In the end, what made Aaron Rodgers play for the Packers this season might have been that it ensured he could play somewhere else the next.
At 8:28 a.m. local time on Tuesday, Rodgers strolled up to Lambeau Field, arriving just in time for a training camp that just a few days earlier he’d seemed willing to miss. What had changed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, were a series of concessions made by the Packers in order to get their quarterback of 16 years to play for them in 2021. Most notably, the Packers agreed to restructure Rodgers’s contract, voiding the final year in 2023, a move that gives the team significant incentive to trade Rodgers next offseason if he still wants to leave Green Bay.
So when Rodgers rounded the corner to the Packers’ facilities, he was showing up both to do his job and to possibly interview for his next one. His path out of Green Bay in 2022 has become relatively clear, which puts the rest of the league on notice: Either make a push for the reigning MVP or have a very good reason for not doing so.
The list of teams with clear reasons to not pursue Rodgers is short: Kansas City, Seattle, Dallas, Jacksonville, the Chargers, the Jets, San Francisco, Buffalo, Baltimore, and Cleveland—and even that number might be a stretch. There are currently three teams with multiple first-round picks in 2022—the Giants, Lions, and Eagles—who could be looking for quarterback upgrades, as could teams expected to have significant salary cap space in 2022 like the Colts, Steelers, Washington, Miami, Denver, and Las Vegas. If Rodgers’s 2022 compensation remains the same under his reworked deal, any team trying to acquire him would need to be able to fit at least his $25 million base salary under its cap, if not sign him to an extension with a higher charge, not that either scenario would be a strong deterrent.
This offseason was billed as one with the possibility of unprecedented quarterback movement that could usher in a new era of player empowerment. It didn’t really come to pass. Carson Wentz, Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff, and Sam Darnold were the only starters from last season who changed teams, and their moves were dictated by their teams, who decided it was time to move on. Wentz and Goff played poorly in 2020, Darnold moved on once it became clear the Jets were taking a quarterback with the no. 2 pick, and Stafford left with the blessing of the Lions organization, which is rebuilding with a new coaching staff.
Yet it was clear from the draft, and from the unprecedented amounts of dead money the Eagles and Rams took on to move on from Wentz and Goff, that the chase for top quarterbacks in the NFL is only getting more aggressive. Just before the draft, the 49ers called the Packers to find out if they could get Rodgers with a package involving their no. 3 pick, even though San Francisco traded a ransom to acquire that pick with the intention of selecting a quarterback. Rodgers was a prize tantalizing enough to make San Francisco consider seismic decisions over the course of hours; what kind of moves could he conjure over the course of a year?
It’s arduous for NFL quarterbacks, even the most elite among them, to control their own destinies. Given how essential great quarterbacks are in the modern NFL, teams who have them will do whatever they can to keep them in the fold. Typical contract structures, as well as mechanisms like the franchise and transition tags, favor team control over player movement. Over the past two offseasons, Rodgers and Tom Brady—arguably the two biggest names in the sport—both used considerable leverage to restructure their deals in ways that would eventually give them the power to choose their own employers, Brady through free agency and Rodgers possibly by OKing or vetoing trade offers. Rodgers and Brady have moved the needle on player empowerment by prioritizing control over their careers, but they’ve also both shown that it’s an evolutionary, not revolutionary, process.
It’s unlikely that there will be a 20-plus team bidding war for Rodgers. It depends on the actual mechanics of the agreement between him and Green Bay. No specifics have been made public, and Rodgers is scheduled to have his first press conference on Wednesday, but it appears he’s gained some assurances about having a say in any potential trade destination. Rodgers’s list of preferred destinations will likely be shorter than the list of teams willing to make an offer for him. Brady, after all, had only two teams, the Bucs and the Colts, legitimately competing to sign him as a free agent last offseason, in part because he was partial to teams that would keep his family in the same time zone and that had Super Bowl–contending rosters.
Those teams were good landing spots with good pitches in part because they had a full season to prepare to make them, an advantage teams courting Rodgers will have as well. Reports saying he wanted a trade were enough to compel San Francisco to call the Packers, but there wasn’t enough time for teams to prepare solid offers. It’s possible the timing of Rodgers’s reported trade demand was some karmic retribution for Green Bay. After all, Rodgers was the recipient of bad news on draft day in 2020 when he was blindsided by the Packers’ selection of Jordan Love.
There was little chance Green Bay would deal Rodgers, despite his wishes—the Packers are built to compete now and would not have taken a trade offer that wasn’t going to help their 2021 roster. Next offseason, that might not be the case. If Rodgers and the Packers can agree on one thing, it’s this: He’s a quarterback worth fighting for, and the season-long sweepstakes for his services have begun.