Why the Packers Need to Extend Randall Cobb's Contract Right Now
Anyone who manages a budget either for their work, their family, their fantasy football auction-based roster, or for their DFS games knows that it is difficult work. Not only do you have to stay within the confines of your budget, but also you have to maximize value within your parameters and project where your biggest needs are as an organization, a family, or a football guru.
In the NFL, this budget management process comes in the form of the NFL salary cap and the decisions and trade-offs a General Manager must make to give their team the best shot at winning the Super Bowl every year (well, unless you are the Raiders). The 2014 NFL salary cap is $133.0 million, but multiple reports expect that figure to go up to $138.6 million.
Perhaps no General Manager has a tougher decision to make on his hands this offseason than the Green Bay Packers' Ted Thompson, who must decide whether to extend slot wide receiver Randall Cobb and how to value Cobb's contributions to the team. Thompson also has to assess Cobb's future expected output against other needs the team may potentially have and how other teams may value Cobb in their attempts to poach him from the Packers.
Make no mistake, this isn't your garden variety fantasy football decision where someone looks at Cobb's 76 receptions for 1,076 yards and 10 touchdowns in 14 games and rubber stamps Cobb back on the team next year. So, in fairness to the nuance and complexity involved in the decision Thompson must make, I'm going to delve into Cobb's production using several types of analysis. This includes our Net Expected Points (NEP), a 2014 comparison against other players lining up in the slot position, the team's salary cap situation in 2015, and what Cobb figures to get in free agency contract-wise based on comparable players and historical contracts given.
Cobb's Production 2014
Other than a rare game in which he came back to earth in Week 15 at Buffalo, Packers all-world quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been wrecking the NFL all season in an MVP-type year. Here is a breakdown using NEP of how Green Bay's pass catchers have performed this season as a result of Rodgers' play.
|Player||Targets||Receptions||Reception NEP||Target NEP||Rec NEP/Target|
As you can see from the table, both Jordy Nelson, fresh off a July contract extension for 4 years, $39.1 million with $11.5 million in guaranteed money, and Cobb are putting up top-10 seasons according to our metrics. Nelson and Cobb rank fourth and ninth in Reception NEP, respectively. When you take a look at the duo in terms of all targets, Cobb ranks fourth to Nelson's fifth among all receivers in Target NEP.
If that isn't enough to highlight the production of this combination, among wide receivers with 60 or more targets, Cobb is fourth in Reception NEP per Target, while Nelson is seventh, which shows they are as efficient as they are effective. Additionally, when you see that running back Eddie Lacy is fourth among running backs with a Reception NEP of 32.51, it is no wonder that Rodgers is putting up such gaudy statistics this year.
On the flip side, what sticks out on the other end of the spectrum for the Packers is how pedestrian and inefficient their other receiving options have been, including their tight ends and the number-three receiver spot patrolled on the outside by rookie Davante Adams and 2013 breakout Jarrett Boykin. So the key question here for Thompson becomes the following: if he let's Cobb walk via free agency, does his current roster have a suitable possible replacement? The answer using our metrics screams no.
Cobb's Career Statistics
Since Thompson is paying Cobb based on past, current, and anticipated future production, it is important to look at Cobb's entire body of work entering to date entering free agency. Those totals are shown below.
|Year||Games Played||Receptions||Targets||Rec Yards||Touchdowns|
Aside from his rookie year during which he was really regarded as a situational player, Cobb has been really productive for the Packers. Additionally, other than in 2013 when he took a fluke helmet-to-leg hit which caused him to miss 10 games, Cobb has been relatively healthy too. Surprisingly, Cobb is still one of the younger players in the league at 24 years old (and turns 25 in August). He's the perfect example of a player in his prime for Thompson's purposes.
Which Slot Machine Pays Out the Most?
Since Cobb's occupancy typically is in the slot, it is important to compare his 2014 statistics to those who spend considerable time in the slot as well, regardless of whether the player is a wide receiver or tight end. The thought is, that with available cap space, Thompson could choose to solve his middle of the field free agent needs in several different ways, including at the tight end position or he could even choose to pay for an outside wide receiver such as Torrey Smith.
So with that, I researched Cobb's 2014 on snaps he lined up in the slot to other wide receivers and tight ends lining up in the slot. All advanced research was analyzed from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
According to that data, Cobb has run a league-leading 448 routes out of the slot out of 511 routes, or 87.7% of his routes. Cobb is basically the "Ivan Drago" of the slot, because whatever he hits, he destroys as he ranks first in slot targets (91), slot receptions (63), slot receiving yards (889) and slot touchdowns (all of his 10) by a comfortable margin.
Additionally, his yards per route run of 1.98 ranks fifth among the peer group researched, which shows how much value he adds in his targets as well as how much he's trusted in the Packers offense. Those above Cobb in yards per route run in the slot are names of players who cameo in the slot, such as Rob Gronkowski and Emmanuel Sanders.
Basically, Rodgers looks to Cobb for big plays, like the game-clinching catch versus the Patriots, on a regular basis, and Cobb rewards him with productivity and consistency -- Cobb had 96 receiving yards out of Rodgers' mortal 185 passing yards against Buffalo in Week 15.
What is Cobb Worth?
Given that Cobb doesn't hit his 25th birthday until August, is in his prime, and is currently playing on a cheap rookie contract, he figures to get a significant raise this offseason either if he leaves Green Bay or stays put. (It doesn't hurt that Cobb can take a handoff or return punts as well.) Frankly, he'd probably already have re-signed earlier in the season if the didn't have his significant injury last season.
From Cobb's slot statistics above, it is clear he is the slot machine is that pays out the most among well known players with a high number of slot targets. This shows how valuable and vital Cobb is to the Packers offensive success. However, to land on a potential contract value, let's compare Cobb's overall statistics to potential slot benchmarks to land on a potential contract value. This doesn't account for slot pass catchers such as Jordan Matthews, who is on a rookie contract, and aging players in the twilight of their careers such as Anquan Boldin.
|Player||Position||Contract Year||Contract*||Guaranteed $*||Rec||Tar||Rec Yards||TD|
|G. Tate||WR||2014||5 year, $31.0m||$13.25m||91||127||1,224||4|
|Colston||WR||2012||5 year, $36.3m||$17.7m||51||83||771||4|
|Graham||TE||2014||4 year, $40.0m||$20.9m||73||105||782||9|
|Gronkowski||TE||2012||6 year $54.0m||$13.2m||76||120||1,093||11|
|E. Sanders||WR||2014||3 year, $15.0m||$6.0m||89||125||1,261||7|
Cobb's statistics certainly put him in that company production-wise. However, with the realization that players such as Gronkowski are assets in blocking for the run game and present more of a vertical threat and physical nightmare matchup than Cobb, the tight end contract values listed above are simply out of the realistic range Cobb could expect on the open market. Additionally, his teammate Nelson's four-year, $39.1 million contract with $11.5 million in guaranteed money probably represents the ceiling of the range that Cobb could expect from the Packers because Nelson has won a Super Bowl with Rodgers, is his favorite target and a vertical threat as well.
From the list above, the best comparable based on recent history is probably Golden Tate and his five-year, $31.0 million contract with $13.25 million guaranteed signed in 2014. However, based on the table above, Cobb had better historical statistics than Tate heading into free agency.
The best comparable to Cobb in the slot historically actually would be a player who has missed 2014 with an injury -- Victor Cruz -- who in his free agent year in 2012 (he was 25 years old then, too) had 58 receptions on 93 slot targets for 867 yards and 8 touchdowns and 2.3 yards per route run. Cruz' 2012 season mimics Cobb's through 14 games with 86 total receptions for 1,092 yards and 8 touchdowns overall. With that performance in 2012 following a 2011 season of 82 receptions for 1,536 yards and 10 touchdowns, Cruz was rewarded with a five-year, $43 million with $15.6 million guaranteed.
While Cruz was used a little more vertically and there were fewer viable pass catchers on the Giants offense at the time, he and Cobb have nearly identical 40-yard dash times as well (Cobb ran a 4.46 to Cruz's 4.47).
So what Thompson seems to be realistically looking at to pay Cobb would be a five-year contract between the $31 million given to Tate and the $43m given to Cruz, most likely landing around Marques Colston's contract from the table. So let's settle at that five-year, $36.3 million contract with some guaranteed total approximating Cruz's guaranteed money.
Can the Packers Afford Cobb's Contract?
So knowing that it will likely take something like five years and $36.3 million including between $11.5 million and $17.7 million guaranteed to keep Cobb in a Packers uniform, will Thompson get Cobb to sign on the line which is dotted?
Looking at the Packers 2015 salary cap and knowing that the Packers would like to bring Cobb back, it seems that Cobb will be back as a Packer next year. After all, Thompson does have a tendency to try to keep in house talent while they are in their prime.
With an expected minimum salary cap of $138.6 million, the Packers currently have $16.8 million in available cap space to sign their own players, draft picks, and other free agents in 2015. For perspective, NFL contracts have a tendency to be backloaded for cap purposes with the signing bonuses being prorated over the years of the contract (guaranteed money). For instance, Nelson only counts $4.6 million against the Packers cap in 2015. So there is definitely money available to re-sign Cobb even before free agency hits.
While the team could use some help at the cornerback position, which was apparent after watching Julio Jones destroy the Packers secondary on Monday Night Football, and re-signing right tackle Bryan Bulaga is also a high priority, the Packers don't figure to bring back several of their wrong-side-of-30-years-old defensive backs and could address that need in the draft. So, it seems that in Rodgers' prime, Cobb is their top priority in free agency as he already has the much needed chemistry with and trust of the team's franchise quarterback. The franchise tag is available as well for Cobb, but the team would figure to get something done before using that as Cobb is not an outside receiver and the club would not want to pay him like one.
So when it comes to budgeting, it seems like the Packers have the budget (salary cap) and desire to bring the best slot option in the league in Cobb back. Staying as a Packer would also keep Cobb's value as one of the top dynasty league wide receivers high without having to fear the worst of a potential image of Cobb in a Raiders or Chiefs uniform this offseason.
Make it happen already, Ted.