Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur have been bastions of NFL success since uniting in 2019. Except for deep in the playoffs, that is. Despite three straight 13-win seasons, the first two of which included NFC Championship Game appearances, the Packers have failed to advance to the Super Bowl under the dynamic duo, and Saturday night's surprising home loss to the underdog 49ers marked Rodgers' earliest exit from the postseason in six years. Now, Green Bay is left to reckon with not only the disappointment of another big year that ended too soon, but also the uncertain future of its longtime quarterback.
How, exactly, can the Packers make things right and ensure they're back in the mix in 2022? Here are five steps to success:
1. Extend Aaron Rodgers
Yes, you read that right. It's more fun to entertain the idea of Rodgers playing elsewhere, as he hinted for much of his months-long feud with Packers brass a year ago. And you could make the case that he and Green Bay have already past their prime together, considering their latest playoff defeat. But let's not get too cute here. Unless Rodgers, who repeatedly emphasized future collaboration with team management in his postgame remarks, suddenly becomes hell-bent on relocating, this is the only logical path forward. Jordan Love, the former first-round pick waiting in the wings, may be good someday. But Rodgers is one of the best right now. Like Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, he's shown no signs of slowing down, but rather increased poise and production with age. His massive 2022 salary cap hit ($46.8 million) can be lessened with a new deal that runs past 2022. The Packers are still built to compete, and you only get so many years with a top-two NFL QB running the ship.
2. Shop Jordan Love
It's the natural byproduct of recommitting to Rodgers, which LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst will assuredly be ready to do. How could they even look Rodgers in the eyes, with a straight face, and suggest otherwise? No, the playoff results haven't been there, but you think they would -- or should -- reset the entire operation after two NFC title bids and three straight playoff runs over the last three years, with the league MVP under center? Get out of here. This doesn't mean they must trade Love, by the way. Rodgers may or may not play beyond 2022, so he could still sit as a potential successor. But why not take offers, if A-Rod sticks? That way you regain some draft capital for both the short and long term. Maybe someone who can't land a new QB this offseason (the Saints? Falcons? Raiders? Texans? Steelers?) would bite.
3. Lock up Davante Adams and Jaire Alexander
It's simple: keep Rodgers' top target and the defense's top cover man on the team. In fact, even in the scenario where Rodgers hangs it up, this should be a priority. A long-term extension is the endgame for both guys here, but using the franchise tag -- projected to come in at close to $18.5 million -- could also ensure Adams won't test the market. He's the game's best wide receiver. He needs to stay. As for Alexander, who's due $13.3M in 2022 despite missing most of this season, an extension makes sense for both sides; the former first-rounder is just 24, and a new deal would lower his cap hit for next year.
4. Manage overpriced veterans
This paves the way for the Packers to retain Adams, and/or other key free agents like linebacker De'Vondre Campbell. Green Bay is currently projected to be over the 2022 cap by at least $40M -- the worst financial situation in the NFL, save for the Saints. But it's not an inescapable hole, especially if Rodgers and Adams net new deals that lessen their cap charges early on. One of the team's top two pass-rushers -- Za'Darius Smith (due $27.6M) and Preston Smith ($19.8M) -- must either take a steep pay cut or be released or traded. Other big names, like Randall Cobb ($9.6M), Billy Turner ($9.2M) and longtime kicker Mason Crosby ($4.7M), should be faced with the same scenario. That may sound dire, but it's really not, when viewed in light of the total roster and the fact that Rodgers' return would likely sway some vets to put the team first and allow for another run.
5. Invest in WR, OT, DE, CB
If Rodgers and Adams are back, even some tough decisions with guys like Za'Darius Smith won't prevent the Packers from entering 2022 as NFC North front-runners. This team is playoff-ready, remember, and that's not even accounting for the possibility of Pro Bowl stars like David Bakhtiari and Alexander actually returning at full health. But if they're gonna run this thing back, they could afford depth upgrades at these positions, either via the draft or free agency. Melvin Ingram and Anthony Barr are the kind of mid-tier pass-rushers they could target to offset the potential loss of a Smith starter, while veteran No. 2 wideouts like Emmanuel Sanders and A.J. Green could boost the passing game. More Bakhtiari insurance would also be nice, as well as a plug-and-play cover man or two.