Often surveying a dangerous zone in the middle of the field that requires equal parts athleticism, craftiness and toughness, such players usually produce a high return on investment. Exhibit A is the Green Bay Packers’ Randall Cobb.
In the final year of his rookie contract that paid him a base salary of $812,648, Cobb had one of the best seasons of any receiver in the league. His 91 catches tied for ninth, 1,287 receiving yards ranked 11th, 12 touchdowns tied for fourth and 24 catches of 20 or more yards tied for third.
Headed for possible free agency next week, Cobb could become the exception rather than the rule for players who run a majority of their passing routes from the inside receiver position. Many believe the slot receiver to be one of the more replaceable roster spots. Free agents at that position often earn modest deals. Outside wide receivers tend to make the blockbuster money.
Of the top five receivers based on percentage of routes run from the slot last season, three signed new contracts within the past two years. The Dallas Cowboys this week signed Cole Beasley (91.2 percent of routes from the slot, according to Pro Football Focus) to a four-year contract averaging $3.4 million per year. Beasley is 25. Two summers ago, the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz (89.2 percent until a season-ending knee injury) re-upped for five years at an average of $8.6 million per year. At the time, Cruz was 26. And two years ago in free agency, the Denver Broncos’ Wes Welker (88.9 percent) signed a two-year deal for an average of $6 million per year. Welker was 31 at the time and coming off a 118-catch season for 1,354 receiving yards with the New England Patriots.
The top five earners in last year’s group of unrestricted free agents at wide receiver averaged just $5.54 million per season. That group consisted of Eric Decker, Golden Tate, DeSean Jackson, Julian Edelman, and Andre Roberts. Only Roberts ($4 million per season) and Tate ($6.2 million) ran at least half of their routes from the slot. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Lance Moore, who was ninth in the league with 78.5 percent of his routes from the slot, signed a two-year deal as a 30-year-old restricted free agent in 2014 coming over from the New Orleans Saints.
Reports this week have surfaced that Cobb could draw interest for $11 million to $12 million per season, which would put him among the top seven receivers overall in the league. That would put him ahead of division foe Brandon Marshall, ex-teammate Greg Jennings and current teammate Jordy Nelson, who averages $9.76 million per season.
At just 24, Cobb has not yet hit the prime of his career and is probably as good if not better than any of the above-mentioned “slot” receivers. Among all NFL receivers, his dynamic ability might best compare to that of Percy Harvin, who was traded last season from the Seattle Seahawks to the New York Jets. Like Harvin, Cobb excels at many spots — as an inside receiver, out of the backfield, in motion and as a return specialist, if needed. While he may not have the blazing speed of Harvin, he has the rare ability to create matchup problems. By putting Cobb in the backfield in games against the Patriots and in the playoffs against the Cowboys, the Packers changed the flow of those games. Without the presence and playmaking of Cobb, the Packers could have well lost both games and the entire season might have been looked at differently.
Despite internal team issues and injuries, Harvin’s talent has been rewarded. Traded twice within the past two years, he is playing under a six-year, $64.25 million contract that will pay him a base salary of $10.5 million in 2015 and a high base of $11.15 in 2018. His 2013 trade from the Minnesota Vikings to the Seahawks also cost the Seahawks a 2013 first-round draft pick and seventh-round pick and a 2014 third-round pick.
Outside of a gruesome knee injury at Baltimore that cost him 10 games in 2013, Cobb has been remarkably durable given the role he plays and his size (5-10, 192 pounds). He has missed only two other games because of injury in his three other seasons.
Among receivers who have played at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps, Cobb is the only receiver in the league over the past three seasons to finish among the top six in percentage of routes run from the slot. In 2014, he was fifth in the league with 87.3 percent of his routes coming from the slot. In 2013, he was second at 94.7 percent. And in 2012, he was sixth at 84.4 percent. So, with the departures of Donald Driver, Jennings, and Jermichael Finley over the past two years, the Packers have leaned heavily on Cobb to effort yardage and first downs in the middle of the field — not only by design but also on second and third reaction plays.
Among Cobb’s career highs in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns, he also has two punt return touchdowns, a kickoff return touchdown and a 67-yard run out of the backfield during his career. On 27 career carries, he is averaging 9.3 yards per attempt. And he could play quarterback in a pinch, too. At Kentucky, he started at quarterback for a time and he might know the Packers’ offense better than anyone not named Rodgers.
Cobb’s expiring rookie deal was four years for $3.21 million. In 2014, his cap hit for the Packers was just more than $1 million.
All contract information for this story according to spotrac.com.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com