Before I get into discussing the Packers most important free agent, Randall Cobb, I first want to re-establish what NFL money is. In order to understand the negotiation between Randall Cobb and the Packers, you have to understand what the stakes are. If the Packers and Cobb are able to get a deal done at around $9 million a year, what does that really mean?
The first thing to understand is that from the owners’ perspective (in this case the Green Bay Packers Inc.) the money isn’t real. There is a salary cap and a salary floor. The amount of money that is spent on players each year is basically predetermined. Not only that, but regardless of what a franchise spends on its players it’s going to make money. Every single NFL team turns a profit.
The salary cap and floor are one of the many reasons that the NFL reigns supreme in America. Every fan base has a reason to be excited every year. The Seattle Seahawks, who just made their second consecutive Super Bowl appearance, had a meager record of 34-46 in the 5 seasons that preceded that run. Your team’s fortunes can turn on a dime.
Football owners, unlike baseball owners deserve no credit (or blame) for spending to make the team competitive. They all spend or don’t spend in accordance to the cap. If they don’t utilize all of their cap room in a season that money gets rolled over into the next cap and they use it that season. To the owners, player salaries are just a controlled cost of doing business and business is good.
To an NFL player, their salary is way more important than it is to the team. If Randall Cobb is paid $10 million a year he gets to use that $10 million to pay for stuff. He gets to invest that $10 million and protect his future. I would say he gets to use that $10 million to provide for his family but from what I can tell Randall is single with no kids and can use that $10 million to live the freakin’ dream!
To the Packers, and to the rest of the league, Randall’s $10 million might as well be jelly beans. The Packers are going to spend the money anyway. So is every other team. This year the salary cap is $143.28 million. That’s 143 jelly beans to each team. The question is then, how many jelly beans per season can you commit to Randall Cobb.
This season the Packers owe Aaron Rodgers 18 and a quarter jelly beans. They will be charged a little less than 13 jelly beans to keep Clay Matthews and about 12 jelly beans to have Julius Peppers for at least one more season. The question is what percentage of Green Bay’s allotment of jelly beans is Randall Cobb worth?
The main issue with Cobb is that he is primarily a slot receiver, and slot receivers don’t get paid what outside receivers get paid. There are two very obvious sides to this argument. Those that continue to say Cobb is “just” a slot receiver. Those who hold that opinion are certainly justified. Cobb has run more than 87% of his routes from the slot in Green Bay’s offense. I would not count this writer as a member of that group, but I’ll get in to that in a little bit.
Those who would classify Cobb as “just” a slot receiver will point to Victor Cruz’ s contract. It’s considered the richest deal for “just” a slot receiver. Cruz signed a 5 year $43 million extension, with an average annual value of $8.6 million. Whether you prefer Cruz or Cobb as a player is completely up to you. I’m not going to pretend that I’m unbiased enough to offer an opinion of value.
The thing is, money’s a little bit different now, and it’s going to keep getting more and more different. The salary cap when Victor Cruz signed his deal was $123 million. The salary cap right now is $143 million. It might be as high as $160 million in 2016 after new media deals hit the league’s revenue stream. When Cruz signed his deal his $8.6 million was worth 7% of his team’s cap. The cap is measured against the team’s top 51 contracts so Cruz received 7% of 51 players’ jelly beans.
If the Packers gave Randall Cobb a contract with an average annual value of 7% of their 2015 allotment of jelly beans they could pay Cobb $10.03 million per season. Technically it would make him the richest slot receiver of all time, but really it would just match what the Giants did for Victor Cruz. Lets say that it’s a 5 year deal that extends Cobb through the 2020 season. Let’s conservatively (and believe me this is conservative) say that the 2020 salary cap is $175 million. Cobb’s salary in the final year of his deal, assuming no backloading or frontloading would only cost about 5.7% of Green Bay’s cap.
Slot receiver or not, Cobb is one of the best 15 wide receivers in football. He is the premier slot receiver on a team that uses the slot position as a STARTER’s position. Green Bay had a slot receiver on the field on over 85% of it’s plays in 2014. The Packers base offense isn’t the I-formation with 2 receivers any more than their base defense is a 3-4 with 2 corners. Randall Cobb is a starter. He’s one of 11 players trying to score a touchdown on every offensive series.
The other thing that the “just” a slot receiver people aren’t grasping is how the Mike McCarthy offense utilizes the slot receiver. For years the #1 receiver for the Packers has been used out of the slot. To be honest, only since the addition of Randall Cobb has the best receiver (Nelson) operated almost exclusively on the outside. When Randall Cobb got hurt in 2013, where did Nelson go? You guessed it, the slot. 624 of Nelson’s 1,367 yards in 2013 came from the slot.
In 2007, Donald Driver was unquestionably the Packers #1 wide receiver. He led the team in targets, receptions and yards. He ran 81.5% of his routes from the slot position that season. Driver would hold his position in the slot each season until the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010. During that Super Bowl Driver was injured and Greg Jennings was inserted into the slot position. He ended up running 57% of his routes and making 3 of the most important catches in Packers history (the 2 TDs and the 3rd down coversion) from the slot position.
In 2011 Driver’s slot replacement, Randall Cobb, was selected. Cobb wasn’t deemed immediately ready to play and again, the team put it’s #1 receiver, Greg Jennings, into the slot. His 458 routes run from the slot were the most on the team during that record setting year. In 2012, Jennings was hurt for most of the season and the Packers moved more to a no huddle attack where the outside receivers stay outside and the inside receiver stays inside. Before 2012, the receivers were very interchangeable. They have not been since. In 2012, Jordy Nelsons slot usage went from 40.8% in 2010 to 6.8% during that season.
Cobb’s detractors will tell you that’s because he can’t play outside. I will argue that it’s actually the change to the no-huddle attack and the inabilty of other’s to play inside. James Jones is not a player whose skills translate well to the slot. Jordy Nelson is a top 5 receiver and is comfortable outside. Here’s the thing, though. RANDALL COBB IS THE BEST SLOT RECEIVER IN THE NFL.
One of the biggest arguments I’ve heard against paying Cobb is that when Jarrett Boykin struggled, why didn’t the Packers use Cobb outside? This makes no sense to me. They decided that Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson were their three best receivers. They don’t use two receiver sets. If Nelson is a top five receiver, Cobb is the best slot receiver in the league and Davante Adams is a rich man’s James Jones and really shouldn’t be used inside why would you use Cobb outside? To prove that he can do it?
The Packers love using slot receivers. They always have. The slot receiver for the Packers isn’t just the 3rd best receiver on the team. That’s not how Green Bay’s offense works. The NFL’s #1 QB to WR combo as far as passer rating was Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb with a video game-like 134.3. The Packers use the slot positions to create mismatches with nickel corners, linebackers and safeties.
If Randall Cobb leaves, there’s a chance Jared Abbrederis or a free agent or a draft pick slides inside, but I bet it’s Jordy Nelson more often than not. The Packers offense is always going to be a “matchup” offense, and the best matchup is often inside. Randall Cobb is a slot receiver but he’s not “just” a slot receiver. He plays the slot because he excels there, not because he’s incapable inside. Green Bay uses him out of the backfield, in the slot, as a runner and as a returner. He’s an important part of the Packers future and I’m going to believe that he’s back with the team at whatever price Ted Thompson sees fit until he signs elsewhere.