Agent's Take: Here's when the Packers should trade Aaron Rodgers, based on how his contract is structured
The Packers put a succession plan in place at quarterback when they traded up to select Jordan Love
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers expressed his preference to spend his entire NFL career in Green Bay during a conference call with the media last Friday. The 36-year-old may not get that chance after the Packers selected his potential replacement, Jordan Love, with the 26th overall pick during the 2020 NFL Draft in late April. The two-time NFL MVP reiterated that he planned on playing into his 40s.
The selection of Love was a surprise to many, especially considering the Packers traded up four spots to get him despite coming off a 2019 season in which they were eliminated from the playoffs by the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. The expectation was the Packers would select someone in the first round that could make an immediate contribution, perhaps providing Rodgers an offensive weapon in a deep wide receiver draft class.
Should Rodgers leave Green Bay for another team, it's going to be via a trade. His play would have to drop off dramatically over the next two seasons for the Packers to release him.
Contracts for Green Bay's quarterbacks
Rodgers and Love's contracts don't align well for the Packers. Rodgers, who is under contract through the 2023 season, is entering the first year of a four-year, $134 million contract extension he signed in 2018 when he had two years remaining on his existing contract. The extension, which is worth up to $138 million through salary escalators and incentives, made Rodgers the league's highest-paid player at $33.5 million per year. Rodgers' deal contained $98.2 million in guarantees, including a then-NFL record $57.5 million signing bonus. $78.7 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
As the 26th overall pick, Love is expected to sign a four-year, $12,383,470 deal. The first three years of Love's contract will be fully guaranteed. Most of Love's $2,298,655 fourth year salary in 2023, if not all, will also be fully guaranteed.
The Packers will have an option for a fifth year in 2024 with Love since he is a first-round pick. The fifth-year option must be exercised after the third year of the deal, between the end of the 2022 regular season and May 3, 2023. The fifth-year salary is fully guaranteed upon exercise of the option. Love's fourth-year base salary will also become fully guaranteed when the option year is picked up if it wasn't already.
Love's performance will dictate his 2024 option-year salary. With two or more Pro Bowl selections on the original ballot during the first three seasons of his contract, Love's fifth-year salary will be the franchise tender, which is average of the five highest salaries, for quarterbacks in the fourth year of his contract (2023). One Pro Bowl selection on the original ballot during the first three seasons of the deal will put Love's fifth-year salary at the transition tender, which is average of the 10 highest salaries, for quarterbacks in the fourth year of his contract.
Participating in 75 percent of offensive plays in two of the first three seasons of the deal or an average of at least 50 percent offensive playtime in each of his first three seasons will set Love's fifth-year salary at the average of the third through 20th-highest salaries for quarterbacks in 2023. If Love doesn't fall into any of these three categories, his fifth-year salary will be the average of the third through 25th-highest salaries for quarterbacks. This number is currently $17.54 million.
Barring a Rodgers injury, the Packers may not have a good idea whether Love would be worth the fully guaranteed fifth-year option salary in 2024, which should be at a minimum $20 million, without him becoming the starting quarterback by the 2022 season.
Rodgers sat behind first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre for three years after he unexpectedly fell to the 24th overall pick in the 2005 draft. Teams no longer keep quarterbacks taken in the first round on the bench for an extended period of time, as Green Bay did with Rodgers. The Chiefs essentially redshirting 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes during his rookie year in 2017 is considered exercising patience with quarterbacks nowadays.
The logistics of a 2021 trade
The better the Packers do this upcoming season, the less likely Rodgers is traded next offseason unless he tries to force his way out of Green Bay or some team makes an offer that couldn't be refused. Rodgers has a $6.8 million third day of the 2021 league roster bonus in his contract. It wouldn't make financial sense for the Packers to trade Rodgers in 2021 after becoming responsible for the $6.8 million sometime during the latter part of next March.
The Packers also didn't do themselves any favors in parting ways with Rodgers next year by restructuring his contract for salary cap purposes near the end of the 2019 season. $14.26 million of Rodgers' 2020 $21.55 million salary was converted to signing bonus and prorated over his 2019 through 2023 contract years. Rodgers' $33.05 million 2020 cap number dropped $11.408 million to $21.642 million. His 2021 through 2023 salary cap numbers each increased by $2.852 million in the restructure.
Rodgers has the NFL's third-highest 2021 cap number at $36.352 million. Trading him before the $6.8 million becomes due would leave the Packers with a $31.556 million cap charge in 2021 from the remaining proration of his $57.5 million signing bonus and the $14.26 million converted into signing bonus during last December's contract restructure.
$4.796 million of cap space would be created by a trade. The Packers would also gain $39.852 million and $28.352 million of cap room in 2022 and 2023, respectively, from having Rodgers come off the books because of the trade. The acquiring team would have Rodgers under contract for three years at a total of $73 million. Rodgers' $24,333,333 average yearly salary for a new team would be less than the $24.837 million transition tag for quarterback's this year.
$31.556 million would be an unheard of amount of dead money, which is cap charge for a player no longer on a team's roster. The largest cap charge from dead money for a player during any league year is the $21.8 million the Rams are currently carrying after trading wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the Texans last month.
The cap savings from a trade would be better if the 2018 extension had been left intact. The Packers would have needed to find the $11.408 million of 2020 cap space the restructure created somewhere else, but the only bonus proration would have been from $57.5 million signing bonus. The Packers could have picked up $9.6 million of cap room and had $23 million in dead money.
The logistics of a 2022 trade
A trade in 2022 seems more likely than in 2021. The Packers would pick up $22.648 million cap room by removing Rodgers' $39.852 million cap number in 2022 from the equation. There would be $17.204 million of dead money in 2022 from Rodgers' departure. Just like with a trade in 2021, Rodgers' $28.352 million cap number in 2023 would come off Green Bay's books.
The Packers would have a new starting quarterback in Love with $1,735,770 and $2,298,655 salaries in 2022 and 2023, with $3,377,310 and $3,940,195 cap numbers respectively in those years.
The Packers would probably have less time to determine whether Love is the long-term successor to Rodgers with a 2022 trade. Waiting would limit the amount of Love's fifth-year option in 2024. There wouldn't be a way for him to elevate the option year to the 2023 quarterback franchise tag as a first-year starter. Getting his option-year salary to the 2023 transition tag would require Love instantly becoming one of the NFC's best quarterbacks to earn a Pro Bowl berth. The most likely scenario would be Love's option-year salary being at the lowest level because it would be hard for him to average 50 percent playtime over his first three years even he took all of Green Bay's quarterback snaps in 2022 unless Rodgers missed significant time with an injury during his first two years.
Presumably, the Packers would be able to get more for Rodgers than the 2009 conditional fourth-round pick that increased to a third round pick received for trading Favre to the Jets during the 2008 preseason. Rodgers would be a bargain contractually, although he would be 38. He would have two years left on his contract for a nonguaranteed $51 million, where he would be making $25.5 million in both 2022 and 2023. Tom Brady, who will turn 43 before the start of this season, signed a fully guaranteed two-year, $50 million deal (worth a maximum of $59 million through incentives) with the Buccaneers in free agency.
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