Will "Third-Year Rule" Apply To Cobb?
by Mike Conklin
July 17, 2013
There’s an old axiom in the NFL. If you’ve ever played fantasy football, you may have even built your draft around the strategy.
Bet on wide receivers entering their third year in the league to have a breakout season.
Having already set the franchise record and leading the league in all-purpose yards in just his second season, it seems like Randall Cobb has already had his breakout year and is already a star. While that may be true, many of those all-purpose yards were gained on special teams. It appears that the Packers will be giving other players every opportunity to take Cobb’s place in the return game, so he can focus solely on his role in the offense this season. With that in mind, is it possible that going into his third year Cobb’s game might ascend to another level? Can he become a premiere wide receiver?
As we broach this subject, we should probably offer a disclaimer that the old theory about third-year receivers is in dispute. Several sources have completed exhaustive research that seems to support the claim, while others cite compelling evidence to debunk it. All of this controversy…if you want to call it that…makes for fun conversation nonetheless.
When it comes to Cobb, there are certainly many more factors to consider than only the “third-year rule,” not the least of which are opportunity, the talent level of the rest of the team, and the team’s offensive philosophy.
In Cobb’s case, it would seem on the surface that the opportunity may increase with the departure of Greg Jennings in free agency. The fact of the matter is that both Jennings and Jordy Nelson missed significant time due to injury last season, and Cobb saw more action than he probably would have had both of them remained healthy. Even so, Cobb still only played 58.3% of the offensive snaps last season. That number will likely increase dramatically this fall.
Cobb has arguably the best quarterback in the NFL throwing him the ball, which is an automatic advantage over most of his peers across the league. On the other hand, he is also on the field with other receivers that are proven playmakers. James Jones’ 14 touchdown receptions led the NFL last season, while Jordy Nelson even surpassed that mark the year before when he snagged 15 touchdowns. Add that to the fact Jermichael Finley broke the single season receptions record for tight ends in Packers history last year, and it becomes evident that there are still plenty of targets for Aaron Rodgers other than Randall Cobb.
Mike McCarthy will surely build game plans around Cobb’s skill set, but by no means will he just be fed the ball because he is the only viable option, a la Sterling Sharpe in his early years.
When considering the offensive philosophy, history shows that the Packers under McCarthy have been a pass-first team. The rest of the league finally found a way to slow them down, and last year the offense struggled to combat the two-deep shells they faced week after week. The Packers running game was not effective enough to make their opponents drop a defender into the box, and consequently the offense finished out of the top ten for the first time during McCarthy’s tenure.
Will the Packers focus on running the ball more? Mike McCarthy made a strong statement about the running game during the offseason.
“We’ll be better; I promise you,” McCarthy said. “You can write that down. In big letters.”
Perhaps even a stronger statement was made by Ted Thompson, when he used four of his first five draft picks on running backs and offensive linemen.
This begs the question: Exactly what does all that mean? Are the Packers actually going to take the ball out of the NFL’s all-time passing efficiency leader’s hands and run the ball more often? Perhaps Aaron Rodgers himself can give us some perspective on this issue.
”I love what we’re doing on offense,” Rodgers told ESPN’s Jason Wilde during an interview this offseason. “We’re tough to stop. And if we can have a balanced attack running the football, just the threat of running the football, it can do nothing but help us.
”We saw a lot of very soft coverage last year and a lot of four-man rushes. If we can run the ball more effectively, it can only help us when we’re trying to get those one-on-one matchups outside. We have game-breakers outside, and it’d be nice to have some consistent game-breakers inside.”
Rodgers has made it a habit to choose his words carefully, and it is noteworthy that he makes no mention of actually running the ball more often. Most of what he says seems to center around the idea of running the ball more effectively, when they actually do run. And when Rodgers mentions the idea of having consistent game-breakers inside, it is almost hard not to think he is referring to Randall Cobb lining up in the slot.
As best as we can determine by examining all these factors, it figures that Cobb will have no obvious roadblocks in his continued development. One could even argue that there are signs the Packers will look to increase his role.
Third Year Packers Receivers:
If Cobb does indeed improve as a receiver in his third year, he won’t be alone in modern Packers history.
Robert Brooks increased his reception total by a whopping 190% in his third season, and his receiving yards total increased 260%.
Antonio Freeman’s receptions went up 46%, while his yardage and touchdown production also increased 33%.
Javon Walker’s reception total jumped 117%, and his yardage followed suit at a 93% clip.
Greg Jennings caught 51% more passes in his third season, and his receiving yards increased 40%.
James Jones had 60% more catches and 61% more yards. Oh, and his touchdown total increased fivefold.
Jordy Nelson more than doubled his reception total, increasing 101%. His yardage wasn’t too far off that pace either, as he registered an 82% increase.
Although that is a lot of evidence to support the "Third-Year Rule" in and of itself, it doesn't always work out that way. Donald Driver's numbers didn’t jump dramatically until his fourth season. And while Jordy Nelson’s numbers did increase substantially in his third year as mentioned above, he didn’t have his monster season until his fourth year. And if you go back a bit further, Sterling Sharpe’s numbers jumped in just his second season.
So while there may be aberrations to the “third-year rule,” the list above illustrates that most of the noteworthy Packers receivers in recent years excelled in their third seasons.
Could Randall Cobb be the next in line to see his production increase in Year Three?
His quest begins next week.
Photo Credit: Green Bay Press-Gazette