Silverstein: With very little leverage in whether Aaron Rodgers stays, the Packers must wait

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

GREEN BAY – All the Green Bay Packers can do is wait.

Unlike a year ago when they could have traded quarterback Aaron Rodgers to Denver for a boatload of draft picks and a player or two, the Packers must wait and see what the 39-year-old Rodgers wants to do.

The choices are basically this: continue playing for the Packers, retire or ask for a trade.

The Packers have a little bit of control over the situation, but the one thing they can’t do is cut him before June 1 because it would add another $68 million to their salary cap. They could cut him after June 1, but that would add $43.5 million to this year’s cap and $24.5 million to next year’s, so that’s not really an option either.

So, the Packers don’t have much leverage here.

In his season-ending news conference Friday, general manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t want to say it’s 100% up to Rodgers on whether he stays or goes, but he acknowledged one very important thing: the three-year, $150 million extension the Packers gave Rodgers last offseason wasn’t supposed to be for one year unless Rodgers wanted it that way.

Rodgers wanted some security that he wasn’t going to be a lame duck to 2020 first-round draft pick Jordan Love and so the contract was structured in a way it would be very difficult for the Packers to release him after this season.

“We made a really big commitment to him last offseason,” Gutekunst said. “As we did that, it certainly wasn’t just for this year.”

Trading Rodgers without his consent wouldn’t work because no team is going to make a deal unless they know Rodgers is fully committed to playing in 2023. If he were traded to a cellar dweller, he could just retire and leave the team with a massive contract on its hands and nothing to show for it.

Aaron Rodgers has said he won't hold the Packers hostage this offseason

So, the first order of business is to see if Rodgers intends to play next season.

He is due an option bonus of $58.3 million plus another $1.215 million in salary and workout bonus, so he would be turning down an enormous amount of money if he were to retire. Though he stated money wouldn’t be an issue regarding his decision whether to play, he had his agent structure the deal so he would be guaranteed $101.5 million the first two years for a reason.

He and Gutekunst talked before Rodgers left town and all Gutekunst would say about it is that he will give Rodgers the time he needs to decide.

The status of Green Bay Packers quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love will play out this offseason.

“He’s certainly going to take some time,” Gutekunst said. “I think that’s fair. As we work through this, unless he takes his time, and kind of makes his decision to stop his playing career, then we’ll get together and move forward that way.”

In other words, if Rodgers says he’s in for 2023, the next order of business will be where he wants to play and whether the Packers want him back.

Rodgers has said that it must be a mutual decision for him to return, so the Packers could say that they are going with Love this season and see how Rodgers reacts. Maybe then he asks for a trade. Or he retires.

But he could also say, I’m coming in and I’ll take my $58.3 option bonus and be the highest-paid backup in the history of the NFL. It’s not unlike what Brett Favre did in 2008 when he unretired and said either trade me or let me compete with Rodgers for the starting job.

The Packers are obligated to let someone under contract work.

If the Packers wanted to push Rodgers toward retirement or accepting a trade, they could tell him, we’re not going to bring back any of your buddies – Randall Cobb, Marcedes Lewis, Mason Crosby, David Bakhtiari – tell him he’ll be throwing to three second-year receivers and whomever else Gutekunst wants on the roster and we’ll stop consulting with you on free agents.

Since the Packers don’t have to execute the $58.3 million option bonus until Week 1 of the regular season, they could tell him he’s not getting the money until September unless he accepts a trade. It would be a ruthless way of doing business, but Rodgers used whatever leverage he had two years ago and was brought back with no hard feelings.

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Chances are Rodgers will tell the Packers he still wants to play, and they’ll continue to build around him. They have Love under contract for $2.298 million in ’23 and could guarantee he’d be on the roster in ’24 by exercising a fifth-year option from his rookie contract at a cost of around $20 million.

After the ’23 season, the Packers aren't off the hook with Rodgers. They can decline a $47 million option bonus, but they would still have a considerable amount of dead money on their cap that would affect their ability to sign free agents.

Love won’t be happy being a backup again this year, but he’s stuck. He could ask for a trade, but the Packers wouldn’t grant it and he’d have to just wait for his opportunity. Given Rodgers’ age, it’s possible Love becomes the starter at some point in ’23 due to a Rodgers injury or drop in performance.

The Packers young trio of receivers should only get better in 2023

If Rodgers does want to play, it shouldn’t be just for the money.

Next year, he’s going to have three young receivers with game experience and tons of speed and talent who will have had a full offseason in the weight room,.

Second-round pick Christian Watson looks like he could be special, fourth-round pick Romeo Doubs got valuable experience before an ankle injury slowed him, and seventh-round pick Samori Toure was playing a dozen snaps a game and getting important practice time with the No. 1 offense.

Rodgers needs to embrace the youth and athleticism and forget about having a security blanket receiver who reminds him of the good ol' days. Gutekunst isn’t averse to adding a veteran if Allen Lazard leaves in free agency, but he has high hopes for the three rookies.

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Christian Watson celebrates scoring a touchdown with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“I'm very excited about those guys and their abilities,” Gutekunst said. “As far as what they need to do, I think the NFL game is different and I think all of them need to continue to get better at learning how to get off press (coverage), and then just play where they're not thinking.”

Gutekunst needs to keep building the roster while coach Matt LaFleur tries to figure out why the offense went south during the season. He’s going to need to address the tackle, tight end and receiver positions either in the draft or in free agency.

If he’s worried about Rodgers’ talents declining dramatically, he gave no indication of it. It could be resignation that the organization committed two years to Rodgers and they need to build around him and figure out a way to win games.

They can ask him to stop being the guy who waits until the last second to snap the ball, takes deep shots when a high-percentage completion would be better and give some control of the offense back to LaFleur. They could sell him on how Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and John Elway won Super Bowls late in the careers complementing defense and special teams.

They have little choice but to move forward with Rodgers if he wants to keep playing.