The First Law of Free-Agent Thermodynamics states that for every major signing, there are equal and opposite reactionary signings.
Randall Cobb will return to the Green Bay Packers with a four-year, $40 million deal, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. On the surface, it's a modest and not totally unexpected move. The Packers wanted Cobb back, and he did not appear all that eager to leave. While full contract details have yet to emerge—NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reports $17 million is guaranteed—the deal seems to have the rough outline of last year's Golden Tate and Eric Decker deals, only a little larger. No banks were broken, no real hometown discounts applied. Most notably, no change was made for change's sake.
Two of the most common questions I was asked on talk radio appearances of the past week were: 1) How will Randall Cobb perform without Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson? and 2) How will Rodgers and the Packers stay among the top NFL offenses without Cobb? I was not eager to answer such deep, complex questions. Apparently, neither were Cobb or the Packers.
So the right team got the right player for the right price. But no one can cause a free-agent splash hours before the official start of free agency (the Cobb deal is not even official yet) without causing a ripple effect.
Top Targets and Needy Teams
Every wide receiver who leaves the board this year makes the next batch of receivers more marketable. That's big news for Jeremy Maclin and Torrey Smith, whose negotiating leverage just increased. Teams that coveted Cobb—the Oakland Raiders were expected to be top suitors—may now turn their attention to Maclin and Smith.
Maclin and Cobb were part of an elaborate game of franchise-tag chicken that culminated when the Dallas Cowboys franchised Dez Bryant and the Denver Broncos did the same with Demaryius Thomas. The latter was a foregone conclusion, but Bryant was a heavy stone that would have disturbed the surface of the creek. If Bryant dropped into the market, Cobb would have been a consolation prize, giving the Packers the upper hand in negotiations. Once the Cowboys franchised Bryant, Cobb became the clear first-choice receiver, which probably gave the Packers' contract talks the momentum they needed to roll to a conclusion.
Maclin was in a similar situation, except that he was behind Cobb. Smith's situation is slightly different, because the Ravens can't offer him market value without serious salary-cap jiu-jitsu. With Cobb joining Bryant and Thomas on the unavailable list, "market value" for Smith just went up.
The Philadelphia Eagles can still afford Maclin if they want to keep him, but he may now be priced out of range of the cap-strapped Kansas City Chiefs, who need a wide receiver and have Maclin-Andy Reid history to lean on. So, one force is pushing Maclin's value up while another is pulling would-be employers off the market, with supply and demand working as a kind of free-agent gravity. All the while, four years and $40 million creates salary inertia for receivers in the tier below Bryant and Calvin Johnson, like Cobb, Maclin and Smith. Balancing all of the forces is a job for a Ph.D. physicist or an NFL capologist.
Let's shift our focus from the objects in motion to the objects bracing for impact. The Raiders have about $60 million in cap space. They are aiming for dynamic "impact" free agents, as opposed to last year's over-the-hill roster buttressing, much of which (Maurice Jones-Drew, LaMarr Woodley, Matt Schaub) is already gone. The Raiders have reportedly pushed for Cobb for weeks, and they were expected to be big players in the Ndamukong Suh market. Cobb is now lost, and the Miami Dolphins appear to be shunting the Raiders to the back of Suh's queue.
The Raiders can certainly make a run at Maclin or Smith. Smith makes the most sense: He averaged 15.7 yards per catch and scored 11 touchdowns last year, while the Raiders averaged just 9.5 yards per catch as a team and had no receiver catch more than six touchdowns. (Maclin's 15.5 yards per catch and 10 touchdowns also fit, but Smith is the more traditional "big play" guy).
Safety Devin McCourty would also be a prize pickup for a team that is as eager to be perceived as capable of landing top free agents as it is of actually landing those free agents. One thing the Raiders cannot afford is a repeat of last year; a free-agent haul of Vince Wilfork, Pierre Thomas and Brian Hartline would be counterproductive to most teams (except perhaps a Super Bowl contender seeking bargain veterans) but a sign of surrender in Oakland.
One modest move by the Packers, and the Raiders must change their whole free-agent philosophy. Because the Raiders are among the biggest spenders on the market, that changes everyone's philosophy.
Top Tight Ends and Other Receivers
The tight end market shifted when news of the Cobb deal surfaced Saturday night. The Packers were likely suitors for Julius Thomas or Jordan Cameron, a pair of receiving tight ends who could play a Jermichael Finley-style role while absorbing some of the catches Cobb left behind. The Packers could still use a tight end, but the urgency is gone. They can get by with Richard Rodgers and perhaps a veteran stabilizer like Jacob Tamme or Tony Moeaki.
Julius and Cameron will find work. The Atlanta Falcons are flush with cash and tight end hungry, and other clubs will be looking for seam-stretchers. But the tight end market just cooled a little, and teams will be more likely to low-ball the injury-risky Juilus and Cameron now that they know there is no team on the brink of the Super Bowl with money to spend and an eagerness to fill a hot-spot need.
The Broncos are not in any position to re-sign Julius Thomas and might not pursue Cameron, but a cool market, coupled with Peyton Manning's recent restructuring, can make it easier for them to sign Gary Kubiak favorite Owen Daniels. And what happens if Kyle Shanahan pushes for Cameron in Atlanta? The Cobb signing makes Thomas a complete free-agent wild card. If you had him penciled in with the Packers or Falcons, get ready to use your eraser.
Percy Harvin is an even wilder wild card. When the Broncos tagged Demaryius Thomas, it ended what might have been an epic sales pitch from the New York Jets, who have pursued Broncos receivers in the past (Eric Decker) and have a thing for king-sized Georgia Tech wideouts (doomed prospect Stephen Hill; new coordinator Chan Gailey also has Yellow Jacket roots). The Jets traded for Brandon Marshall instead, which made Harvin available, because there are only so many hours in the day to try to get expensive-and-easily-distracted mega-talented receivers with your program. Harvin has not been released yet, but it's considered a foregone conclusion.
Harvin looked like a possible Cobb replacement in Green Bay. Their games are superficially similar, though Cobb is younger, healthier, more productive, more consistent and wasn't recently deemed expendable in midseason by a Super Bowl team that was short on big-play threats. Assuming the Jets do release Harvin, he becomes another chaotic particle in the free-agent system. Chip Kelly could find some fiendish roles for him if Maclin departs. The Buffalo Bills are stockpiling square pegs. The Raiders have a long and often depressing infatuation with players just like Harvin.
We have not touched on Michael Crabtree yet. Too many billiard balls must drop in corner pockets before we can guess where he will come to rest. The draft? Let's allow the dust to settle before we add Amari Cooper, Devin White or Dorial Green-Beckham to the equation. There are too many variables bouncing around as it is.
There are also too many unpredictable teams on the market. The suddenly unpredictable Eagles alone could introduce enough chaos into the system to blow up all of our predictions. The freewheelin' Jets, Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins all have money to spend and no apparent plans to play it safe this year.
Cobb Ideal for Packers' Third Downs
With so much uncertainty, it is easy to see why Cobb's return to the Packers made sense for both sides.
Cobb is not a product of Rodgers and Nelson, as some have suggested, though every NFL player is the product of every other player to some degree (that's a physics and philosophy puzzle for another day). Football Outsiders ranked Cobb first in the NFL in DVOA, its per-catch percentage stat. Cobb's teammates had much to do with that, but you don't get to be first by just taking what Rodgers throws to you and doing nothing with it.
On third downs last year, Cobb caught 26 of 39 passes thrown to him, netting 24 first downs. A 61.5 percent conversion rate on 3rd-and-pretty-long (per the Football Outsiders database, the average third down throw to Cobb came with 7.6 yards to go) is not easy to replace.
At the same time, not many quarterbacks can throw 26 catchable passes on 39 3rd-and-long attempts. Cobb only needs to look at former teammates Greg Jennings (Minnesota Vikings) and James Jones (Raiders) to realize the difference between Rodgers and a developing quarterback or committee of journeymen.
Cobb's third-down performance shows that replacing him with Harvin would be a terrible idea. Cobb is not just a screen-and-go speedster who sometimes runs draw plays. He has developed into a surprisingly capable possession receiver. That's why a Julius Thomas or Jordan Cameron might have been a better replacement, but it's also why the best replacement was no need for a replacement.
Study the moving parts of free agency, and you realize that it is a closed system. Rookies like Cooper and White enter, but veterans like Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne leave, meaning the total number of resources remains about the same. Free agency provides the chance to toss a boulder into the creek and really alter its direction—Suh is a potential boulder—but there is a danger of just tossing a bunch of rocks around and ending up worse than you started. And the rocks could also end up miserable. Given the choice to remain at rest with a young, productive, affordable and content core player, smart franchises (and players) often choose to remain at rest.
The Packers and Cobb decided to stand still and let free agency flow around them. Lots of other teams now have some adjusting to do. No matter who signs where, the total talent available—the sum total of Maclin, Harvin, Smith, Julius Thomas, Jordan, Crabtree and the rest—will be conserved.
That's the second law of free-agent thermodynamics.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.