Sometime over the last couple of months, Randall Cobb has had to decide the issue that probably will determine whether he re-signs with the Green Bay Packers.
That is, how much is it worth long term to play with one of the NFL's premier quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers?
Cobb will be the best unrestricted free agent receiver on the market, so he has plenty of leverage in contract talks. He probably already knows that he has bigger offers awaiting from other teams.
But he also must decide how much signing with another team might cost him several years down the road in salary and endorsements, because long-term deals on paper quickly can turn into short-term deals in real life.
"That's where if you're Cobb you have to be a little bit careful," said a player agent who works in a prominent firm late this week. "You could go someplace else and get a good payday, but you better have a ton of guaranteed money in it, because odds are you aren't going to be as productive as you are up in Green Bay. You're pretty much signing a deal that's going to devalue you long term."
The Packers have exclusive negotiating rights with Cobb until 11 a.m. Saturday. After that the early negotiating period begins, when his agent can talk with other teams about contract parameters. Then at 3 p.m. Tuesday, he's free to sign with anyone.
It's safe to say that if Cobb hasn't re-signed with the Packers by the time the signing period opens Tuesday afternoon, he's headed for a new team. Last year under similar circumstances the Packers re-signed cornerback Sam Shields on the first day of the open negotiating period.
The chances of Cobb doing the same don't look good based on recent reports that he'll have strong interest from teams with plenty of cap money to spend. Jacksonville ($63 million in cap room) and Oakland ($55 million) were mentioned specifically and make sense because they have the money and acute need at receiver. But the leaked reports also could be a tactic by Jimmy Sexton, Cobb's agent, to pressure the Packers to improve their offer before the market opens Tuesday.
Word in agent circles is that Sexton has been asking the Packers for average pay in the $12 million range because that was about the price of the franchise tag ($12.8 million), which the Packers didn't use on Cobb anyway. That doesn't mean Cobb will get that kind of money.
The aforementioned agent said that if Sexton is driving the process, Cobb likely will end up with another team because he'll go after the biggest offer. Sexton also represents Julio Jones, who is one of the handful of best receivers in the league, and will want to show he can get maximum value for a receiver. Agents also don't like doing a deal perceived as undervalued because other agents use it against them in recruiting.
But if Cobb feels strongly that playing with Rodgers will be best for his earnings long term, he might be open to a shorter deal with the Packers, say for four years, that would allow him to hit free agency again at age 28. If he produced similar to last season — 91 receptions (ninth in the NFL) for 1,287 yards (11th) and 12 touchdowns (tied for fourth) — he would be in position to sign another lucrative deal and be a national name.
You can bet the Packers are trying to sell him on that.
"In terms of marketability, if you're one of the premier guys, Green Bay is one of the most marketable teams to play with around the nation," the agent said. "So even off-field income for him will have a lot of potential, just because he's with that quarterback with that team and playing at the level he's already shown in that system.
"Go to other places you may get a little more money contractually, but you're going to give up a lot on the back end. And if you don't produce, what's it really get you? If two years into the deal they're already looking to trade or cut you, your career is over."
The key numbers to look at wherever Cobb signs is the money that's fully guaranteed and that he'll receive in the first two years, which often are the same. The agent predicted that Cobb will command at least $20 million fully guaranteed and more likely around $25 million.
The best guess here is that Ted Thompson, the Packers' general manager, will draw the line in average pay per year for Cobb a little short of $10 million. Other teams are likely to offer more, maybe into the $11 million range or higher, but that's where the guaranteed money comes into play.
If the Packers' guarantee and first two years' pay are similar to other offers, they could have a chance to retain Cobb despite the difference in average pay. If not, Cobb would have great difficulty turning down the added financial security offered by another team.
An instructive contract to keep in mind is the five-year deal Shields signed with the Packers last year at the start of the negotiating period. Shields' contract averages $9.75 million, but he'll actually top that average for the first two years ($21 million total, or an average of $10.5 million). It might take that kind of offer for the Packers to have a shot at Cobb.
Yes, the smart money still is on Cobb leaving the Packers, because it only takes one team to make an offer a player can't refuse. But it also depends on Cobb's mindset and how much pay Thompson will guarantee.
"I'd advise (Cobb) to take very close consideration of the environment he's in and his best opportunity to produce at the level he has," the agent said. "Because to a large degree wide receivers are a dime a dozen. If you get into a situation where all of a sudden you're not a dime-a-dozen guy, you might want to give credence to sticking in that system. But I don't know what his motivations are."
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty