GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When the Packers opted to let proven and highly productive veteran receivers Greg Jennings and James Jones walk away via free agency the past two years, they did so in part because they were convinced Randall Cobb’s best days in Green Bay were still ahead.
A quick check of the record reveals those best days have arrived. While it may be difficult to notice given the gaudy statistics being compiled by fellow Packers receiver Jordy Nelson in Green Bay’s video game-like Aaron Rodgers-led passing attack, Cobb’s career-year credentials are not to be overlooked. With this season continuing to show the makings of something special in northeast Wisconsin, Cobb’s emergence as one of the Packers’ most valuable and consistent playmakers is becoming more of a storyline every week.
Take Sunday’s statement-game 53-20 blowout of the NFC East-leading Eagles, for instance, when the fourth-year veteran posted career-highs in catches (10) and receiving yards (129), capping a four-game span in which he recorded three of his four highest one-game yardage totals ever -- all at 121 yards or better. Nine of Cobb’s 10 receptions against the Eagles went for first downs, tied for the most by anyone in the league this season and the most by a Packer in almost 10 years, since Javon Walker recorded nine against Jacksonville in December 2004.
Cobb somehow didn’t get in on the scoring-fest against Philly, but that made the game the exception, not the rule. Cobb’s 10 touchdown catches this season lead all NFL wide receivers, and are the most for any Packers’ pass-catcher in the first 10 games of the season since 1960. Cobb has scored at least once in eight of Green Bay’s 10 games, and the six-game receiving touchdown streak he had snapped on Sunday was the longest by any Packer since Sterling Sharpe in 1994.
Cobb has clearly done his part in Green Bay (7-3) racking up an NFL-best 330 points this season, including a mind-boggling 276 of those in the past seven games (39.4 per game). Cobb’s eight red zone touchdown catches this season rank second in the NFL, trailing only Denver tight end Julius Thomas (nine). His 11 red zone receptions this season highlight his skilled work in the slot, and trail only Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Denver’s Demaryius Thomas (12 each) among NFL wide receivers.
Not a bad time for Cobb to be in the midst of a contract drive, eh? Packers fans are no doubt starting to sweat the possibility that his impact-laden 2014 could lead to him running a go-route out of Green Bay next spring. But knowing what they have in the versatile Cobb, I’d be shocked if the normally proactive Packers front office ever let the situation get to the expired contract stage. If nothing else, a franchise tag is available to Green Bay in order to keep Cobb’s talents at its disposal.
While Cobb acknowledged he let the pressure of a contract year get to him over the course of the first three weeks of the regular season, he has found his comfort zone ever since, with both he and the Packers offense thriving as Green Bay ripped off six wins in its past seven games to claim at least a share of first place in the NFC North. So it seems Rodgers’ celebrated spelling bee-style Week 4 advice, “R-E-L-A-X,’’ was aimed at Cobb as much as any anxious green and yellow-clad Cheesehead.
“The Detroit game [in Week 3, a 19-7 Packers road loss], that definitely was the worst game of the season, and arguably the worst game of my career,’’ said Cobb, who posted season-lows in catches (three) and yards (29) against the Lions, going scoreless in the process. “I didn’t feel like I was prepared well. I didn’t get a chance to study film of the guy I’d be facing, because I don’t think they named him the starter until the day of the game. I just didn’t play well and after that I called myself out for it. But going into that next week, I finally started to get into that groove. I started to relax, instead of pressing and trying to do too much. I got back to being the player I know I can be.”
The type of player Cobb wants to be -- both now and in the future -- is a Packer. Sitting in a room just off the Green Bay media auditorium at Lambeau Field on Monday morning, Cobb is hopeful but cautious about what the coming months might hold for his career. With the Packers looking unstoppable on offense and much-improved on defense this season, he knows he’s on a Super Bowl-contending club and playing with the NFL’s best quarterback, who also happens to be in his prime. There’s value to be found in having both of those boxes checked, but Cobb knows his turn has not yet come, as it did last offseason for Nelson, who signed a four-year, $39 million extension with Green Bay.
“I hope I can say I’m a Packer for life, but with this business you never know,’’ Cobb said. “I’m trying to keep that in my head, but I definitely would love to be here for my whole career. I love the city of Green Bay. I love the people here. It’s a very close-knit community to the organization and the fan base is unbelievable. The way we do things here is great. I definitely think it fits me and my personality, who I am as a person.’’
Let’s face it, if you catch passes for a living, there’s really not a better gig in the NFL these days than being a cog in the Aaron Rodgers’ points-palooza in Green Bay. Cobb is well aware of the history No. 12 is making this season. Rodgers leads the league in a host of meaningful statistical categories, and his dominance in the past two months has been pace-setting, with 23 touchdown passes, two interceptions, a 9.72 yards per pass attempt and 132.2 passer rating in the Packers’ past seven games. When Rodgers gets on a roll, Green Bay gets on a roll.
“It’s definitely special what Aaron’s doing,’‘ Cobb said. “I see it week in and week out, and day in and day out. I think when it’s all said and done, he’s going to be the best quarterback in the history of this game, and arguably the best football player in the history of this game. And that’s definitely worth something to me to be able to play with him. I’ve told him thousands of times that I want to be a part of it, and I just want to help him get to where he wants to go. I’m just thankful to be able to take the ride with him.’’
And here’s the key statistic to remember about Cobb: He only turned 24 in August, and was one of the youngest players in NFL history when he debuted as a second-round pick out of the University of Kentucky in 2011. (He was also the first player born in the 1990’s to appear in the league.) If Cobb re-signs with Green Bay, he and Rodgers could be making beautiful music together for many more years.
“The biggest thing for me is to win championships,’’ Cobb said. “I want rings. I want to be somewhere that lasts, somewhere that I feel I have a chance year in and year out. At the end of the day, being with this organization and having the history of this team, winning a championship here would have so much meaning. I would just love to be a part of that.’’
From all indications, the Packers covet Cobb and are prioritizing the goal of locking him up long-term, but contract talks are not thought to be currently active. There’s still time for that to change in the final six weeks of the regular season or in the postseason, but Green Bay could opt to wait until after the season to let negotiations play out, knowing it has the franchise tag to apply as a last resort. Cobb’s price tag is no doubt rising as his statistics continue to climb, and at his current level of production (54 catches for 779 yards, 14.4 yards per catch, and those 10 touchdowns) he’s on pace for an 86-reception, 1,246-yard, 16-touchdown season that would easily establish new career-highs.
“I try to tell [agent Jimmy Sexton] I don’t want to hear too much and I don’t want to think about it too much,’’ Cobb said of his impending free agency. “He just tells me to keep playing the way I’m playing and things will work out for the best. The situation will handle itself.’’
But the reality is Nelson’s recent extension could prove somewhat problematic in Cobb’s contract talks, in that it’s a relatively club-friendly deal at less than $10 million per year. Given current market standards, and with the salary cap expected to rise significantly once again next year, Cobb will likely be seeking something north of what Green Bay is now paying its No. 1 receiver. With roughly $8 million of salary cap room that can be carried over to next year, the Packers have maneuverability, but how they value their top two receivers will be an intriguing subplot to their 2015 team salary structure.
Is there a Green Bay discount that Cobb might be willing to take for the privilege of playing with Rodgers on a perennial Super Bowl contender? I guess we’ll find out in due time, but if I were the Packers I wouldn’t be counting on it. The smart money, however, says Green Bay rarely if ever lets a promising young player get away in his first crack at free agency. The Packers pride themselves on their draft-and-develop approach to roster-building, and they well know Cobb would be a highly attractive commodity on the free-agent market. No matter how long the deal takes to broker, expect to see him in Packers colors in 2015 and beyond. With Nelson, Cobb and Rodgers signed for years, the nucleus of Green Bay’s devastatingly effective passing game would be secured.
“For the most part, when they believe in their players, they’re going to stick with them, and that’s something you’ve seen here,’’ Cobb said of the Packers’ philosophy of re-signing their own and largely staying out of the free-agent market. “This league gets younger and younger, and I guess they believed in me enough at an early stage and moved forward with the decision they made on [James Jones last year].
“I don’t really know what to expect, because this is my first time in this situation. But I’ve had the opportunity to see different guys before me go through it. I saw it happen for Jordy. I saw it happen for [potential free-agent cornerback] Sam Shields, and I understand the business aspect of it. But this organization has shown that usually, whenever they want to see a player continue to grow and develop and work their way through the system, they do try to make those moves and re-sign guys.’’
Entering this year, with Cobb coming off an injury shortened 2013 that saw him miss 10 games with a broken leg, even Cobb conceded he had not done enough to warrant a contract extension, and said it was on him to both stay healthy and put together his finest season yet in Jones’ absence. Through 10 games, that statement needs amending, and that self-challenge has been resoundingly met.
“I believe I’ve done better, but I hope to continue to grow and take my game to the next level, that elite level,’’ Cobb said. “If I do that, hopefully those things will come. [A contract offer] I think will come in due time. If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen. It can’t be something I try to force. I feel like it’s something early on in the year I tried to force that, and it didn’t work. I’ve got to let it happen on its own time.
“I’ve always had a mentality that there’s always more to do, and to never be satisfied. The numbers are good, but I want to continue to raise those numbers. I want to be the best, and that’s not easy, but I strive for greatness and I strive to be better week in and week out.’’
Cobb’s best days in Green Bay have arrived. How long they last is a question that should in part be determined on the field in the coming two-plus months, and then reflected in the contract negotiation to come. Either way, it’s shaping up as a likely win-win situation for all concerned.