Another year, another offseason 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 the Rodgers transactional discourse has been in a while.
First, we need to account for the Packers’ obligations. They are projected to be $14.46 million over the salary cap for 2023, according to Spotrac. They’ll have to do some trimming regardless of what happens with their current quarterback. While it’s probably the last thing he or Green Bay fans want to face, running back Aaron Jones could be first on the list of departures.
A pre-June-1 release or trade would net the Packers $10.4 million in cap savings. If they waited until after June 1, those savings would increase to $16 million. That’s a pretty big incentive considering they already have A.J. Dillon on the roster.
But the undoubted elephant in the room is Rodgers’ salary for 2023, when he’s due to make $59,515,000. And though $58.3 million of that is structured as an option bonus, which takes his cap hit down to $31.6 million when exercised, according to NFL Network, that’s still a large chunk to devote to one player — especially when a potential successor is waiting in the wings and remains on his rookie contract.
“I don’t think there would be a scenario where I’d come back and that would be the number,” said Rodgers on Tuesday. “Definitely things would have to shift.”
But wait. Let’s back up. Rodgers hasn’t even committed to playing football next year at all.
He told the Pat McAfee Show on Tuesday that he still hasn’t decided whether he’ll retire.
“There’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 hole still needs to be satiated, and it’s time to move on, I hope everybody would look at that with a lot of gratitude.”
While Rodgers seems r-e-l-a-x-e-d, the Packers have to be scrambling to figure out the best path forward. As it currently stands, Green Bay has limited options immediately, even if Rodgers tells them tomorrow he intends 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 has reported that the Packers are actively exploring that option within the AFC.
Green Bay has two paths there. A pre-June-1 trade would result in a dead-cap hit of over $40 million. It actually adds $8.69 million to the previous total. However, the incentive there is that it would get the Packers out of the massive contract now instead of later when that cap hit continues to escalate, and would allow them to get an immediate return on any draft capital acquired. They would be trading for picks they could use this year.
Now, if they trade Rodgers after June 1, the Packers would save a sizable amount off the cap and could reduce their dead cap hit, as well as spread it out 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 of dead cap would hit in 2024. That seems like the better option until you factor in that the 2023 draft would be over, and any draft capital acquired would have a delayed return. You’d push any asset acquisition to 2024, which could be the last year of Jordan Love’s contract should they pick up his fifth-year option.
Therein lies another decision. Say the Packers do trade Rodgers after June 1, riding with Love without picking up his fifth-year option, which could come in at upwards of $20 million for 2024, as they get a feeling for whether he can be their QB of the future. If he is, they could maybe still come in right at that $20 million per year price tag with a long-term deal before he hits free agency. If they’re not sold, they could have multiple first-round picks to dedicate toward their franchise QB in 2024.
“The Packers have had this interesting view on personnel from conjecture from outside the building that it’s better to move on a year before a guy is done than a year after,” said Rodgers on Tuesday. “Is that the mindset for them deep down? Now as an organization they’re not going to say any of that, and why would you? There’s not a whole lot to be won. Often, unfortunately at times, as mentioned by Mark Murphy last year, in a situation that there doesn’t need to be sides, there can be sides that are drawn.”
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Rodgers is right. There aren’t sides here. Even if they move on from Rodgers, Green Bay is still acting in what they think is the best interest of the franchise. Letting Rodgers go is business and those decisions are reality, not personal.
This is all assuming they find a willing partner in a Rodgers trade, too. This situation has turned into something that seems more reminiscent of contracts across the pond in professional soccer. In the English Premier League, for instance, a players’ rights are acquired separate from their actual salary. It means teams often pay huge sums of money to each other just for the right to negotiate with superstar players. They then have to meet said player’s salary demands.
Bring it back home to the Rodgers situation and the buyout isn’t necessarily cash, but now draft or player capital. Teams will have to give up a haul to acquire Rodgers in the first place. They will then have to honor his fully guaranteed salary, though it seems Rodgers is amenable 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 in his career?
The way one NFL coach put it to me simply 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 an MVP level. He still wants to compete for championships. He’s just waiting for the ‘right situation,’ as he put it a couple weeks ago.
The New York Jets could be that right situation, as Rodgers would follow the footsteps of Brett Favre, his predecessor in Green Bay. General manager Joe Douglas has been known to be aggressive. He could afford to pay a hefty trade price and moreover, would likely be willing, given what a disaster the position has been for the Jets as of late. Right now, Spotrac estimates New York coming in $2.67 million over the cap for 2023. They can’t quite save any money on disgruntled quarterback Zach Wilson unless they found a willing trade partner after June 1. But $2 million can be pretty easily shaved. Coming up with the other $29 million for Rodgers’ cap hit would be another story.
There’s another vacancy in New York that could be of interest to Rodgers, too. They fired their offensive coordinator this offseason (the brother of Rodgers’ current head coach, by the way) and rumor has it they are strongly considering Nathaniel Hackett. No, it didn’t work out for Hackett in Denver as a head coach, but he’d be reuniting with Rodgers after just a season away. Hackett was Rodgers’ OC for both of his recent MVP wins, after all. Could that be Douglas’ way of further enticing Rodgers?
More than that, would Green Bay find a deal worthwhile?
“I’m open to all honest and direct conversation and if [the Packers] felt like 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 have any animosity toward the team. I love the team. I love the organization. I love the city. I love the region … I have a lot of love for what’s gone on in Green Bay. And I’d love to finish there. I would. And I might have finished there. Who knows? But when I talk about my future I don’t talk in cryptic terms. I’m pretty direct in how I feel and I am taking time in my decision. And I’m not egomaniacal, in a sense, to think that I should be able to play wherever I want as long as I want. There’s two sides to this.”
If that sounds a little contradictory, it’s because it is. It’s hard to argue against sides and then declare they exist. You can’t say ‘who knows?’ while saying you aren’t being cryptic. Rodgers is holding back a gigantic piece of the puzzle for the Packers. They can’t do anything until they know if he’s playing football next year.
So, the question isn’t whether Green Bay can realistically move on from Aaron Rodgers. It’s when Aaron Rodgers is going to let them.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with 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 résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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