Is Randall Cobb One of This Season's Best Fantasy Football Bargains?
The 2014 season was supposed to mark the turning point of a sensational career for Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb. That was the season Cobb broke out as a seemingly elite pass-catcher, turning in a 91-catch, 1,287-yard, 12-touchdown Pro Bowl year. He was also a standout by our metrics, ranking second among wideouts with at least 80 targets in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target that season, coming in with a stellar 0.94 clip.
After the year, the former Kentucky Wildcats 'star signed a four-year, $40 million dollar contract extension with the Packers, and the future looked bright. With youth, talent, and upside to spare in a potent offense, Cobb was poised to continue his statistical brilliance with quarterback Aaron Rodgers for many years to come.
Unfortunately, things don't always unfold the way we plan them, and if you've followed Cobb's career since then, 2014 seems like a long time ago.
The Best Laid Plans
In 2015, the Packers' offense was rocked by Pro Bowl wide receiver Jordy Nelson's season-ending ACL tear in the preseason. Nelson is without question one of the best pass-catchers in the game when healthy, and his absence had a trickle-down effect on the entire offense. While at first glance, it seemed like Nelson's injury might open up more opportunities for Cobb to step up as Rodgers' top option, it quickly became apparent that Cobb was better suited for a complementary role.
The Packers offense struggled mightily without Jordy. Rodgers' 60.7 completion percentage and 92.7 quarterback rating were his worst totals as a starter, and Cobb sputtered to a 79-catch, 829-yard, 6-touchdown finish. Those numbers don't sound horrible on the surface by any means, but his 61.2 percent catch rate was the lowest of his career, and his 10.5 yards per catch was down a full 3.6 yards from 2014. Cobb's Reception NEP per target also plummeted to 0.53, which was the sixth-worst total among all 80-plus target receivers. Still, the general consensus heading into 2016 was that with Nelson back in the mix, things would improve across the board.
In 2016, Nelson did in fact return to full health, and Rodgers regained to his MVP-level form, as well. Unfortunately, Cobb wasn't so lucky, missing three contests due to injury and appearing limited when he was on the field. His production declined to new lows, as he converted a mere 84 targets into 60 catches, 610 yards, and 4 touchdowns. While his Reception NEP per target of 0.65 in 2016 was slightly better than it had been in 2015, it still ranked a dismal 40th out of the 60 wideouts that saw 80-plus targets.
Furthermore, third-year receiver Davante Adams enjoyed a 12-touchdown breakout campaign of his own in 2016, seemingly cementing himself as the number-two target in the passing game at Cobb's expense. As such, Cobb's average draft position (ADP) this summer has plummeted to the late eighth-round in PPR leagues, per Fantasy Football Calculator.
Cobb is a player who still has a lot of things going for him. He's got ability, youth (he's still just 27), and a great quarterback situation -- things fantasy owners salivate over during draft season -- yet he's outside the top-35 of wide receivers in drafts. At his current price, is Cobb in fact one of this year’s best value selections? The answer depends on perspective.
For starters, there might not be enough looks to go around in an increasingly crowded Packers offense. Without question, Nelson is Rodgers’ top receiver, and after seeing 151 and 152 targets, respectively, in his last two healthy seasons, Jordy will likely command close to 150 looks for the third time in his career. Adams, on the other hand, has seen his targets increase from 66 to 94 to 121 in the past three seasons, and he will likely continue to enjoy a high-volume role of his own. Converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery has been installed as the team's top tailback, and with an increased workload, Ty Mont is certain to see an uptick on the 56 looks he received as a rotational player in 2016.
Furthermore, the Packers signed tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks in free agency, and both guys should be in line for a reasonably healthy target share. Bennett in particular, appears to be forming a solid connection with Rodgers, and he could very well prove to be the best tight end the former two-time MVP has had the privilege of playing with.
Not only that, but recent reports indicate that Cobb will have his snaps reduced as the Packers employ more two tight end sets in their “12” package. It seems like Cobb is taking speculation about his adjusted role in stride, but it’s incredibly difficult to project a statistical increase for a player who may wind up spending more time on the sideline than he has in previous seasons.
Or is it?
Return to Form?
In projecting Cobb's 2017 outlook, it's easy to get sidetracked by his poor counting numbers from last season. No one ever seems to talk about the fact that, after missing the final two games of the year, he returned for the playoffs and played some of his best football. In the Packers' three postseason contests, Cobb was the team's leading receiver, hauling in 18 of his 24 targets for 260 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Regardless of a possible reduction of overall snap count, it's apparent that the team wants to keep Cobb involved in the passing game. Back in July, receivers coach Luke Getsy made it clear that the team wants to build off that Cobb's playoff performance and get the ball to the sixth-year pro more often. If he's healthy, Cobb has game-changing talent, and the franchise has made a considerable financial commitment to him. Which is to say: it's not just coach-speak.
And, lost amid the excitement about Adams' success last season, a regression is almost inevitable. Adams' 12 touchdowns came on only 121 targets. That's an incredibly difficult scoring pace to sustain. While his Reception NEP per target of 0.74 ranked 21st among all 80-plus target wideouts, he had previously performed horribly in this department. In 2015, his Reception NEP of 0.34 was the second-worst number among all 80-plus target wideouts, and he was being talked about as a potential training camp cut. Certainly, he stepped up his game last season, but Adams' true value likely rests somewhere in the middle of those two outcomes.
Cobb was firmly ahead of Adams in the pecking order before 2016 for a reason. Even if Adams maintains his sizable target share, the data suggests that Cobb is the more efficient player when given the opportunity.
A Significant Value
Ultimately, Cobb is worth the price at his current ADP. While he offers a modest floor, it’s his potential upside that makes him desirable. Other wideouts being drafted in the eighth- or ninth-round range include DeSean Jackson, Tyrell Williams, Corey Coleman, and Marvin Jones.
While all of those guys are talented players, none has ever surpassed 90 catches in a season, and only Jones has scored double-digit touchdowns in a single year, as Cobb did in 2014. And, none of them enjoy the luxury of playing with Rodgers.
Cobb isn’t a safe pick by any means. What we know about his history and the volume of targets being spread around in Green Bay means there will be weeks in which he produces like a number-one wide receiver and weeks where he practically disappears. But even a our modest projection for Cobb in 2017 -- 74.12 receptions for 867.74 yards and 4.73 touchdowns -- would make him the WR32 in standard leagues. For a player currently being drafted as the PPR WR39, the value is tantalizing.