NFC North reporter
Another year, another off-season in limbo for the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. After the Packers failed to make the postseason for the first time under head coach Matt LaFleur – and a season in which Rodgers threw the second-most interceptions of his career – this may be the most legitimate Rodgers transactional discourse in a while.
First we must consider the Packers’ obligations. They are expected to be $14.46 million above the salary cap for 2023, according to Spotrac. They’re going to have to do some trimming regardless of what happens to their current quarterback. While it’s probably the last thing he or Green Bay fans want to deal with, Aaron Jones could be first on the leaving list.
A spend or trade before June 1 would save the Packers $10.4 million. If they waited beyond June 1, those savings would add up to $16 million. That’s a pretty big boost considering they already have AJ Dillon on the roster.
But the undisputed elephant in the room is Rodgers’ salary for 2023, when he should earn $59,515,000. And while $58.3 million of that is structured as an option bonus, dropping his cap to $31.6 million when exercised, that’s still a lot to spend on one player, according to NFL Network — especially when a potential successor on hold is wings and remains on his rookie contract.
“I don’t think there would be a scenario where I would come back and that would be the number,” Rodgers said Tuesday. “Things should definitely change.”
But wait. Let’s back up. Rodgers hasn’t even committed to playing football next year.
He told the Pat McAfee Show on Tuesday that he still hasn’t decided whether to retire.
“It’s been a lot of fun dreaming about retiring as a Packer because there’s something really special about that,” said the 18-year NFL veteran. “But if the competitive gap has yet to be filled and it’s time to move on, I hope everyone will look at that with great gratitude.”
While Rodgers seems relaxed, the Packers must scramble to find the best way forward. As it stands, Green Bay will have limited options immediately, even if Rodgers tells them tomorrow that he plans to play football next year. They can’t release him. The dead cap hit would be catastrophic.
But they could trade him.
In fact, ESPN reported that the Packers are actively exploring that option within the AFC.
Green Bay has two trails there. A trade before June 1 would result in a dead-cap hit of more than $40 million. It actually adds $8.69 million to the previous total. The incentive, however, is that it would get the Packers out of the huge contract now rather than later, when that cap continues to escalate, and allow them to get an immediate return on all the design capital obtained. They would trade for crops they could use this year.
If they trade Rodgers after June 1, the Packers could save a significant amount of cap and reduce their dead cap hit and spread it over the next two years. Rodgers’ contract would only result in $15.83 million in dead cap for 2023 and would save the organization $15.79 million this year with the caveat that $24.48 million in dead cap would be reached in 2024. the better option until you take into account that the 2023 draft would be over and all acquired exchange capital would have a delayed return. You would roll over any asset acquisition to 2024, which could be the last year of Jordan Love’s contract if they took over his fifth-year option.
Therein lies another decision. Suppose the Packers trade Rodgers after June 1, riding Love without taking up his fifth-year option, which could raise more than $20 million in 2024, as they get a sense of whether he can be their QB of the future. If he is, they might still be able to get right on that $20 million a year price tag with a long-term deal before he gets a free agency. If not sold, they could have multiple first-round picks in 2024 to dedicate to their franchise QB.
“The Packers have had this interesting take on the staff due to conjectures from outside the building that it’s better to leave a year before someone is ready than a year after,” Rodgers said Tuesday. “Is that the mindset for them deep down? As an organization they’re not going to say anything about that now, and why would you? There’s not much to be gained. Often, unfortunately sometimes, as Mark Murphy said last year, in a situation where there’s need not be parties, there may be parties that are equal.”
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Rogers is right. There are no parties here. Even if they leave Rodgers, Green Bay is still trading in what they believe is the best interest of the franchise. Letting Rodgers go is business and those decisions are real, not personal.
This is all assuming they also find a willing partner in a Rodgers trade. This situation has morphed into something more akin to cross-the-pond contracts in professional football. For example, in the English Premier League, a player’s rights are acquired separately from his actual salary. It means that teams often pay each other huge sums of money just for the right to negotiate with superstar players. They must then meet the salary requirements of the player.
Bring it back to the Rodgers situation and the buyout isn’t necessarily cash, but now draft or player capital. Teams will have to give up a draft in order to acquire Rodgers in the first place. They’ll then have to honor his fully guaranteed salary, though it seems Rodgers is prone to those aforementioned “shifts” to make it more palatable.
Would teams really be willing to do that for the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer at this stage of his career?
The way an NFL coach simply put it to me was, “Absolutely.”
Elite – and perhaps more importantly, proven – quarterback talent is hard to come by. It always has been. Rodgers believes he can still play at the MVP level. He still wants to compete for championships. He’s just waiting for the “right situation,” as he put it a few weeks ago.
The New York Jets could be that right situation as Rodgers would follow in the footsteps of Brett Favre, his predecessor at Green Bay. General manager Joe Douglas is known for being aggressive. He could afford to pay a hefty trade price and would probably be willing, given the disastrous situation the Jets have been in recently. At this point, Spotrac estimates that New York will be $2.67 million above the 2023 limit. They can’t really save money on disgruntled quarterback Zach Wilson unless they find a willing trading partner after June 1. But $2 million can be shaved pretty easily. Coming up with the other $29 million for Rodgers’ hit would be a different story.
There is another job opening in New York that could also be of interest to Rodgers. They fired their offensive coordinator this offseason (Rodgers’ current head coach’s brother, by the way) and are rumored to be strongly considering Nathaniel Hackett. No, it didn’t work out for Hackett in Denver as head coach, but he would reunite with Rodgers after just one season. After all, Hackett was Rodgers’ OC for both of his recent MVP wins. Could that be Douglas’s way of seducing Rodgers further?
In fact, would Green Bay consider a deal worth it?
“I am open to all honest and direct conversations and if [the Packers] I felt it was in the best interest of the team to move forward, so be it,” said Rodgers. “That wouldn’t offend me. That wouldn’t make me feel like a victim. I wouldn’t harbor any animosity towards the team. I like the team. I like the organization. I like the city. I love the region… I have a lot of love for what’s going on in Green Bay. And that’s where I’d like to end. I would. And maybe I would have ended there. Who knows? But when I talk about my future, I don’t talk in cryptic terms. I’m pretty straightforward about how I feel and I take my time with my decision. And I’m not selfish in a way to think I should be able to play wherever I want as long as I want. This has two sides.”
If that sounds a little contradictory, that’s because it is. It is difficult to argue against parties and then declare that they exist. You can’t say ‘who knows?’ while saying that you are not cryptic. Rodgers hides a giant piece of the puzzle from the Packers. They can’t do anything until they know if he’s playing football next year.
So the question is not whether Green Bay can realistically go further than Aaron Rodgers. It’s when Aaron Rodgers is going to let them go.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops at The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl champion (and boat parade participant) to her resume. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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