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The Packers’ roster construction is caught between quarterbacks

Unlike other franchises with aging superstar quarterbacks, Green Bay hasn’t leveraged everything to win with theirs.

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints currently enjoy about $1.4 million in salary cap space according to Over the Cap. In order to get to that point, the Saints have had to perform increasingly wild levels of cap gymnastics, including creating an entirely fake Taysom Hill contract that is quite hilarious to view. The Saints are enduring this pain for multiple reasons. First and foremost, like about two-thirds of the league, they have seen their financial situation significantly altered by the the COVID cap crunch.

It’s not just COVID, however. This is partially a situation of their own creation. The Saints spent the latter part of the 2010s mortgaging future cap space to boost the quality of their current teams. That mortgage is finally coming due and causing New Orleans to have to kick money out into future cap years yet again just to be cap-compliant.

The Saints’ cap maneuvers have become a meme at this point, and for good reason. It is funny to watch a team have to do weird things just to claw their head above the cap waters. But it’s also important to note that it wouldn’t be anywhere near as obnoxious if the cap had continued growing at the rate it had since 2014. Over that time, the cap averaged about 7% per year in growth. Off of 2020’s $198.2 million, that should have created a 2021 cap somewhere in the neighborhood of $212 million. It’s hard to blame the Saints for moves made years before the pandemic for not forecasting it. Sometimes you just get the short end of the stick.

The Saints situation has also been joked about because, despite their efforts, they only reached one NFC Championship Game during the last decade. In 2017, they lost on the Minneapolis Miracle, when their safety just decided he didn’t want to make the easy tackle on Stefon Diggs. The following season they lost the NFC Championship Game to the Los Angeles Rams in overtime by some interesting circumstances involving a no-call on an obvious defensive pass interference. In 2019 they would again fall in overtime, once again to the Minnesota Vikings. Their 2020 season would end at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That is four great chances without reaching a Super Bowl, but it’s not like New Orleans wasn’t a legitimate title contender during that period. They were #1 in DVOA in 2017 and 2020, and #2 in 2018 and 2019. They had four elite teams and ended up with nothing.

Playoff football is unforgiving. How much of the narrative is different if the safety simply tackles Stefon Diggs instead of flying under him? How much of the narrative is different if the pass interference by Nickell Robey-Coleman is called?

Despite the Saints not ultimately getting to or winning a Super Bowl, I believe their process was the correct one. You only get so many shots with a Hall of Fame quarterback. You need to make them count. Current New Orleans Pelicans general manager David Griffin said of his time in Cleveland with LeBron James something along the lines of “You don’t waste years with LeBron James.” This idea has saturated the landscapes of other sports, but particularly basketball. When you have an elite player, you need to strike while the iron is hot.

For quarterbacks, the situation is a bit different, since their careers are so much longer. Drew Brees was an elite quarterback for about 15 years. The same has been true for Tom Brady, and was true for Peyton Manning. Rodgers is now closing in on that mark as well. With primes that last that long, it makes sense for teams not to over-leverage the age 30 or 31 years at the expense of age 35 when the quarterback will likely still be good enough to compete for a title. That’s why you didn’t see Green Bay get crazy in the post-Super Bowl era with mortgaging future cap years. They wanted to maximize bites at the apple. You can take plenty of issues with the continued employment of Mike McCarthy and whichever defensive coordinator you hate, but the issue for Green Bay wasn’t about not going “all-in” since the team had another half-decade of performance to still get from Rodgers.

The past calendar year is starting to show that Green Bay does not buy in to the same idea as the Saints. Instead of doubling-down on Rodgers late in his career, they traded up for a quarterback in the first round. I disliked the pick at the time for a plethora of reasons, which you can read here. In short, Love was a pretty unproductive quarterback who was drafted at a time when Green Bay could have used reinforcements around Rodgers, and the way their contracts line up don’t make sense for actually leveraging Love’s rookie deal in a way other teams have done for their good quarterback on a rookie contract (think Kansas City with Mahomes, Baltimore with Jackson, and Buffalo with Allen). Moving on from Rodgers in 2022, before any potential mild re-structure, is going to still hit Green Bay’s cap to the tune of about $17M.

Of course, Green Bay drafted Jordan Love before Aaron Rodgers became Aaron Rodgers again. Despite the Hall of Fame career and a brief revival in late-2016, Rodgers had settled into above-average productivity from 2015-2019. Still, getting out from his extension was still going to be problematic until 2023, so showing some patience and hoping for a Matt Ryan 2016 “second-season in a Shanahan system” revival would have been fine. But they didn’t go that route.

It’s now 2021 though, and we know that 2020 happened. Aaron Rodgers was the best player on the planet last season. At this point, they will still have to create cap space via some maneuver, but that’s looking more and more likely to come from some place that isn’t an Aaron Rodgers re-structure or extension. Green Bay has spent this off-season doing gymnastics to avoid committing to Rodgers long-term, despite the fact that they have a legitimate Super Bowl contender staring them right in the face.

As the Saints learned and the Packers know all too well, playoff football is unforgiving. Green Bay was a missed hold on Allen Lazard and Mike Pettine losing his mind away from a potential Super Bowl. Instead of fixing the major issues on the team for 2021, they’ve largely brought the gang back for another run. They’ll probably be very good in 2021. They might even win a Super Bowl in 2021, but they’ve hardly given themselves the level of financial leverage to do so in the same way that New Orleans did from 2017-2020. Green Bay could have done a similar thing in 2021 and 2022, but instead they brought back Kevin King because they didn’t want to commit to an MVP quarterback for a few more years.

There seems to be some confidence within the Packers organization in the way that they’ve handled this, confidence one could argue is in fact arrogance. They replaced one Hall of Fame quarterback with an even better one once before with a late first round pick, so why can’t they do it again? Like I said in the previous linked article, Favre was already contemplating retirement, was playing much worse than Rodgers was, and Rodgers was a legitimate potential first overall pick when he was drafted in a way Jordan Love most certainly was not. The Packers got off of Favre’s contract with virtually no pain. The same will not be said for Rodgers’ dead cap should they move on next year.

Additionally, the track record of late first round quarterbacks is littered with busts. To avoid keeping a sharp split from the 32nd to the 33rd pick, I’ve also included all second round quarterbacks. This is to establish a group of quarterbacks that were seen in their draft to be non-elite but also worthy of some meaningful draft capital investment. The following is a table of quarterbacks drafted between the 16th and 64th pick since 2006, the year after the Packers drafted Rodgers 24th overall:

Late First and Second Round QBs Since 2006

Year Player Team Pick Quality
Year Player Team Pick Quality
2006 Kellen Clemens NYG 49 Bust
2006 Tarvaris Jackson MIN 64 Low End Starter/Backup
2007 Brady Quinn CLE 22 Bust
2007 Kevin Kolb PHI 36 Low End Starter/Backup
2007 John Beck MIA 40 Bust
2007 Drew Stanton DET 43 Bust
2008 Joe Flacco BAL 18 Solid Starter
2008 Brian Brohm GB 56 Bust
2008 Chad Henne MIA 57 Backup
2009 Josh Freeman TB 17 Bust
2009 Pat White MIA 44 Bust
2010 Tim Tebow DEN 25 Bust
2010 Jimmy Clausen CAR 48 Bust
2011 Andy Dalton CIN 35 Solid Starter
2011 Collin Kaepernick SF 36 Solid Starter
2012 Brandon Weeden CLE 22 Bust
2012 Brock Osweiler DEN 57 Bust
2013 EJ Manuel BUF 16 Bust
2013 Geno Smith NYJ 39 Bust
2014 Johnny Manziel CLE 22 Bust
2014 Teddy Bridgewater MIN 32 Solid Starter
2014 Derek Carr OAK 36 Solid Starter
2014 Jimmy Garoppolo NE 62 Solid Starter
2016 Paxton Lynch DEN 26 Bust
2016 Christian Hackenberg NYJ 51 Bust
2017 Deshone Kizer CLE 52 Bust
2018 Lamar Jackson BAL 32 Franchise QB
2019 Drew Lock DEN 42 Probable Bust
2020 Jordan Love GB 26 TBD
2020 Jalen Hurts PHI 53 TBD

Green Bay should be careful not to over-weight their own evaluation of Love when history suggests that a league-average quarterback would be a high-end outcome. In the past fifteen years, only one quarterback in that territory — Lamar Jackson — qualifies for “franchise QB” status and even he has had his own issues in the playoffs. It is far more likely that Green Bay ends up either with a bust/backup type or the dreaded quarterback purgatory where the player is just good enough to keep you decent, but who is a limiter on the team’s ceiling (a la Derek Carr or Andy Dalton).

Green Bay had a chance to shore up some weak points on their team, particularly in the secondary, if they were willing to commit to the 2020 MVP Aaron Rodgers beyond 2021. Instead they’ve chosen a path that looks like it is heading towards a sad divorce in 2022, and a quarterback that, historically speaking, is likely to leave Green Bay in a worse place.

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