The biggest piece of the Green Bay Packers' offseason quietly fell into place Saturday night.
Randall Cobb, the team's coveted slot receiver, will return on a four-year, $40 million contract that reportedly includes $17 million in guarantees. The move takes care of Cobb, who'll see a significant hike in salary after making $812,648 in the final year of his rookie contract in 2014.
It also assures the Packers that Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Cobb will play together for at least four more seasons barring injury. The two Pro Bowl receivers combined for 189 receptions, 2,806 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns in assisting Rodgers to his second NFL MVP award last season.
One of the prevailing topics of the Packers' season had been whether Cobb would remain at the heart of the NFL's top-scoring offense. Those conversations amplified once the team's season ended with a heartbreaking 28-22 overtime loss in Seattle.
The events that unfolded Saturday night brought some clarity to what direction the Packers are headed, and as you might expect, the process played out in the most Ted Thompson way possible.
As social media cried out in fear of Cobb's possible departure, the Packers' general manager stuck to his convictions. Thompson didn't panic. He even relinquished control for a few hours when the legal tampering period began, only to work out a deal with the 24-year-old receiver before the end of the work day.
Dallas and Denver can't say that. Both organizations have to deal with the aftermath of tagging Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, respectively. Thompson could've made it easy on himself and tagged Cobb, but he then would've needed to negotiate a long-term contract with a $12.8 million tag hanging over his pen.
You don't build up $30 million in salary cap space by doing what's convenient. You do it by making tough calls. It's what has enabled the franchise to sign Rodgers, Nelson and linebacker Clay Matthews to lucrative extensions within the last two years without setting it back financially.
Although the specifics of the deal haven't been released, league sources have indicated that the Packers stretched their $8 million to $9 million limit to compromise with agent Jimmy Sexton, who in turn quelled his $11 million to $12 million aspirations for the 5-foot-10, 192-pound receiver.
Thompson was in a similar position last year with the threat of Sam Shields' departure. He went to the 11th hour before Shields agreed to a four-year, $39 million contract with a $12.5 million signing bonus.
At the time, it looked like Thompson might have overextended himself. Based on this weekend's developments, the Packers might have received a bargain given the reported contracts of Byron Maxwell (six years, $63 million), Brandon Flowers (four years, $36 million) and Kareem Jackson (four years, $34 million).
Could Cobb have made more on the open market? Probably. At least, in terms of annual salary, but it remains to be seen how much other teams were offering in terms of guarantees. In Green Bay, Cobb knows what he's getting — an MVP quarterback and an All-Pro receiver who can stretch the field and disrupt an opposing secondary.
Cobb can be a weapon in his own right. His ability to line up in the backfield was vital for the Packers' offense, especially late in the season. His athleticism and speed make it just as probable he'll carry the ball as motion out for a pass. That complexity keeps defenses on their heels.
Questions about his durability surfaced after he missed 10 games in 2013 with a broken tibia. He responded by playing in all 18 games last season. According to Pro Football Focus, there was no receiver more productive in the slot than Cobb, who caught 75 passes for 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Cobb's 134.3 passer rating on passes thrown in his direction was best among NFL receivers. His respect in the locker room was evident when teammates voted him a special teams captain despite him playing only sporadically on punt returns.
Cobb's rise continues the lineage at receiver under Thompson, a position the Packers have drafted and developed better than any other during his decade with the organization. Greg Jennings, James Jones, tight end Jermichael Finley and Nelson all earned second contracts with the Packers. On Saturday, Cobb joined the club.
The Packers drafted five receivers over the last two years in case Cobb left. The byproduct of that is they have three prospects they like in Davante Adams (2014 second round), Jared Abbrederis (fifth) and Jeff Janis (seventh).
If Cobb would have left in free agency, the Packers probably would've needed to use an early draft pick to augment the position. Now that he's re-signed, Thompson can focus his attention on other areas like inside linebacker, tight end and possibly cornerback, defensive or offensive line depending on how the rest of free agency shakes out.
Offensively, there's one other matter to take care of in right tackle Bryan Bulaga, the top remaining offensive tackle in free agency whose market could command a salary of more than $7 million per season based on some projections.
If Bulaga returns, the Packers would be poised to keep their quarterback, top three receivers, starting running back and offensive line intact for two more years. Such a scenario is nearly impossible in the salary-cap era, but that's where Thompson, chief negotiator Russ Ball and his front office have the Packers headed.
Thompson likely will apply the same cost-benefit analysis to Bulaga that he did to Cobb in determining his value. Even after Cobb's contract, the Packers should have enough money to take care of the 6-foot-5, 314-pound tackle. It's just a matter of will they?
It's often pointless trying to decode Thompson's thoughts, but based on Bulaga's age and production, he seems like the prototypical player to stay in Green Bay past his rookie deal.
Whatever happens in the days and weeks that follow, Thompson checked off the biggest box of the team's offseason needs. The Packers didn't just need a receiver. They needed a Randall Cobb.
For the next four years, they have him.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.