Dougherty: Packers must find better backups for Aaron Rodgers
The Green Bay Packers are still several years away from looking for Aaron Rodgers’ successor.
But general manager Ted Thompson needs to change his approach to finding Rodgers’ backups.
Rodgers, who turned 34 on Saturday, says he wants to play into his 40s. There’s little reason to think he won’t. He’s hypercompetitive, committed to taking care of his body and playing at a time when the rules keep evolving to protect quarterbacks more.
But he also has been injured enough that the Packers have to make sure they’re OK for the times he can’t play. Besides having a torn ACL in college, he missed six games as a backup in ’06 (broken foot), four as a backup in ’07 (hamstring), one in ’10 (concussion), seven in ’13 (broken collarbone) and at least eight more this season (broken collarbone).
So they have to assume he’s going to miss games in the future, too. It’s not like they can say they didn’t see it coming. And they can’t go through this again in his remaining years. With a 1-5 record since Brett Hundley took over for Rodgers, their playoff hopes are in serious jeopardy even though it’s looking like Rodgers will be able to return soon.
But good backups are rare and don’t come free for a team that already puts big money into the quarterback position. Rodgers’ $20.3 million cap number is 11.6 percent of the Packers’ cap, according to OverTheCap.com. And those numbers are only going up when they negotiate his contract extension this spring or summer.
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Yes, that renegotiation is a given. After this season, Rodgers will have two years left on his deal. The Packers can’t let him get any closer to free agency, because then the franchise tag, and the escalating salaries that go with it, come into play. An agent I spoke with recently said the team has made clear it expects a major expenditure in the offseason, and he interpreted it to mean only one thing: Rodgers.
Late in training camp Matthew Stafford became the NFL’s highest-paid player at an average of $27 million a year. Rodgers will blow past him, to at least $30 million, and very possibly higher still. Is there anyone out there who’d honestly argue he’s not worth it? Really, $50 million wouldn’t be too much.
The point is, a huge chunk of their cap is going to their quarterback. They’re trying to build as good a team as they can to win with him, and every dollar they spend on his backup is money that could have gone to another position or been rolled into future caps for future big deals.
So what should they do?
Let’s start by looking around the league.
Fifteen teams have quarterbacks who average at least $20 million a year. I picked that as the cutoff because it separates Cam Newton ($20.8 million), Matt Ryan ($20.8 million) and Tom Brady ($20.5 million) from the Ryan Tannehills ($19.25 million), Sam Bradfords ($17.5 million) and Alex Smiths ($17 million) of the world. At that point, the difference in pay matters.
Of those 15 teams, two, the Packers (Hundley) and Detroit (Jake Rudock), have backups who are cheap because they’re on their rookie deals.
Of the remaining 13 teams, only four are spending more than $1.1 million in cap room on their No. 2: Washington (Colt McCoy at $3.6 million), Atlanta (Matt Schaub $3.5 million), Pittsburgh (Landry Jones $2.2 million) and Carolina (Derek Anderson $1.9 million).
You probably can throw New England in there too, because the Patriots signed Brian Hoyer a month ago to a three-year deal that included $1.5 million guaranteed.
But look at what most of those teams are getting for their money.
The only one of the group with both a career winning record (in games started) and passer rating over 80 is Schaub (47-45, 89.1 rating).
Jones is 2-2 in four years as Ben Roethlisberger’s backup in Pittsburgh, and his wins were over the 3-13 Cleveland Browns in 2015 and the Scott Tolzien-quarterbacked Indianapolis Colts last year.
McCoy is 1-3 when he has started in place of Kirk Cousins for Washington the last three seasons.
And Anderson (20-27 career record, 71.1 rating) lost the only game he started and finished in the last two years as Newton’s No. 2 in Carolina.
The GM who made the biggest commitment to his backup is Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff, who in the offseason paid Schaub a $2.5 million bonus as part of a two-year, $9 million deal. Dimitroff hasn’t needed Schaub yet, and we’ll see just what the GM thinks of that investment in the offseason when he decides whether to pay Schaub a $1.5 million roster bonus in March followed by $2.5 million in salary for 2018.
If you look at the list of other veteran backups around the league, it’s a who’s who? Not a Who’s Who. Ryan Mallett (3-5, 66.8) in Baltimore, Kellen Clemens (8-13, 69.7) for the San Diego Chargers, Chase Daniel (1-1, 81.1) in New Orleans and Blaine Gabbert (10-32, 72.3) in Arizona.
The one team that has hit a home run at the backup position is Minnesota. Vikings GM Rick Spielman signed Case Keenum to a one-year, $1.9 million deal, and the sixth-year pro has delivered a 7-2 record in his nine starts for the injured Bradford. But let’s not kid anybody. While Keenum has played sound football (96.2 rating), the Vikings are winning because of their defense.
Still, I don’t blame Thompson for not signing a veteran No. 2, not at more than $1 million at any rate. But if he’s not going to spend money at the position, it’s time to look to his mentor, Ron Wolf, for what to do.
Everybody rightly points to the backups Wolf drafted who went on to become starters with other teams: Ty Detmer (ninth round 1992), Mark Brunell (fifth round ’93), Matt Hasselbeck (sixth round ’98) and Aaron Brooks (fourth round ’99). But Wolf had to kiss some frogs to find those princes.
In his 10 drafts, Wolf picked seven quarterbacks as backups, all in the fourth round or later. You might have forgotten the rejects: Jay Barker (fifth round 1995), Kyle Wachholtz (seventh round ’96) and Ronnie McAda (seventh round ’97).
Keep in mind, too, that Wolf drafted Brunell and Barker when Detmer was on the roster, Wachholtz when Jim McMahon was the backup, Hasselbeck when Doug Pederson already was the No. 2 and Brooks when Hasselbeck had replaced Pederson.
Wolf always was looking for the next guy even when he didn’t need him.
On the other hand, Thompson in 13 drafts has picked four developmental quarterbacks (excluding Rodgers, who was chosen to be Favre’s successor): Brian Brohm (second round) and Matt Flynn (seventh) in ’08, B.J. Coleman (seventh round) in ’12 and Brett Hundley (fifth round) ’15.
And you can even argue that Brohm was picked as a fallback in case Rodgers didn’t pan out.
Regardless, that draft approach has to change, starting this spring. Hundley has no trade value, we can say that safely now. But while there’s no reason not to bring him back next year at a $705,000 salary, the parade of undrafted quarterbacks who have been filling out the quarterback room the last seven or eight years just won’t cut it anymore. There’s too good a chance Rodgers’ backup will get on the field. So there has to be real competition and a constant search for a better No. 2.
As Wolf showed, Thompson shouldn’t consider picking a quarterback higher than the fourth round, and he should be reluctant to take one even that high. But from the fifth round on, quarterback definitely has to be in play. And it should be that way almost every year until Rodgers retires.
As for Rodgers’ successor, it’s way too early for thinking about that. He says he wants to play until at least 40, and the Packers should take him at his word. Today’s game is built for quarterbacks to last.
But when will the time be right to spend a first- or second-round pick on a quarterback?
New England’s Bill Belichick was a little early when he drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round in 2014, the year Tom Brady turned 37. Brady is still going strong at 40, so Belichick traded Garoppolo to San Francisco last month.
Rodgers turns 38 in 2021, and that’s about when the Packers should start looking hard.
There’s an old NFL saying that the hardest time to find a quarterback is when you need one. That holds for starters and backups too.