The Green Bay Packers crossed off their biggest item on their offseason to-do list when they reached a four-year extension with star wideout Davante Adams. The deal locks up their most talented receiver for his prime years, but it could force the team to make some difficult decisions with its two other well-paid receivers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
As it stands, the Packers will devote a considerable amount of their salary cap to their three top wide receivers in 2018. Nelson and Cobb's cap hits combine for $25.3 million, and Adams' contract will push that figure well into the $30-40 million range. Few teams pay eight figures to two receivers, let alone three. Green Bay will seriously ponder whether it can justify spending so much on a group that disappointed in 2017 outside of Adams, especially with resources needed in numerous areas on both sides of the ball.
The hardest decision concerns Nelson, the longtime receiver and a favorite of Aaron Rodgers. Nelson has long reigned as the Packers' No. 1, recording 397 catches for 6,098 yards and 57 touchdowns from 2011 to '16. However, his production fell off precipitously this season, especially after a broken collarbone landed Rodgers on injured reserve. Nelson finished with just 53 receptions for 482 yards and six touchdowns, his lowest totals in each category since 2010. Worse, Nelson failed to reach the end zone without Rodgers.
Outside the numbers, Nelson moved noticeably slower than in the past. The combination of age -- he turns 33 in May -- and the lingering effects of a decade in the NFL have taken their toll. Nelson struggled to create separation with the same ease he did in previous seasons, a skill that appeared diminished even in 2016, his first season back after knee reconstruction. Whereas the Packers once routinely stretched secondaries using Nelson's deep speed, the wideout did most of his limited damage this season close to the line of scrimmage. That decline could push the team to move on from Nelson after a decade together.
Still, though Nelson might not play up to his $12.55 million cap number in 2018, he still provides value not easily replaced. More than any other receiver, Nelson possesses a seemingly telepathic connection with Rodgers. When Rodgers extends plays by breaking the pocket, Nelson intuitively knows where his quarterback needs him to move. Nelson also remains a deadly red-zone weapon with a capable passer. At the time of Rodgers' collarbone injury, Nelson led all players in receiving touchdowns since the start of 2016, many of them scored near the goal line. Green Bay could replace much of what Nelson does for cheaper, but not those particular traits.
Given that Nelson has indicated he would seriously consider a pay reduction to remain in Green Bay, the Packers have plenty of motivation to rework the wideout's deal rather than push him out the door.
Meanwhile, the first three years of Cobb's four-year, $40 million contract haven't gone as well as the Packers had hoped. After a Pro Bowl campaign in 2014, Cobb has twice fallen short of 700 yards and only averaged roughly 10 yards per reception. Even before Rodgers' injury, Cobb seemed to get lost in the shuffle with Adams and Nelson garnering most of the targets. That drop-off in productivity heavily suggests Cobb's best days are behind him.
Multiple factors have contributed to the receiver's regression. Like Nelson, Cobb has lost some of his explosiveness. Unlike Nelson, Cobb only turns 28 this offseason. A loss of straight-line speed doesn't affect Cobb as it might for more traditional wideouts, but his ability to change direction quickly has been compromised to a certain degree. For a player that has worked predominantly out of the slot, that slide has made a significant difference.
Similarly worrisome, the injury bug has hit Cobb hard since 2015 even if he has only missed four games during that time. A severe shoulder sprain suffered derailed his entire 2015 season, and hamstring and ankle issues affected him the year after. For a smaller receiver -- Cobb stands 5-foot-10 and weighs under 200 pounds -- stacking so many injuries in such a short amount of time suggests a bigger breakdown around the corner.
At the same time, Cobb's experience and versatility make him a hard player to replace. The Packers could pursue a receiver in free agency, but few could match Cobb's skill set at a more favorable price. The team could conceivably shift Montgomery back to wideout, but he never possessed Cobb's ability to separate or feel for the seams in coverage. For a team that looked like an NFC frontrunner in 2017 prior to losing Rodgers, cutting Cobb to save some cash seems inadvisable.
Of course, the Packers possess enough cap room to keep Nelson and Cobb at their current rates along with Adams' new extension. The inflation of the salary cap in past years along with the expected increase arriving in 2018 means that the percentage of the salary cap devoted to wide receivers doesn't exceed the team's previous high mark by as much as it seems. Furthermore, with both Nelson and Cobb coming off the books after next season, Green Bay can justify a one-year spike in receiver spending.
Even with Adams' return, the Packers seem likely to add to their receiving corps in the draft. General manager Ted Thompson has a knack for wideouts, with all but Terrence Murphy (career-ending neck injury) and Ty Montgomery (position change, still on rookie deal) earning multiyear second contracts. At least on paper, adding more weaponry to Rodgers' arsenal could reduce the need to keep Nelson or Cobb.
At the same time, most wideouts take several years before developing into reliable weapons. Adams didn't turn the corner until his third season, and Nelson took even longer before emerging into an elite receiver. Even if the Packers use one of their top picks at the position, they might not see returns until 2019 and beyond. Keeping Nelson and Cobb could buy time while the team's next young pass catcher learns the nuances of the NFL.
Certainly, Green Bay could sever ties with Nelson or Cobb and reinvest elsewhere. The chance of one leaving before next season appears somewhat high given what Adams stands to make. However, the Packers remain well positioned to make a Super Bowl run with Rodgers healthy, and having a deep and varied receiving corps should rank high on their priority list. With or without contract restructuring, the team has plenty of incentive to retain all three for 2018.