Aaron Rodgers remembers what happened to Brett Favre late in the old gunslinger’s career: the hemming and hawing about retirement, power struggle with the front office, and ultimate ouster at the hands of Ted Thompson in favor of an ascending Rodgers. The two-time MVP, now older than Favre was when Rodgers himself was drafted, wants to play until he’s 40, cares deeply about adding to his legacy, and insists he won’t overstay his welcome in Green Bay or the NFL. When he feels like he can’t be Aaron Freaking Rodgers anymore, he’ll be done. When that time comes, the Green Bay Packers will want to be ready for it, to have a succession plan in place even if that next quarterback isn’t already on the roster.
Thompson planned for eventuality with Favre when he selected a precocious young quarterback from Cal late in the first round while the Packers still had Super Bowl aspirations. That first-round pick could have bolstered the defense, fans and media insisted at the time. Why waste it on a quarterback? We know why now.
Multiple reports, including a recent piece by Jason Wilde in The Athletic point to significant interest in Broncos quarterback Drew Lock during last year’s draft, to the point they considered him with the 30th pick. John Elway jumped the Packers, who owned the 44th pick, to select Lock at 42, eliminating the option of drafting him in Green Bay. Gutekunst happily took Elgton Jenkins who developed into an outstanding rookie guard, but Lock may have been in play had he been available.
The problem with making a move last year lacks sizzle. It’s money. Contractually, there’s no way to justify picking a player, particularly in the second round, who likely will not play over the subsequent four seasons, the length of a rookie deal. Even a first-round pick, with a fifth-year option, would leave the Packers with a decision on a young player with a massive contract year coming, while likely unproven with Rodgers in place.
This offseason, however, the Packers cut a chunk off that contract by a year, making a significant difference. Rodgers’ contract goes through the 2023 season, and the Packers can’t realistically get out of it, by release or trade until 2022. Rodgers will be QB1 for three more seasons at least. On a four-year deal, now that would give Green Bay at least a choice to play a potential rookie before having to give a lucrative contract extension as the potential face of the franchise.
Technically, Rodgers’ contract goes through ‘23, which would take up that entire rookie deal for a pick this offseason, but if Rodgers is bad enough to consider releasing an all-time great for the franchise, there’s an easy case to make the quarterback himself possesses the self-awareness to hang it up. He likely won’t be like most pro athletes, who are the last to realize they don’t have it anymore.
More to the point, an essential advantage of drafting a rookie quarterback comes from playing him while on that rookie deal. A good signal caller on a first contract represents the biggest advantage in the league. Wasting that time waiting behind Rodgers doesn’t pose a reasonable path given the constraints of the current CBA, to say nothing of the opportunity cost of drafting a player the team literally hopes doesn’t play on his rookie deal.
Green Bay doesn’t need a developmental backup for a Rodgers injury, it needs playmakers to buoy him while he’s on the field. Drafting a guy who might be the guy doesn’t make dollars or sense for the Packers.
Teams don’t let their quarterbacks sit anymore either. There are no more cases like Rodgers. Once it’s deemed time to move on, or a suitable replacement is found, teams make the move, just as the Chiefs did with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes. Once Kansas City moved up in the draft for Mahomes, it was all over but the crying in KC for Smith.
Not only is there not sufficient reps and practice time to undergo a Rodgers-like development process anymore, the ticking clock on the second contract constricts the time frame under which NFL teams can work. Once that rookie they believe is “the guy” comes in, the furious building up of the team around him amplifies in earnest.
Given the runway of this particular team as currently constructed, three years from now young players in their primes like Davante Adams, Za’Darius Smith, and David Bakhtiari will be pushing 30. Some prudent spending and efficient draft allocation would position the Packers to be in contention come 2022. On the other hand, the Smith Bros. contracts are are up after the ‘22 season, suggesting the best window to win is this next three-year stretch.
After that, the tank could be on.
In an ideal world, Rodgers gets the Elway sendoff, the Packers win a Super Bowl or two and he can go not quietly, but triumphantly into that good night. Rodgers retires in 2022 after hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, and the Packers plan a Super Bowl parade with college quarterback tape on in the background.
As current stars age out of dominance, Gutekunst’s job will be to support them with players this offseason, the next and beyond, creating the foundation for a new core to emerge. If they can, going into an offseason without that quarterback could be fine, a Cowboys situation with Dak Prescott and Tony Romo where the young quarterback walks right into a situation set up for him to succeed.
The Packers front office with Gutekunst come from a long line of “do what it takes” managers, the same lineage of guys who traded for Favre when no one knew who he was, and who took Rodgers in the midst of a late-career Lombardi Trophy push. Nothing will be off limits for Gutekunst, who spoke cheerfully in his season-ending press conference about never passing up the chance to draft a franchise quarterback.
All of this is to say, the Packers can afford to wait, to go all in the next few years with Rodgers and figure out the quarterback situation later. On the other hand, if Justin Herbert falls or they fall in love with Jordan Love and believe he can be “the guy,” the window now opens for that possibility in Green Bay. It’s just starting to make sense to plan for the future.