The speculation around Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ future is omnipresent as we approach his deadline to make a decision about his retirement. Last week, former long-time Packers beat reporter Bob McGinn told Tyler Dunne of Go Long that Green Bay’s organization is “disgusted with [Rodgers] and they’re done with him and they’re moving on.”
If the Packers really are going to voluntarily start 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love under center next season, then they have another major question to answer: Should they pick up his fifth-year option?
On the surface, it’s a ridiculous premise. Love is going into the final year of his rookie contract and has only started a single NFL game (Kansas City, 2021.) It’s hard to justify committing to the $20.47 million fully-guaranteed price tag that comes with locking him down in 2024 based on 83 regular-season pass attempts, right?
Well, let’s add some context here that might change your mind. First, let’s look at two charts: the quarterbacks who have had their fifth-year options picked up and the quarterbacks who have had their fifth-year options declined, including their career stats at the time of their teams’ decisions. The fifth-year option was a salary cap mechanism that was created in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement when the league also installed a rookie wage scale for the first time, so these snapshots come from the 2011 to 2019 draft classes.
Picked up fifth-year options (QB)
Declined fifth-year options (QB)
In the second table, the players with asterisks next to their names were actually released from their contracts before they were eligible to have their fifth-year options picked up. In total, those 12 quarterbacks who had their options declined (or were released before that opportunity even came) averaged a passer rating of just 77. For perspective, that would have ranked 30th in the NFL in 2022, ahead of just the Houston Texans and New York Jets. If you exclude Teddy Bridgewater — who had recently sustained a serious injury before his option deadline — from the dataset, the average would drop down to 76.1, good for 31st in the NFL in 2022.
In some ways, it’s better to think of a declined fifth-year option as more damning than a picked-up fifth-year option is rewarding. Players who had their fifth-year options exercised only averaged a 90.1 passer rating at that point of their careers, which would have finished 15th in the NFL in 2022 and hovered right around the Packers’ 91.9 number on the season.
Some will probably look at that figure of north of $20 million and think to themselves, “Just let him play a year. If he plays well, sign him long-term.” Unfortunately, that’s probably what the New York Giants thought when they opted to decline Daniel Jones’ fifth-year option last season. Now, without that extra season under contract, the Giants could end up using a $32.42 million non-exclusive franchise tag (the cheapest franchise tag option available to teams) to make sure Jones stays in New York in 2023.
If that number doesn’t make you squirm, Jones has recently changed representation this offseason as Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio has reported that he is searching for a deal worth $45 million per season from the Giants. Mind you, Jones is coming off of one solid season after performing poorly enough over the first three seasons of his rookie deal that New York turned down his option.
All of Jordan Love's throws from the 2022 regular season pic.twitter.com/E57mUt6qWt— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) January 24, 2023
If Love even plays like an NFL-average quarterback in 2023, should the Packers move on from Rodgers, then that $20.5 million, one-year deal will actually be a massive bargain in a quarterback market that seems to never reach a peak. According to Spotrac, only two veteran quarterbacks in the entire NFL were paid between the $20 million and $7 million gulf in 2022: Jameis Winston and Jimmy Garoppolo.
There simply isn’t a middle class for quarterback salaries. If there is, then it actually looks like Love’s fifth-year option. That is the cheap deal moving forward if he is a quality NFL quarterback. Oh and by the way, Love is represented by the same agency as Rodgers — the one who has Green Bay on the hook for $60 million in cash for a 39-year-old quarterback. Think they know how to negotiate with the Packers?
During Green Bay’s bye week in 2022, general manager Brian Gutekunst said, “We’ve seen what we need to see,” when asked if the team was going to pick up Love’s fifth-year option. He changed his tone on the topic in the end-of-year presser, though, when he stated, “I wouldn’t say that’s a given. I think we’re kinda working through what’s best,” in regards to the assumption that Love’s option would be exercised.
At the end of the day, the decision of picking up Love’s option is less about what he’s done or not done and more about if he’s The Guy for the organization. Choosing Love over Rodgers would be the team calling their shot. The same is true about ensuring he’s under contract in 2024. If the Packers don’t tie themselves to Love for two years, he very well could be hit with a franchise tag that comes with an eight-figure increase in salary in 2024 while he asks for something like a five-year, $200 million deal, as Jones reportedly is.