GREEN BAY - Taking a closer look at the wide receiver position as the Green Bay Packers prepare for the annual NFL Scouting Combine, which kicks off on Feb. 17 and marks the unofficial start to the 2015 season. The new league year begins on March 10, when free agency opens.
Players under contract
|87||Jordy Nelson||6-3||217||28||6||Kansas State|
|17||Davante Adams||6-1||215||22||R||Fresno State|
|83||Jeff Janis||6-3||219||23||R||Saginaw V. St.|
|19||Myles White||6-0||190||24||2||La. Tech|
Unrestricted free agents
Restricted free agents
|11||Jarrett Boykin||6-2||218||25||3||Virginia Tech|
The good news: It wasn't that long ago that Charles Woodson was suggesting – and others were agreeing – that opposing defenses underestimated Nelson because of the color of his skin. The days of not fully grasping just how good Nelson is are officially over. In 2013, he caught 85 passes for 1,314 yards (both then-career bests) with eight touchdowns – despite playing with four quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn). In 2014, with Rodgers back healthy, Nelson was even better, catching 98 passes for a franchise-record 1,519 yards and 13 TDs. Over the past four years, he's caught an astonishing 300 passes for 4,841 yards and 43 touchdowns. Just as he did with his first contract extension signed early in the 2011 season, you could argue that Nelson has already outplayed the four-year, $39 million deal ($11.5 million signing bonus) he signed on the opening day of training camp.
"I think the biggest key for Jordy Nelson having the season he's had is that his opportunities dramatically increased," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said late in the year, referring to the team-high 151 targets Nelson received. "I mean, he's been an outstanding player for quite some time. He still runs his routes very well. He's a year better with his connection with Aaron, his total understanding of what we're trying to do on offense. He's excellent in game as far as adjustments and talking about what the next route is off of a certain look and so forth. So, he's been an expert at the receiver position for quite some time. So I think the biggest [reason for the] statistical jump there is his opportunities."
The bad news: The ink on Nelson's new deal was barely dry when questions started about Cobb, who was coming off a season in which he missed 10 games with a fracture in his lower right leg but was clearly someone the Packers viewed as a core player. Nevertheless, nothing got done during the season, and Cobb himself didn't expect anything to, saying that he had more to prove.
Well, prove it he did, catching 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 TDs last season – and now, he's not going to come cheap.
"I think I've made that obvious," Cobb replied on Jan. 19 when asked if he wants to stay with the Packers. "But like I've said before, this is a business. You don't know how it's going to go, what direction it's going to go in, so you just have to sit around. Hopefully I've put myself in position where it will handle itself. But only time can tell."
It was impressive to watch how Cobb, who caught 80 passes for 954 yards in 2012 when then-No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings was sidelined much of the season with a torn abdominal muscle that was initially diagnosed as a sports hernia, bounced back from his injury-derailed 2013 season and never let the pressure of being in a contact year show, even though he admitted that he was thinking early on about how his slow statistical start (14 catches for 126 yards in the first three games) might hurt his salary drive.
So, too, was it impressive to hear Rodgers go to bat for Cobb and say late in the year that the Packers have to re-sign him.
"He does so much for us," Rodgers said of Cobb. "He can be in the backfield and run the ball for us; he can run routes from the backfield, from the slot, from outside; he does it all. He's a talented guy.
"And to top it off, he's a great teammate. He's an excellent practice player, he's a great leader, he has some timely things to say, he's great at motivating the guys and he does a great job of bringing the same attitude every single day. So I'm really proud of Randall and the things he's accomplished on the field. And off the field he's an even better guy."
The big question: Although it's widely assumed that Cobb will re-up with the Packers – one NFL executive told ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky late in the year that Cobb is exactly the kind of player Packers general manager Ted Thompson will make sure stays – it will be interesting to see now only how much money Cobb gets but how the deal is structured.
A day after signing his own extension, Nelson advocated for Cobb to do what he, Jennings and James Jones all did before him and seriously consider a shorter-term deal that would give him another chance to hit the market while in his prime. In fact, given his youth, if Cobb signs a three-year deal like those three plaeyrs did, he would likely have two more bites at the free-agent apple while still able to command a large salary.
Nelson, for example, signed a three-year extension in October 2011 while in the last year of his rookie deal. Jennings took a three-year, $27 million deal when his rookie contract came up after the 2009 season, which set him up for the five-year, $47.5 million deal he got from Minnesota in 2013. And Jones settled for a three-year, $9 million deal following the 2011 NFL lockout.
"I think he's in a good situation. He's a smart kid. But you don't ever know when it's going to happen. We'll see," Nelson said at the time. "The main thing with my [first] extension was that it was a three-year deal. So I knew I'd be back in that situation if I performed. And he's even younger than I was. He's so stinkin' young, it's ridiculous. I think that plays into his hands.
"Three years, it's a good mix because it gives the organization [time] to really see who you are and what you can do, and it gives you a chance to get back up in the [negotiating] room again before you're too old."
Meanwhile, one of the great mysteries of 2014 was the disappearance of Boykin, who caught 49 passes in 2013 after Cobb's injury but caught just three balls and appeared to suffer a crisis of confidence. A restricted free agent who entered the league as an undrafted free agent, he likely won't even get a qualifying offer.
Offseason outlook: If the Packers inexplicably allow Cobb to walk, it'd be Jordy Nelson and the Wandering Sons at wide receiver, with the Packers not only counting on three players who were rookies in 2014 – Adams, Janis and Abbrederis, who missed his rookie season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee suffered in camp – but presumably the team would add another wideout in the NFL Draft. (In fact, even if Cobb is retained, it wouldn't be surprising if Thompson took another receiver the way he did with Cobb in 2011, when he already had Jennings, Nelson, Jones and Donald Driver.)
Assuming Cobb returns, the onus will be on Adams, Janis and Abbrederis to elevate their games. Adams, a second-round pick, moved into the No. 3 wide receiver job and caught 46 balls for 570 yards and four touchdowns in 18 games (including playoffs). He had three big games – six catches for 77 yards at Miami Oct. 12, six catches for 121 yards against New England on Nov. 30 and seven catches for 117 yards and a touchdown in the NFC Divisional Playoffs vs. Dallas – and the Packers won all three. He also had nine games – or half the season – in which he either caught only one pass or was shut out. The expectation in Year 2 will be for more consistency and more playmaking.
"If you're the type of guy that's in it for the long haul, you can't expect it to be roses throughout your entire career," Adams said late in the season. "It's my first year, and I'm getting a lot of time out there. For a rookie in the Green Bay Packers' organization, I'm getting a lot of balls [thrown to me], too. I'm doing what I can to make the most of it."
Janis became a fan favorite during training camp by making a play almost every day in practice after his debut was delayed by shingles, and his two attention-grabbing touchdowns in preseason action didn't hurt his cause, either. Nevertheless, he was active for just three of 18 games and was viewed as too raw to be counted on as a rookie. With a year in the system, he could grow by leaps and bounds in Year 2.
And then there's Abbrederis, whom Rodgers connected with immediately in training camp, going so far as to bestow the nickname "Magic" upon him. (Abbrederis, abracadabra, get it?) His knee injury the first week of camp resulted in a lost year, but at least it happened early enough that he should be fully cleared when camp begins in late July.
"Once the time comes I'll be ready to go," Abbrederis said. "Obviously, the playbook is huge, so learning that [was valuable]. But then it's learning to be a pro and seeing how guys go about their day and getting accustomed to that. I think that was big for me and my transition from college to the pros.
"That's how I got to take it because obviously it happened. I just have to try to take advantage of the year that I had and get ready for next year."
Said McCarthy: "I had the same conversation with the rookie class [at the end of the season] that I normally have with every rookie class. I thought the young guys did an excellent job. [But] it's important to realize that the biggest opportunity to make a jump is from Year 1 to Year 2. Because that's what history tells you. The way we go about the offseason program and where we put the emphasis definitely gives that young player that opportunity to make that jump. I'm excited about that whole class, because they definitely contributed as rookies and will be pushed and held to the expectation to take that jump."
Next: Tight ends.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.