Cobb in line for big raise
Jordy Nelson, judged by performance and now by contract, is unquestionably the No. 1 wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers.
Where that leaves Randall Cobb bears watching.
After closely observing Nelson and Cobb during the first two weeks of training camp, it's become clearer than ever that GM Ted Thompson, coach Mike McCarthy and VP Russ Ball prioritized correctly at wide receiver.
Nelson has established himself as a great player. His day-in, day-out superlative play in practice this summer only reaffirmed his primacy in Green Bay.
In the wake of Nelson's four-year, $39.8 million extension on July 26, the inevitable line of inquiry was when would the Packers act to extend Cobb, thereby preventing him from becoming an unrestricted free agent in March?
I loved what Cobb had to say into the cameras and tape recorders that surrounded him the next day.
“I don't believe I've done enough,” said Cobb. “I think my job is to come out here every day, do what I'm supposed to do, work hard and hopefully my time will come.
“I feel I have a lot to prove.”
Cobb's right. He also needs to play.
Last summer, Cobb injured a biceps a week into camp and was limited to two snaps in the four exhibition games. Then his regular season was shortened to 30.8-percent playing time (365 snaps) because of the fractured right fibula that knocked him out of 10½ games.
Remember, Cobb played only 290 snaps as a rookie and 647 in 2012. Those totals reflect wide-receiver plays only; he also has 72 snaps from running back in three seasons.
When a wide receiver performs as well as Cobb did two years ago, it seems to be expected that his career will continue upward.
But based on the small sample size of the opening 10 practices of camp, Cobb has looked rather common based on his 2012 level of play.
Operating mainly from the slot, as always, Cobb has made almost no eye-catching plays.
There was a deep catch early Wednesday, but that was in a nine-on-seven, semi-competitive period with the scout-team defense simulating the Tennessee defense.
My daily notes don't include everything, but I don't have Cobb down for making any spectacular catches and scoring only on a 5-yard pass Monday night.
As a point of comparison, Nelson has caught seven touchdown passes in 11-on-11 and made several difficult catches.
In six installments of one-on-one competition between wide receivers and cornerbacks, Cobb hasn't stood out. He has slipped free of coverage on a few, he has been smothered on a few and he has battled to a draw on a few others.
Have there been instances of dominating performance? Not really.
The darting, slippery, at times electrifying receiver hasn't been obvious. He caught the ball fine until this week, when there was a brutal end-zone drop Monday and another on an inside-breaking route Wednesday.
As one reflects over two weeks of practice, you can see in the mind's eye every other wide receiver on the roster except Cobb making a tremendous catch or two.
Maybe this is the case of expectations coloring perception. That's possible.
Yet, it's also probably true that if you pay attention at practice, you can have a fairly good idea who among the players at the perimeter positions are making flash plays.
Maybe Aaron Rodgers is so confident Cobb will be open from his slot position when the regular season dawns that he is intentionally throwing more to the young receivers, inspecting their games. Myles White, Jarrett Boykin, Davante Adams, even Kevin Dorsey have many more catches than Cobb.
Cobb, though, needs the work. He's coming off a brutal injury that surely didn't help his speed and quickness. He was a quarterback in high school and for some of his freshman season at Kentucky and then doubled as a returner and rusher in addition to playing wide receiver the last five years.
As a rookie, Cobb learned a considerable amount as understudy to Donald Driver, the best slot receiver the Packers have ever had. In '12, he broke out with 86 receptions in 17 games, although he did drop far too many targeted tosses (10 of 110).
Repeatedly, Rodgers has complimented Cobb for his innate ability finding vacant areas of the defense and presenting himself as open. The quarterback also has said Cobb was one of a kind when it comes to breaking off routes and getting free when Rodgers flees the pocket.
In 2012, Rodgers was on the move on nine of Cobb's 17 receptions for 20 yards or more. Last season, six of Cobb's eight 20-plus catches came with the quarterback scrambling.
That means that a full 60 percent of Cobb's longest receptions in 2012-'13 (15 of 25) came after adjustments from his designed route. In contrast, merely 13.3 percent of Nelson's receptions (four of 30) worth 20 yards or more came on scrambles.
A review of Nelson's big plays the past two years shows a series of takeoffs, deep comebacks, seams, back-shoulders, digs, overs and hitches. He was an outside receiver until Cobb went down last year and then, for the first time, played substantially inside.
The play that showcased Cobb at his finest occurred in the first game of his career. When the Saints sent out aging, slow-footed safety Roman Harper across from Cobb in the right slot, the rookie scalded Harper off the line as if he were standing still.
Accelerating instantly between the hash marks with the ball under his arm, Cobb made free safety Malcolm Jenkins miss. In the blink of an eye, he had made the end zone and was celebrating a 32-yard touchdown.
It was breath-taking.
In his late July interview, Cobb also said players aren't deserving of anything when it comes to pro football.
A realist, Cobb understands the Packers are evaluating how he fits into their future just as they try to win a championship now.
With his second-round rookie contract averaging $802,355, Cobb ranks 102nd among wide receivers in average salary per year. Nelson, who signed a three-year, $12.6 million extension in late September 2011, five months before unrestricted free agency, ranks No. 9 on the NFL receiver scale at $9.763 million.
Just 5 feet 10 inches and 195 pounds, Cobb must show he can survive an entire season while taking the safety/linebacker shots that Driver absorbed inside for a decade. Cobb's a spirited, at times fearless, competitor. Durability might determine the arc of his career.
Cobb can line up alone to a side but, at his size, it isn't ideal. He has 4.47-second speed in the 40 but, from the slot, seldom is used to run deep.
The Packers' next wide receiver should be a burner to stretch defenses.
Other than Cobb, what are the Packers' options in the slot?
It's far too early to tell what Adams' niche will be. He hasn't looked like a deep threat thus far, and with 4.55 speed some scouts didn't think he would. He has hand-eye coordination, strength and quick-snatch ability, but at 6-1 lacks some height to win jump balls and play above the crowd.
Adams might turn out to be best in the slot.
White, a heavier, stronger and much-improved free agent in his second season, has turned some heads from the slot. The steady Boykin can play anywhere, and Jared Abbrederis showed sufficient quickness to augur success from the slot if he can ever put injuries behind him.
Cobb's value to the Packers would increase if he could reprise his kick-returning derring-do of 2011. Returning kickoffs is almost like asking for injuries, but as an opposing special-teams coach put it during the off-season, “When's the last time a punt returner got hurt? You can control that play.”
Although no team has two wide receivers averaging more than $9 million, the Packers will have the room beneath the salary cap to pay Cobb whatever they desire.
For now, Thompson et al will watch and wait just as Cobb tries to prove himself anew.
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