Everyone does player grades.
Ours are different.
We do ours on a salary-cap curve. After all, the salary cap largely determines long-term success in the NFL. Players with big-money contracts must be big-time performers. Those highly paid players must be supplemented by several small-budget but high-production players.
With that, we continue this series with the wide receivers. Salary comparisons are from OverTheCap.com. Stats are from STATS and league data.
2016 cap: $9.15 million (15th at position)
On the surface, it wasn’t a great year for Cobb. Cobb caught 60 passes for 610 yards (10.2 average) and four touchdowns. Compare that to his enormous 2014, when he caught 91 passes for 1,287 yards (14.1 average) and 12 touchdowns — all career-best figures that he parlayed into a big payday. Or even 2015, when he caught 79 passes for 829 yards (10.5 average) and six touchdowns. However, he caught 71.4 percent of targeted passes, averaged 6.07 YAC and had no drops this season. Last year, he caught 61.2 percent, averaged 5.45 YAC and had six drops (4.7 percent).
“His approach is so impressive,” receivers coach Luke Getsy said late in the season. “I’ve said it before: He’s a tough SOB. He is focused, he is driven. Whatever it is that drives him, whatever he’s overcome — a little man thing or whatever it is — he’s a tough guy. He’s someone you want to follow for the young receivers to see his approach and study habits and his demeanor. He and Jordy (Nelson) do a great job of exemplifying that every day. He doesn’t even have to say anything but he does do a great job of helping those guys and leading those guys and setting the expectations, kind of laying out, ‘This is my approach, this is the way I do it, this is why I do it.’ I think it really helps those young guys.”
Cobb is fearless and as tough as they come. At 5-foot-10 and with six years in the NFL, you wonder if that fearlessness and toughness has impacted his play. He’s still a good player. But with his cap number soaring to $12.75 million for 2017 and 2018, the Packers somehow need more bang for those megabucks.
2016 cap: $8.58 million (17th at position)
The Packers’ offense fell into an inescapable funk without Nelson last season. His return for this season eventually returned the offense to greatness.
Nelson was nothing short of amazing. After missing all of last season with a torn ACL, sitting out the offseason workouts, only practicing toward the end of training camp and not taking a single snap in the preseason, Nelson rounded into form and led the team with 97 receptions for 1,257 yards and a league-high 14 touchdowns. He had a catch rate of 63.8 percent and just two drops for a drop rate of 1.3 percent (tied for 26th). About the only thing missing from his game was explosiveness. In 2014, he had 19 receptions of 25-plus yards, a 15.5-yard average and 5.11 YAC per catch. In 2016, he had 10 receptions of 25-plus yards, a 13.0-yard average and 3.72 YAC per catch. But he was explosive enough to beat the Bears with a 60-yard catch in the waning moments.
In the first six games, Nelson had one game of 90-plus yards. In the final 10 games, he topped 90 yards seven times. During the six-game, run-the-table winning streak, Nelson caught 44 passes for 594 yards and five touchdowns.
“He’s a great player,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “You run out of ways to compliment him because he’s such a good teammate, he does so many things exceptional with his route running, his catching the ball, his second and third reactions, just his feel.”
Nelson’s performance with broken ribs in the NFC Championship Game (six catches, 67 yards, one touchdown) would have been the stuff of legend had the Packers won the game and advanced to the Super Bowl.
Nelson will turn 32 on May 31. The Packers certainly must feel good about the odds of Nelson being worth his upcoming cap hits of $11.55 million in 2017 and $12.55 million in 2018.
2016 cap: $1.07 million (85th at position)
Adams had the season in 2016 that so many expected him to have in 2015, when his season was ruined by an early ankle injury. Adams caught 75 passes for 997 yards (13.3 average) and 12 touchdowns. In his first two seasons combined, Adams had 88 receptions for 929 yards (10.6 average) and four touchdowns. In 2015, he caught 53.2 percent of targeted passes and averaged a woeful 9.7 yards per catch, with 2.67 coming after the catch. In 2016, those figures rose to 62.0 percent and 5.15 YAC per catch. He did drop a team-high five passes, with his drop rate of 4.1 percent ranking 84th out of the 119 players with at least 40 receptions. At least it was an improvement over his six drops and 6.4 percent from last year.
Adams isn’t big (6-foot 7/8) and he isn’t fast (a 4.56 at the 2014 Combine) but he is explosive, tying for 13th in the league with 10 receptions of 25-plus yards. When he was a shell of himself physically for the NFC Championship Game, the Packers had no chance to keep pace with Atlanta’s offense. At this point, it appears Adams will be the latest of GM Ted Thompson’s second-round hits at receiver, following in the footsteps of Nelson, Cobb and Greg Jennings.
“He’s playing more confidently, but the biggest thing for him is his health,” Rodgers said late in the season. “Last year, I’ve said it a bunch to you guys but it’s on purpose: Last year, he wasn’t healthy, and this year he’s been healthy and he’s playing the way that we projected him to play last year when we said that he was the MVP of training camp and he was coming along and going to be a star. He’s just finally healthy and, when you’re healthy, you’re more confident. And when you’re more confident, you make plays like he’s been doing most of the season.
2016 cap: $612,848 (122nd at position)
After a big game at Arizona in last year’s playoffs, the hope was Janis would use that as a springboard into this season. That didn’t get close to happening. He caught 11 passes for 93 yards, with a catch rate of 57.9 percent and a drop rate of 5.3 percent (one in 19 targets). Against Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and Indianapolis, Janis caught nine passes for 78 yards while averaging 43.5 snaps. During the final eight games, he caught two passes for 15 yards while playing a total of 43 snaps. An unstoppable gunner on the punt team last year, Janis had only five tackles on special-teams this season. He came alive in the playoffs, though, with four tackles. It’s time to put realistic expectations on Janis. Big and fast doesn’t equate to being a great receiver. Or even a good one. But that’s OK. Janis is a quality special-teams performer. That’s a pretty darned good return on investment for a seventh-round draft pick.
2016 cap: $506,794 (158th at position)
Davis showed some potential. He caught three passes for 24 yards and one touchdown and returned a punt 55 yards against Atlanta in October. But two weeks later at Tennessee, Davis turned over the ball with a muffed punt. And that was that. He played one snap on offense and seven on special teams during the final seven regular-season games. He finished the season with those three receptions, a catch rate of 42.9 percent and a drop rate of 14.3 percent (one drop, seven targets). Davis has great speed — something the receiver corps lacks — but needs to learn the finer points of the game.
2016 cap: $264,706 (208th at position)
Allison, an undrafted rookie, had a superb training camp. Though he failed to make the opening roster, he ultimately passed Janis, Davis and Jared Abbrederis on the depth chart to become a key player. After spending the first six games on the practice squad, Allison caught 12 passes for 202 yards (16.8 average) and two touchdowns in 10 games. Allison caught 54.5 percent of targeted passes and had no drops. In the first big game of his career, Week 17 at Detroit, he caught four passes for 91 yards and one touchdown.
“Games like that, you have to thrive on it as a competitor,” Allison said. “You have to want games like that — big games like that — to live in the moment and make the most of it. Any opportunities that I was going to be presented with I was prepared for and wanted to make the most of his opportunities.”
At the Scouting Combine, he measured 6-foot-3 1/4 and ran his 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds. He plays to that height but certainly not that speed. He’ll be a big factor on offense next year.
2016 cap: $13,800 (287th at position)
McCaffrey, an undrafted rookie who spent camp with the Raiders, was signed to the practice squad on Dec. 20 and promoted to the active roster for the NFC Championship Game due to injuries to Nelson, Adams and Allison. At 6-foot-2, he’s got an intriguing combination of size and speed (4.46). Based on the limited amount of practices we get to watch, it appears he’s a solid route runner, too. McCaffrey is the son of Ed McCaffrey, a former standout receiver with the Giants, and the brother of Christian McCaffrey, the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up at Stanford and projected early pick in this year’s draft.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.