Why the Packers might let Randall Cobb leave

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb breaks away for a touchdown reception in the first quarter against the New Orleans Saints.

The Green Bay Packers' vision was clear on March 15, 2013.

Greg Jennings, the two-time Pro Bowl receiver, was gone. A departure sealed in a five-year, $45 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings that included a $10 million signing bonus. A fresh plan was needed. A new receiving threat had to emerge.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson made some effort to keep Jennings in town, but ultimately allowed the 6-foot, 195-pounder to relocate within the NFC North and instead turned to Randall Cobb in the slot.

The former second-round pick already had developed a prominent role in the offense before stepping into the spotlight. Cobb manned the slot for 80 catches, 954 yards and eight touchdowns when Jennings was sidelined for half of the 2012 season with a core muscle injury.

While other teams struck out with the likes of Jonathan Baldwin and Titus Young in the 2011 NFL draft, Thompson and his scouts uncovered a gem in the 5-10, 192-pound Cobb, who was one pick from sliding into the third round.

On the receiving end of Aaron Rodgers' fastballs, Cobb has caught 227 passes for 3,049 yards and 25 touchdowns in his first four NFL seasons. His value has only skyrocketed in the wake of a breakthrough 2014 campaign in which he had career-highs in receptions (91), receiving yards (1,287) and touchdowns (12).

In less than a week, Cobb will be free to sign with any team at whatever rate the market will pay him, if the Packers can't strike a deal with the versatile playmaker.

Thompson has yet to allow any prominent receiving threat to leave Green Bay after his rookie deal expired. He re-signed Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, Jennings and James Jones to second contracts, though Jennings and Jones finally left when it came time for a third.

The key always has been having a replacement in the wings. It's the bedrock of Thompson's draft-and-develop philosophy, but it's not always fool-proof. While Cobb stepped in for Jennings and the offense continued to thrive, it didn't have an established successor for Finley at tight end.

Thompson did his best to ready the Packers for this scenario. He's selected five receivers in the past two drafts, more than any other position. The centerpiece was last year's second-round pick, Davante Adams, who had a record-setting run at Fresno State before declaring for the draft as an underclassman.

Davante Adams

Adams had highs and lows in his rookie year, but finished with 446 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Not bad for a receiver who turned 22 on Christmas Eve. He still projects as more of a perimeter receiver, much like Jones before him.

Nelson is more than capable in the slot, but is most dangerous outside. His physics-defying sideline catches are one of the attributes that made him worthy of a four-year, $39 million extension last July.

Looking for a prospect to man the slot, Thompson drafted Wautoma native Jared Abbrederis in the fifth round a year ago. The former University of Wisconsin walk-on possesses a small frame at 6-1, 195-pound, but finished his college career as one of the Badgers' most-productive receivers.

The Packers like Abbrederis, but didn't get much of a look at him. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the opening week of training camp and spent the year on injured reserve. Even if he was healthy, he probably wouldn't have seen many snaps behind Nelson, Cobb and Adams.

This offseason's wild card is 2014 seventh-round pick Jeff Janis, a 6-3, 219-pounder out of a NCAA Division II Saginaw Valley State. A fan favorite since he came to Green Bay, Janis saw action in only two regular-season games as the No. 5 receiver. Every week, fans clamored for him to play.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy reiterated at the NFL scouting combine how high the organization is on Janis following a redshirt season of sorts. Their patience makes sense, especially after cutting another former Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference receiver in Charles Johnson at the end of camp in 2013.

Green Bay Packers receiver Jeff Janis (83) runs after a catch against the Kansas City Chiefs at Lambeau Field.

Johnson, also a seventh-round pick, had a brief stop in Cleveland before breaking out with the Vikings last season (31 catches for 475 yards and two touchdowns). He caught his first NFL touchdown against the Packers on Nov. 23.

The idea of a blossoming 24-year-old receiver like Cobb hitting the open market is almost unheard of. The Packers want him back for obvious reasons, but the reported interest of cap-healthy teams like Jacksonville and Oakland threatens to push Cobb's contract to more than $10 million per season.

The Jaguars ($65 million) and Raiders ($54.7 million) have the most available cap room in the league, according to Spotrac. Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie worked for the Packers in 2011 when they drafted Cobb.

The NFL is quickly becoming a three-receiver league and top-flight options in the slot are few and far between with established stars like Wes Welker in noticeable decline. Another, Victor Cruz, blew out his knee in October after striking a five-year, $43 million deal with the New York Giants.

Meanwhile, Cobb rose to the top of the league in 2014. According to Pro Football Focus, he led the NFL with 75 catches, 106 targets, 1,067 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns from the slot.

His presence in the middle of the field was especially important for the Packers given the absence of a difference-making tight end. If Cobb doesn't return, wide receiver could shoot ahead of tight end for one of the Packers' primary needs entering the draft next month.

The subtraction of a perimeter threat also might make it more enticing for the Packers to re-sign right tackle Bryan Bulaga and shore up their offensive line for at least two more seasons. They'd have plenty of money remaining as they currently are an estimated $33 million in the black.

The Packers could address receiver in free agency, though it's been eons since they went that route. Thompson signed his only unrestricted free-agent receiver in 2006 with Kansas City's Marc Boerigter. He didn't make it in Green Bay and never played another game in the league.

There's a chance the New York Jets might part with Percy Harvin in the coming weeks, but would the versatile difference-maker be worth the headaches he's caused during his career? If he can't make it in Pete Carroll's laid-back culture, it's tough to envision any other NFL location being a better fit.

The Packers gave themselves options with the selection of Adams, Abbrederis and Janis even if they're not as acclaimed as the 2011 receiving corps of Jennings, Nelson, Donald Driver, Finley and Cobb. It would put more pressure on Rodgers and the coaching staff to develop another collection of young receivers.

There's risk in this for Cobb, too. If he stays healthy, he could possibly land another big contract by the time he's 30. Having Rodgers throwing you the ball makes that a good bet. Cobb would be placing faith and production in the development of Oakland's David Carr or Jacksonville's Blake Bortles should he leave Green Bay.

Quarterback play has been an issue for Jennings and Jones since leaving the Packers. Neither has posted a 1,000-yard campaign. They're a combined 15-32-1 in their post-Packers years.

The next week will go a long way in determining not only Cobb's future but also what direction the Packers will take. Thompson passed on keeping Jones and Jennings to put the Packers in position to re-sign a player on the verge of stardom like Cobb.

At the same time, the Packers' wily general manager didn't build his empire in Green Bay by overpaying for it.

—whodkiew@pressgazette and follow him on Twitter @WesHod

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