Cobb, Bulaga deals reflect change in free agency
The Green Bay Packers have to consider this a good start to the first week of free agency.
By re-signing receiver Randall Cobb to a four-year contract and agreeing to a five-year deal with right tackle Bryan Bulaga, the Packers essentially have kept intact the offensive personnel that led the NFL in scoring last season and with no players at an age to expect significant decline soon.
The only offensive starter not signed for two more seasons is tight end Andrew Quarless, and he very well could be supplanted by Richard Rodgers this season anyway.
One major piece of business remaining is whether the Packers re-sign cornerback Tramon Williams now that their other starting caliber cornerback on the market, Davon House, has left for Jacksonville. Also pending is whether they re-sign defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion, and what free agent or free agents they add at inside linebacker.
Raji and Guion again appear to be good bets to return because their markets are soft — Raji because he's coming off a serious injury (torn biceps), Guion because of his impending suspension for his recent arrest with two-thirds of a pound of marijuana.
Williams' return is a maybe and should be decided in the next few days — he reportedly was visiting New Orleans on Tuesday night.
But what stands out most about the Packers' two major contracts this week is what it took to retain Cobb and Bulaga, and what it says about the changing landscape of free-agent negotiations in the NFL.
According to reports, Cobb and Bulaga gave the Packers a hometown discount. But Cobb's numbers are in, and a look at his deal suggests that he made a long-term business decision by opting for a favorable contract structure over a deal from another team that only in theory would pay more.
It's hard not to suspect the same will prove true when Bulaga's contract becomes public.
That's not to say that playing for the Packers isn't attractive. Obviously it is for many players, Cobb and Bulaga very much included. They had plenty of other options, and there's every reason to think they much preferred staying with the Packers over going to another team. Playing for a perennially contending franchise with an elite quarterback, great facilities and deep resources is a big draw.
But players and their agents also have learned a lot about free-agent contracts the past few years. Namely, most deals are only one or at most two years regardless of what they say on paper. A player's value can diminish quickly depending on who he plays with, and a five-year, $40 million contract quickly can turn into getting cut after two years with, say, only $14 million of that paid out.
A look at Cobb's contract details sheds light on that dynamic and tells a lot about what he was thinking.
His four-year deal is worth $40 million, and with the way it's structured he's all-but-guaranteed $21 million of it. The structure and his prominent role in a powerhouse offense that includes one of the game's best quarterbacks also means he has an excellent chance of receiving all $40 million.
The $21 million is the pay he'll receive over the first two years of the deal. At age 24 and with $15.1 million coming this year ($13 million signing bonus, $2.1 million in salary and other bonuses), Cobb's second season at $5.9 million is as close to guaranteed as it gets without an explicit guarantee. The Packers aren't cutting him next spring unless something catastrophic happens.
I don't doubt the reports that said Cobb would have received more money from other teams in terms of average pay. But one report, by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, was instructive and described the Miami Dolphins' offer as back loaded. So even if it averaged $11 million or $12 million a year, the Dolphins' offer in the first two years surely was no more and probably less than the Packers' $21 million.
Then what happens if Ryan Tannehill doesn't pan out at quarterback for the Dolphins – and would you bet on him right now? Cobb's production could plummet from the 91 receptions he had this season. By Year 3 or 4, the Dolphins could determine Cobb isn't worth the back-loaded pay, and that great looking deal suddenly wouldn't look so great.
Unless there was an offer from a team with premier quarterback such as New England, Indianapolis or Denver — and there was no indication there was — then staying with the Packers for a deal that pays more than half its value in the first two years could be a smart long-term business decision. Especially for a young player who has every reason to think he'll continue to thrive playing with Rodgers and will get another shot at free agency at age 28.
"(Cobb's contract) looks front-loaded compared to so many agent-marketing friendly deals that get done," said an agent after viewing the terms.
With the salary cap expected to go up significantly in each of the next few years, Cobb's $9.5 million in salary and bonuses in 2017 and '18 will look more than reasonable if he produces anything like he did last season.
"I bet, based on the structure, that he'll he'll make all $40 million," the agent said. "Says a lot about how the Packers feel about him to do a deal like that. Regardless of money, not a common structure."
Reports on Bulaga's deal say it's for five years and worth just under $7 million a season. That would put him, in terms of average salary, just behind the highest paid right tackle in the league, Indianapolis' Gosder Cherilus ($7 million a year).
The reports likewise said Bulaga turned down deals of about $8 million a year from other teams. It's probably true. But you can bet the Packers offered some security to make it worth it for him to stay put, either in guaranteed money or early pay. Cherilus received $15.5 million guaranteed, so don't be surprised if Bulaga is guaranteed about that amount, or at least paid that in his first two seasons.
— pdougher@pressgazettemedia .com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty