Dougherty: Packers can't afford to play tag with Aaron Rodgers' contract
Ted Thompson has one player he absolutely needs to sign to a new contract within the next year.
The Green Bay Packers general manager has been proactive on Aaron Rodgers’ contract in the past, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be again. But really, it’s a must that he signs his quarterback to what will be a record-setting extension by next spring or summer.
Rodgers has three years left on his current deal, including this season, so you might be wondering why the hurry?
Here’s why: The franchise tag ain’t what it used to be, and for players, it’s now more blessing than curse.
That means the Packers shouldn’t let Rodgers get anywhere near the final year (2019) of his current deal. They don’t want the tag in play.
Let’s start with where things stand. Rodgers, 33, is the second-best quarterback in the game, and the Packers are perennial Super Bowl contenders because of him. They aren’t letting him go anywhere. So in that way, the franchise tag is their ultimate safety net.
But it comes with a steep price that’s a product of the 2011 CBA. Players used to hate the tag, but now, not so much. Especially quarterbacks. Kirk Cousins, who will have made $43.9 million playing on Washington’s tag in 2016 and ’17, has shown the way.
The price isn’t just the high cost of the tag, which is the average of the top five players at a position. It’s the even higher escalators for using it multiple times on the same guy.
For example, let’s say Rodgers' contract was up and the Packers tagged him for the first time this year. He’d make $21.68 million. To tag him again next year, they’d have to give him a 20 percent raise ($25.521 million). And to tag him a third time — that’s the maximum allowed per player — they’d have to offer a 44 percent raise over that, or $36.751 million.
So three years of tags would cost $83.5 million. And that’s at today’s prices. The tag will be higher in 2020, when Rodgers would be a free agent. By then it easily could be $25 million, perhaps more. For three years of tags, you’re talking at least $100 million.
If Rodgers gets close to even a whiff of free agency, then that’s where his contract talks will start: $100 million fully guaranteed. He’ll know all he has to do is get to 2020, when he’ll be 36, and he’s in for a windfall.
Don’t let that age, 36, fool you. For top quarterbacks, it’s not that old. The rules protect them, and sports scientists are learning more about longevity every year. Tom Brady, recently turned 40, has played some of his best football the last couple years. Drew Brees at 38 remains a premier player. Chances are, Rodgers still will be playing well even as he closes in on the big 4-0.
So when will Rodgers start getting a whiff of the tag? I’d say next fall. By then he’ll be only two years from free agency. If I’m him, that’s when I start baking the tag into contract talks. Because all he has to do is get within a year of free agency and it’s game over. All the leverage will be his.
But if the Packers get serious in the next 12 months, they can keep the tag out of it. Then the parameters will be recent quarterback deals, like Derek Carr’s five-year extension this offseason. Carr’s contract averages $25 million in new money and includes $40 million in full guarantees. Andrew Luck had $47 million in full guarantees with the deal he signed in 2016.
And Matthew Stafford should be the next big contract to drop. He’s in the last year of his deal, though he and the Detroit Lions are having trouble working out a new one. The Lions, no doubt, are running into the franchise-tag problems the Packers need to avoid.
I doubt Thompson and team vice president Russ Ball will start talks with Rodgers this season, though that wouldn’t be the worst idea. But I’ll be stunned if they haven’t worked out something with him by next spring or summer.
Rodgers says he wants to finish his career with the Packers, and there’s no reason to doubt him. He could have wrung more money out of them in 2013 but seemed to decide that past a certain point ($22 million average in new money) it would get counterproductive.
To be sure, Rodgers’ next deal will come with a steep price. It’s one any team would pay. But if the Packers wait too long, then they’ll really find out what expensive is.