Should Cobb stay or test free agency?
Is it plausible that the Green Bay Packers would let Randall Cobb walk in free agency this offseason?
Sure, it's plausible. But very unlikely.
With him and Jordy Nelson, they have one of the NFL's most productive receiving duos. Without him, they'd be adding another high priority to an already long list of draft needs.
And if Cobb were to leave the Packers for a little more money elsewhere, he'd find out that things are a lot tougher when you don't play with one of the NFL's premier quarterbacks. He can just ask his old teammate, Greg Jennings, about that.
"I'd be pretty surprised if (Cobb) doesn't end up back there," said an agent who works in a large agency and regularly deals with the Packers. "You've got a lot of reasons for both sides to be flexible and be reasonable."
But if Cobb is likely to end up with the Packers, you're probably wondering what's holding up doing a deal now.
And in fact, not long ago the odds would have been on general manager Ted Thompson signing a core player such as Cobb before the season finishes. But more recent history says otherwise.
Before 2012, Thompson routinely signed a player or two to contract extensions during the regular season, often late in the year. There was Aaron Rodgers in November 2008; Brandon Chillar in December '09; Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson and Desmond Bishop in '10; and Jordy Nelson in '11.
Since, though, Thompson has extended only one player's contract during the season, and that was long snapper Brett Goode in 2012 at a cost so small ($325,000 bonus) it doesn't merit counting. And last year Thompson didn't do any in-season deals even though he had an ascending young player at a key position, cornerback Sam Shields, who was exactly the kind of player they normally sign to an extension. Instead, they re-signed him in March, just before the start of free agency, at a premium: a four-year deal that averages $9.75 million and included $12.5 million guaranteed.
Is the in-season signing drought the last 2½ years just happenstance and, as Thompson is wont to say publicly about personnel moves, just the way things worked out? Probably not.
For one, the NFL collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011 allows teams to carry over unused salary cap space to the next season, so they don't have as much incentive to do in-season extensions simply for cap purposes. But other teams still regularly do it.
But Thompson now seems inclined to wait until the offseason unless he can get a highly favorable deal. The reason has to be injury risk. Thompson would rather have the player assume it than the team, even if it ends up costing more to sign him in the spring than it would have in November, as it did with Shields.
That thinking could only have been reinforced two weeks ago, when Arizona signed quarterback Carson Palmer to a contract extension that included $14.2 million guaranteed even though he was signed through 2015. Palmer blew out his knee two days later.
"I do know Ted is tired of carrying injuries on the roster," the aforementioned agent said. "He wants healthy players in the building."
Thompson's recent history doesn't preclude him from doing a deal with Cobb before the end of the season. Cobb, the team's No. 2 receiver, has proven he's fully recovered from the fractured fibula that sidelined him for 10 weeks last year. He leads the NFL in touchdown receptions (10), ranks No. 19 in receptions (54) and is uncommonly young (24) for an impending free agent.
But if Thompson and his salary cap manager, team vice president Russ Ball, handle Cobb like they did Shields, they're probably looking for a significant discount to sign him with games to play (including likely in the postseason). And the Palmer injury cuts both ways, because it reminds players their hopes for riches in free agency can be derailed on one play.
"(The Packers) will throw out the lowball amount and see if he'll go for it," said a front office executive for an NFL team. "It's a gamble for (the player) as well. He could get hurt, and what seemed like a low-ball amount may not be if you get injured and don't get to free agency (healthy). That's the risk on both sides. You throw it out, and if the guy says, 'I can live with that,' off you go. If he doesn't, then you wait it out and the price goes up."
Cobb has a couple strong selling points if he hits the open market, most notably his versatility as a slot receiver; runner (on jet sweeps and handoffs in the backfield); and punt returner. He's not a No. 1 receiver, but playing primarily from the slot means he's often matched against a defense's No. 3 cornerback.
Also, free agents usually are 25 or 26 at the youngest, so Cobb offers as an extra year or two of prime seasons.
Working against him are durability concerns because of his size (5-feet-10, 192 pounds) and injury last season. Also, teams will wonder how much of Cobb's production is a product of playing with Rodgers.
"Receivers come out of the woodwork all the time," the agent said. "I'm not talking about Calvin Johnson-type guys, but Greg Jennings was Randall Cobb before Randall Cobb. Green Bay has a quarterback. Are you going to leverage your salary structure just to keep a guy around?"
Said the scout: "Would he have the same numbers if Matt Schaub was throwing the ball to him? But in general most people will look at (Cobb) and say, 'This is a talented receiver.'"
The best guess here is that Cobb will end up costing at least as much and probably more than New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz, who before the start of the 2013 season signed a six-year contract that averages $7.3 million and included $15.6 million guaranteed.
Here, we have to provide the obligatory explanation of NFL contract extensions. Many reports say Cruz's deal averages $8.6 million because it added $43 million and five years to his previous contract. But in reality it was a new six-year deal worth $43.63 million — it kept his '13 salary at the $630,000 he'd been scheduled to make — so the real average is $7.3 million.
It's also worth noting that Cobb's agent, Jimmy Sexton of CAA Sports, also represents Cruz. The aforementioned agent said that Sexton will be shooting to better Cruz's deal from nearly 1½ years ago, especially with the salary cap projected to spike from $133 million to perhaps as much as $145 million next year and $160 million in 2016.
"I know CAA's stance is typically to take a guy to free agency and see if you can stress the team into putting more money on the table, that's their M.O.," the agent said. "I think the advice (Cobb) is going to get is, 'There's no reason to do a deal right now because we have all the leverage.' But ultimately the player has the final say. If he decides whatever money is good enough, then they'll work within the framework to get the best terms they can."
Salary structure always is a concern for GMs, and there's a chance Cobb could end up with a better contract than Nelson, who is the team's No. 1 receiver. Nelson signed a four-year contract extension in training camp that averages $9.7 million using the new-money calculation but $8.5 million in reality.
However, Nelson knew that would be a possibility when he accepted immediate security ($11.5 million signing bonus) over potential future earnings when he signed the deal.
Cap room shouldn't be an issue — the Packers have about $8.2 million remaining this year, according to the NFL Players Association. Based off next year's projections they probably will have $30 million in cap room with a free-agent list that includes Tramon Williams, B.J. Raji, Bryan Bulaga and Letroy Guion.
The Packers also have the franchise tag, but last year that was $12.3 million for a receiver. Does anyone really think Thompson would tag Cobb at anywhere near that cost?
"If you're Cobb you're a fool if you think the grass is always greener on the other side," the agent said. "I'd expect they'll probably get something done with him. They've got the ultimate leverage in having Aaron Rodgers."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.