Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson almost never lets a young, productive player he drafted get away after his first contract.
Don't expect receiver Randall Cobb to buck that trend.
Still just 23 years old, with verified versatility and playmaking ability, Cobb is scheduled to enter the final year of his four-year rookie deal in 2014. While Jordy Nelson and his extension may be higher on the Packers' priority list, Cobb won't be at all forgotten.
His negotiations will likely go one of two ways.
Either the Packers make a competitive offer and extend Cobb at some point in the next few months, or Cobb will bet on himself in 2014 to maximize his earning value come next March. The difference in options could be as much as $3-4 million per season, given the money recently paid to receivers of similar ability and play style as Cobb.
At organized team activities last week, Cobb provided little on the status of any contract talks with the Packers.
“I’m not a businessman, so I don’t really know that side of that, that’s what I have an agent for,” said Cobb, via Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “That’s for the Packers to decide and to figure out.”
However, Cobb said back in February that he'd prefer to get a new deal done before the season (much like Nelson) in hopes of avoiding the distractions that sometimes go with contract negotiations.
"I would love to get it out the way and not to have to worry about any of the conversations or answering any questions during the season that would take away from what we're trying to do as a football team," Cobb said, via Dan Hanzus of NFL.com.
Establishing Cobb's value has roadblocks.
|Randall Cobb, Year-by-Year Stats|
|G||Rec||Yrd||TD||Rush Yrd||Return Yrd||All-Purpose|
On one hand, the former second-round pick in 2011 has blossomed into one of the game's best slot receivers. He caught 80 passes for almost 1,000 yards and eight scores in 2012, his first in a full-time role. Last season, he was on pace for 100 catches and 1,300 yards through the season's first four games.
His versatility is also a great asset, as the Packers can use him as both a kick and punt returner or in the backfield next to Aaron Rodgers for some formations. Overall, he has averaged 125 all-purpose yards per game over his three NFL seasons.
And maybe most importantly, the 23-year-old Cobb remains one of the team's youngest core players. For a draft-and-develop franchise, retaining players like Cobb long-term is a major part of the process.
Yet his primary role as a slot receiver has a reduced value in the NFL, and a scary-looking broken leg suffered in Week 5 last season cost him 10 games. If getting an extension done before the season is in the works, the Packers will now have just one full season of Cobb playing a primary role to make a call on his overall worth.
While slot receivers are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the pro game, salaries haven't caught up with the usage. Of the top 25 receivers in average salary, only eight played the majority (60 percent or more) of their 2013 snaps in the slot.
|Top Average Salaries, Slot WRs*|
|*Played 60% or more snaps in slot in 2013 Source: Spotrac.com|
Harvin, who signed a six-year, $64.2 million deal with Seattle that averages $10.7 million per season, leads the group. Cruz, another true slot receiver, received a five-year deal worth $43.0 million from the New York Giants. The two contracts will factor heavily into Cobb's future deal with the Packers.
Former NFL agent Joel Corry believes Cobb's agent will likely use Harvin's deal in negotiations with Green Bay, given the size of the deal and the fact that the two play the game so similarly.
"The agent will want to use Harvin more than Cruz because of the salary differences," Corry said in an e-mail interview. "Cobb is more similar to Harvin because of their all-purpose/multi-dimensional capabilities."
The comparisons between the two are easy to find. During his first three years in Minnesota, Harvin averaged 73 receptions, 196 rushing yards and 1,940 all-purpose yards. He scored 20 touchdowns from scrimmage and another four on special teams.
Cobb's numbers aren't as impressive, at least on a volume scale. His three-year averages equate to 45 catches, 72 rushing yards and 1,501 all-purpose yards per season. He has 13 receiving scores and three returns for touchdowns. But that has more to do with the fact that he entered the NFL as Green Bay's No. 5 receiver, and he's missed 12 of 48 career games. Harvin was an instant go-to player for the Vikings and missed just three games during his first three seasons.
The per-game averages are more comparable. Harvin has averaged 133.6 all-purpose yards per game over 55 career appearances, while Cobb sits at 125.0 through 36. Harvin has averaged 5.1 catches a contest over his career; Cobb sits at 5.3 per game since 2012.
|Randall Cobb vs. Percy Harvin, Career Stats|
|Yards from Scrimmage||1977||4002|
Numbers aside, the two players have been used in almost identical roles. Each has been asked to man the slot, rush out of the backfield and handle return duties. Harvin is the more explosive athlete, but both use stop-start quickness and speed to make plays in all three areas.
That said, it's difficult envisioning the Packers offering Cobb a deal averaging over $10 million per season.
Herein lies part of the decision for both sides. Without a superlative year from Cobb, in which he posts monster numbers and remains healthy, there's almost zero chance he'll receive a contract offer in the same range of Harvin. It's not even certain he'd receive a deal similar to Cruz ($8.6 million average) ahead of the 2014 season. There is incentive for Cobb to give himself another year to increase his value and incentive for the Packers to stay conservative in extension talks.
Cobb is clearly a fantastic player who can change games, but Harvin is a better overall talent, and Cruz has averaged 80 catches, 1,208 yards and almost eight touchdowns over the last three years. Harvin and Cruz have both been named to Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams. Cobb's resume doesn't yet match either.
NFL teams generally pay for projected performance, and it could be argued that Cobb is on the cusp of entering the top tier of receivers. Had he stayed healthy last season, his numbers likely would have put him in a strong leverage situation ahead of this season. Corry said he believes Cobb's injury last season will be a "factor."
At this point, Cobb's value should sit below Harvin and Cruz and ahead of similar receivers such as Amendola (five years, $28.5 million) and Welker (two years, $12 million). Any extension signed by Cobb before next season would most likely average between $7-8 million in new dollars, plus $12-15 million in guaranteed money.
The Packers could likely lock up Cobb this summer with a four-year extension in the $28-32 million range. Or, Cobb could gamble on himself in hopes that a big 2014 season will push his value into the monetary range of Harvin and Cruz.
Either way, the Packers are unlikely to lose Cobb. He will either be locked up before the season, or he'll cash in—much in the same way Sam Shields did this past March—with the Packers next spring. He's staying in Green Bay; what it will cost the Packers to ensure Cobb's stay is now a game of wait-and-see.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.