's ability to pick up yards after the catch is a critical part of his game, it does not make up for the fact that he catches the ball closer to the line of scrimmage than Nelson does, adding to the question about whether he would hold up on the boundary. We can see the average depth downfield of each player at the point of the catch by subtracting the yards after the catch from the total yards per reception. According to Pro Football Focus, here are the totals for Cobb and Nelson from 2014 (including playoffs), along with YAC numbers:

Statistic Jordy Nelson Randall Cobb
Receptions 105 106
Yards 1612 1465
Yards/reception 15.4 13.8
YAC 580 665
YAC/reception 5.5 6.3
TDs 13 13

Yes, Cobb picked up more YAC than Nelson in 2014, but as you can see, his yards per reception remained lower. Now if we subtract the YAC/reception from the overall yards per reception number, that gives us an idea of how far beyond the line of scrimmage each player is at the point of the catch. I'll refer to that difference from here on out as Yards AT Reception, or YAR. For Nelson, that number is 9.9, while for Cobb it's 7.5.

Basically, this 2.4-yard difference can explain almost completely the difference in yards per route run. Cobb and Nelson have almost identical reception numbers, but the difference in their overall impact on the Packers offense is Nelson's ability to catch the ball deeper down field than Cobb.

Now, if you look back at Nelson's and Cobb's careers, you see a similar trend in YAR:

Year Nelson Cobb
2014 9.9 7.5
2013 10.2 8.9
2012 9.8 5.7

Now before you go off about the 8.9 value for Cobb in 2013, remember that he missed much of that season with an injury - he only had 33 receptions that year, which allows for more outliers to skew the average. Plus, Nelson's YAR that season, in which he moved inside for much of Cobb's absence, was the highest in this span - only his ridiculous 12.2 in 2011 was greater.

Think about the big boundary receivers in the NFL, the Calvin Johnsons and Dez Bryants. For comparison, the YAR values for those two players in 2014 were 11.8 and 10.5, respectively. As for other slot receivers who played there as much or more than Cobb? Wes Welker had a 5.4 in 2014 while Jordan Matthews of Philadelphia had a 7.1. One player to whom Cobb is often compared is Emmanuel Sanders, and his YAR in 2014 was 9.8. However, the Broncos lined Sanders up all over, and he ran fewer than 40% of his routes from the slot.

Is this because boundary receivers typically catch the ball deeper because of their position or because they have a different skill set? That question probably requires more analysis, but there is no denying that there is a correlation between inside/outside wideouts and the YAR value.

All in all, these numbers imply that Cobb has a fundamentally different skill set from Nelson, which should be no surprise to a Packers fan. Nelson excels at getting separation on deep and intermediate routes regardless of his alignment, while Cobb is best at finding soft spots in coverage on shorter routes and making tacklers miss once the ball gets into his hands.

There can be no question, however, which skill set is more highly prized by NFL teams - as has been regularly referenced, the highest-paid primary slot receiver, Victor Cruz, gets less than $9 million per year, while twelve other boundary wideouts make more than that amount. Furthermore, for the record, Cruz' YAR in the year before he signed his big contract was 8.6, while spending just under 70% of his snaps in the slot. Cobb's 2014 numbers show an even stronger slot usage, as you will see.

Scheme

During Randall Cobb's rookie year, he manned the slot on 62.1% of his routes; obviously that's more than half, but it suggests substantial usage outside as well. After his rookie year, though, take a look at his slot usage increasing. He jumped up to 84.4% in 2012, then 94.7%(!) and 87.3% each of the past two seasons.

This makes sense, though - as the smallest receiver on a team that has had an impressive group of wideouts for years, it follows that Cobb would be put in a position to use his quickness while other receivers, who are taller and have better leaping ability, manned the outside. However, the situation is not that easily broken down, and the 2014 season is the best example of that.

Let's take a closer look at Cobb's alignment early on in the 2014 season, while Jarrett Boykin and Davante Adams were each struggling to make any sort of impact split out wide. In weeks 1 and 2, Cobb ran just two of his 84 routes anywhere other than the slot. Okay, sure, I'll grant you that Mike McCarthy had his plan in week 1 to keep Cobb and Nelson on one side while putting Jarrett Boykin opposite Richard Sherman. If one were to say that a Sherman-Cobb matchup was bad news for number 18, I would not dispute that either.

But then look at week two against the Jets. Against a team that started Darrin Walls and Antonio Allen at corner, the Packers still kept Cobb in the slot on 46 of his 48 routes, with no realistic threat at the other wide receiver position. If the team thought Cobb would be productive on the outside, why would they not put him there in a tempting matchup like that?

If you expand that out to the first half of the season, Cobb still was over 90% in the slot prior to the bye (91.1% to be exact). This suggests that even with no productive second option opposite Nelson, the Packers still elected to keep Cobb lined up inside. The fact that McCarthy and company chose not to use Cobb outside even in appealing matchups should not suggest a schematic decision, but rather that he is not well-suited to playing on the boundary.

Conclusion

All this evidence I have presented suggests that Cobb is and will be exclusively a slot receiver, and should be viewed as such by NFL teams during contract negotiations. Sure, maybe Sexton is right, and there will be an NFL team that convinces itself that Cobb can move inside and outside with ease, thereby being willing to sign Cobb for substantially more than $9 million per year. Our point here is that we see no evidence that Cobb would indeed be able to play on the boundary with similar success to what he has had in the slot.

This analysis all comes with a critical caveat, however. I am in no way arguing that the Packers should simply let Cobb go. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Cobb's yards per route run in 2014 was 14th in the entire NFL, regardless of alignment. He still can provide significant value out of the slot, and combined with an improving Davante Adams opposite Nelson, that trio (and that Aaron Rodgers fellow) should strike fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators across the league.

Frankly, I will be extremely upset if Cobb ends up elsewhere and signs for less than $9 million per year. For the impact that Cobb does have from the slot and as the top slot man in the league, that number seems reasonable.

But in all honesty, if Cobb and/or his agent are truly looking for $12 million annually, a number which would put him in the top five of all wideouts in the league, I do not think they are being realistic. Furthermore, if another team signs him for that amount of money, they had better be planning on playing him both inside and outside, and I remain skeptical that he will be able to be anywhere near as effective on the boundary as he has been in the slot for the Packers. If he gets an offer like that, though, we will wish him good luck and harbor no ill will towa