Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers gestures after throwing a touchdown pass in the first quarter against the New Orleans Saints during the season opener at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. / File/Press-Gazette
The Green Bay Packers are discovering the cost of success.
Their roster includes several young players who are among the best in the NFL at their positions, and while that means winning football, it also makes for costly contracts and critical budget decisions.
In the next two years or so, General Manager Ted Thompson will face the prospect of paying top-of-the-line deals to tight end Jermichael Finley, who is in the last year of his contract; receiver Greg Jennings, whose contract runs out in 2012; nose tackle B.J. Raji (2013); and monster-type contracts for outside linebacker Clay Matthews (2013) and quarterback Aaron Rodgers (2014).
“They’ve got a lot of guys in the pipeline, that’s for sure,” said a prominent agent in the NFL. “It’s a good problem to have and means you have a lot of good players, but in a salary-cap system, it’s somewhat difficult to keep all of them. The Packers stick to a pretty diligent budget.”
The guaranteed money for those deals will be enormous, surely more than $100 million combined. And though some of them, such as Finley, will require more immediate attention than others, the biggest and most important is Rodgers, and that’s something Thompson and team Vice President Russ Ball might decide to move on sooner rather than later even though their quarterback’s contract runs through 2014.
By the end of last season, Rodgers had moved into the pantheon of the game’s best quarterbacks along with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and perhaps Drew Brees. He’s 27 years old and is just hitting his prime, as he showed last week against New Orleans. The Packers will have to pay him as such, and right now he’s grossly underpaid by any measure of NFL deals.
The Packers generally don’t renegotiate contracts before a player is entering the last season of his current deal, but elite players, especially quarterbacks, are a different matter. If the Packers wait, Rodgers’ cost will only go up, and in any event, it’s bad business for an NFL team to skimp with a player this important.
So don’t be surprised if the Packers move on Rodgers sometime in the next year, maybe even this season, to pay him more in line with the game’s top quarterbacks.
For now, Rodgers has far outperformed his contract. On the salary breakdowns available to agents, Rodgers’ average pay is listed as $12.7 million a year, so you might have seen that figure in media reports. But in truth, his average is $9.3 million, and the difference is explained by an accounting anomaly.
He signed his contract in November 2008, and for salary-cap accounting his base salary for ’08 is listed as $23.762 million. But in reality, he received only a prorated portion of that, or $12.9 million, because he signed the deal with nine weeks left in the 17-week regular season. Players’ base salaries are paid weekly, bye week included.
So, Rodgers’ seven-year deal is worth about $64.9 million, or an average of $9.3 million. In the first three years of the deal, from ’08 through last season, Rodgers made $28 million, and by the end of this season, he’ll have made $35.65 million, or an average of $8.9 million.
Compare that with the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. There’s no single way to determine who has the best contract, but average pay per season generally is the starting point. By that measure, the top five are Peyton Manning ($18 million per year), Michael Vick ($16 million), Eli Manning ($15.2 million), Brady ($15.1 million) and Philip Rivers ($14 million). Brees is in the midst of negotiations on a new deal and could move into that group.
There are more telling ways to measure contract; most notably, the amount of guaranteed money and the pay over the first three years. But even the guaranteed money can be misleading, because it depends on whether the deal is guaranteed for injury, which protects against a career-ending injury but not a career-diminishing one, and guaranteed for skill, which is a true guarantee.
Brady, Peyton Manning and Vick all signed new deals within the last year and will provide the benchmark for any negotiations with Rodgers. Here’s a thumbnail look at each contract:
Manning: Signed in late July, a five-year deal worth $90 million. It included $26.4 million in pay this year and an option bonus next year of $28 million. With base salary included, his pay the first two years is a staggering $61.8 million, and in the first three years $70.2 million, or an average of $23.4 million the first three years.
Additionally, if the Colts don’t pay him the option bonus next year, they’ll owe him a $27.4 million nonexercise fee. So if they decide to cut him next year because of his neck injury, unlikely as that might be, they’ll have paid him $53.8 million.
Vick: In late August signed a deal that on paper was $100 million for six years but because of a voidable clause really is $80 million over five years ($16 million a year). The $32.5 million he’ll make the first two years — $20 million this year, $12.5 million next season— is fully guaranteed. In the first three years, he’ll make $45 million, or an average of $15 million a year.
Brady: Signed in September 2010, it was reported as a four-year extension worth $72.5 million and thus an average of about $18 million a year, but that’s an inaccurate depiction of the deal. In reality it’s for $75.5 million over the five years of the contract (2010-14), a $15.1 million average. The deal paid $26.5 million the first year, $36.25 million in the first two years, and $47 million the first three years.
The first-year pay ($26.5 million) was fully guaranteed, as was his $5.75 million salary last year. Each succeeding year’s salary becomes guaranteed if he’s on the roster for the final game the previous year.
So Manning’s contract is the most lucrative of the three in the two most important categories. His full guarantee is $53.8 million, as opposed to Vick and Brady, both at $32.5 million. And for the first three years, Manning will make $70 million ($23.3 million average), Brady will make $47 million ($15.7 million average) and Vick $45 million ($15 million average).
So what does that mean for Rodgers? This is just a guess, but if the Packers approach him this year, with four years left on his current deal, he’ll probably be in for a ballpark guarantee of Brady’s and Vick’s $32.5 million, maybe substantially more. Rodgers’ pay in the first three years probably will be around $50 million, and again, maybe substantially more. Manning’s guarantees and first three years are stratospheric, possibly to the point of harming his team’s ability to sign other players, but his $18 million average would hardly be out of line for Rodgers.
Rodgers chose not to comment on his contract when asked this week, and his agent didn’t return a phone call or email. So it’s uncertain whether the sides have had preliminary talks or if that’s likely to commence this season. But don’t be surprised if they do.
As far as the more immediate future, the team is likely to approach Finley later this season as long as he stays healthy and productive. He’ll be a free agent in the offseason. San Francisco’s Vernon Davis is the NFL’s highest-paid tight end at an average of about $7 million on a six-year deal he signed last year and that included $23 million in guarantees and $25.5 million in pay the first three years.
Center Scott Wells and receiver Jordy Nelson are other key contributors who will be free agents in the offseason and could be in line for extensions this year.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.