First in a nine-part Packers position-analysis series with 2018 grades.
GREEN BAY - A season after seeing how badly they need Aaron Rodgers to play like Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers rewarded their two-time MVP quarterback with a four-year, $134 million contract extension. The richest contract in NFL history guaranteed Rodgers more than $100 million and was supposed to stabilize their most important position. Instead, it seems the Packers in 2019 have just as many questions at quarterback as they did one year ago.
It was not a healthy year for the position. Rodgers’ knee injury sustained during Week 1 in many ways sabotaged the season. So did his inability to stay on schedule in the passing game, and his reluctance to run fired coach Mike McCarthy’s offense.
In today’s NFL, winning is directly tied to quarterback play. The bottom line is one year after the Packers finished 7-9 with Rodgers missing nine games, they finished with a worse record (6-9-1) with him playing all 16.
Some appreciation should be given to Rodgers’ remarkable ratio of 25 touchdown passes to only two interceptions. Even with a quarterback who seemed determined to not risk any picks regardless of potential big gains, that sort of ratio is hard to attain. Rodgers set an NFL record with 402 consecutive pass attempts without an interception. His two picks came when targeting tight end Jimmy Graham, who deflected both.
In retrospect, 2018 will be remembered as the first time Rodgers’ age became a concern. Even if Rodgers rebounds in 2019, age will loom over everything he does from here until the end of his career. Rodgers turned 35 in December. In the past decade, elite quarterbacks have shown they can play well into their 40s. But, historically, 35 has also been a mark when quarterbacks begin their decline. It’s at least a reminder that the Rodgers era won’t last forever.
The Packers traded defensive back Damarious Randall to the Cleveland Browns for quarterback DeShone Kizer and shipped Brett Hundley to the Seattle Seahawks, yet are no closer to finding a reliable backup.
They have tried the developmental path, drafting Hundley in the fifth round in 2015 and acquiring Kizer after his rookie season. It isn’t hard to envision new coach Matt LaFleur wanting his own prospect to mold — perhaps that could even be Kizer, whom LaFleur coached at Notre Dame during a redshirt freshman season — but the developmental path has not worked. The Packers perceive themselves as a true Super Bowl contender for as long as Rodgers is taking snaps. It could be time to take the veteran route, which means some investment through free agency.
A backup such as Ryan Fitzpatrick would help solidify the position. There will be more cost-effective options, but considering the Packers have an aging starter with legitimate injury concerns in his recent past, it’s an investment a contender with a shrinking window should be willing to make. Fitzpatrick had a 100.4 rating in eight games (seven starts) for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — a better rating than Rodgers last season — and at age 36 profiles as a backup. The Packers also interviewed former Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken for their head-coaching job, and again for their offensive coordinator vacancy after hiring LaFleur. So there’s something about the Bucs' offense that intrigued them, and they should have some inside knowledge of Fitzpatrick.
Aaron Rodgers: In 2008, when Rodgers posted a 93.8 rating in his first season as starter, he ranked sixth in the NFL. In 2017, when Rodgers posted a 97.2 rating, he ranked eighth. Rodgers’ 97.6 rating in 2018 was higher than both years, but in a season that saw passing numbers explode across the league, his production was stagnant. Rodgers ranked 13th in passer rating last season, only the second time in his career he dropped outside the top 10 (the first time was 2015). While his interceptions were down, so was his completion percentage. His 62.3 percent clip was a career low and tied Case Keenum for 26th in the league. It’s fair to consider the knee injury that forced Rodgers to miss several weeks of practices formed some bad habits, but his surprising inefficiency highlighted a quarterback who too often hunted the big play, and too infrequently was willing to take risks. That said, Rodgers also had some magnificent moments, chief among them when he led the Packers on a 20-point, second-half comeback in the opener against the Bears on one leg. Other special moments included the Packers' final-drive comeback against the San Francisco 49ers, and their overtime win at the New York Jets. But for a quarterback accustomed to making the magical come to life on the football field, those moments were too sporadic in 2018. Grade: B-minus
DeShone Kizer: Kizer looked unprepared to play in Week 1 when Rodgers went down. In one quarter, he had one interception returned for a touchdown, one fumble, took two sacks and had a 42.9 rating. When Rodgers went down with a concussion in the season finale, Kizer completed 45 percent of his passes (16-for-35), averaged 3.8 yards per pass and had another interception. He has a big arm and can evade rushers with his athleticism, but Kizer’s lack of field vision, slow reactions and poor decision making — all problems exhibited as a rookie in Cleveland — were no better in his second season. Grade: D
Tim Boyle: Boyle, an undrafted rookie out of Eastern Kentucky, spent all season on the 53-man roster but never played a snap, although perhaps he should have. At this point, he appears to be a better prospect than Kizer, though it would be a big stretch to expect him to fill the No. 2 role next fall. Grade: Incomplete