Dougherty: Aaron Rodgers' road to a record-setting deal
As the quarterback dominoes fall, the landscape for Aaron Rodgers’ next contract gets a little clearer.
Matthew Stafford signed a new deal with Detroit last August that made him the highest-paid player in the NFL. Jimmy Garoppolo topped that this month, getting a rich new deal from San Francisco.
And when free agency opens, Kirk Cousins almost surely will pass that.
But there’s still plenty to be determined for Rodgers, who will be in line for a record-setting contract this offseason, assuming the Green Bay Packers work aggressively to extend their quarterback’s deal with two years left on it. That’s a fairly safe assumption. They don’t want to let Rodgers get inside of two years if they can help it.
But if the most recent quarterback deals have helped clarify Rodgers’ parameters, there still are several factors in play as negotiations commence. Among them is whether the Packers place much priority on getting a deal done before free agency begins in mid-March so they will have a good idea what their salary cap will look like going forward.
Also, there’s the very important question of just how hard Rodgers will try to maximize his deal. Will he be more like Peyton Manning, who pushed for the most money he could get? Or will Rodgers again be more like he was in 2013, when he signed what has to be characterized as a team-friendly deal on his last contract extension?
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The Stafford and Garoppolo deals have made the basic outline of a Rodgers deal clearer. The best guess is that somehow, someway Rodgers will become the first NFL player to average $30 million a year. He also will receive the largest full guarantee. But there are a lot of ways to get there from here.
Last August, Stafford signed a five-year extension with Detroit that averages $27 million a season. Now, here we get into the new-money, old-money thing. That $27 million per is new money. If you include the final season he had left on the contract, Stafford’s average dips slightly, to $26.2 million over six years. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Most people in the NFL have accepted new money as the standard. Fine.
Stafford also received $60.5 million in full guarantees. That means he gets the money as long he attempts to play football. That’s the highest full guarantee ever. (Initial reports of Alex Smith’s new deal with Washington, which won’t be official until his trade can be validated in March, had his guarantees at $71 million. But that undoubtedly includes guarantees for injury, which are paid only if the player sustains an injury that prevents him from passing a physical. You can bet Smith’s fully guaranteed money is more in the $40 million range and nothing near $71 million.)
Recently, Garoppolo topped Stafford with a new, five-year deal that averages $27.5 million and included $48.7 million fully guaranteed. He had plenty of leverage despite making only seven NFL starts, because he was set to be a free agent after going a promising 5-0 with the 49ers to finish the season.
Cousins will be able to sign with anyone, so it’s a good bet he’ll top Garoppolo. An agent with whom I had a long conversation last week estimated Cousins will come in at an average of $28 million to $28.5 million.
Either way, Rodgers should be shooting for $30 million. But there’s some wiggle room, as long as he hits it with the new money. Remember, he has two years left on his deal worth a total of $41 million.
The last time Rodgers signed an extension, in 2013, he was in a position much like now. He was one of the top two or three quarterbacks in the league (he’d won a Super Bowl in 2010 and was MVP in ’11). He also had two years left on his contract, which meant the Packers had some leverage, as they do now. If Rodgers wants big money in hand now rather than risk catastrophic injury the next two years, he’ll have to give up a little something.
Rodgers made out well in 2013, but even at the time he signed it, the deal looked relatively team-friendly. The five-year extension made him the highest-paid player in new money at the time ($22 million a year) but the actual average over seven years was $17.7 million. He could have squeezed more out of the Packers if he’d really wanted to. Or he could have waited and hit them really big two years later.
Will he do something similar again? That’s up to him and his agent. There are ways to structure a deal to make it attractive even if on balance it’s a good deal for the team — for instance, a huge amount of the contract could be fully guaranteed, for instance, providing maximum security instead of maximum salary.
But if Rodgers is inclined to do something relatively team-friendly, he’ll have to be convinced new general manager Brian Gutekunst will use the savings to fortify the roster. Is there any reason to think former GM Ted Thompson didn’t fall short in Rodgers’ eyes there?
“He’s going to want some immediate-impact type stuff,” the aforementioned agent said.
As for the timing of a new deal, when Rodgers signed the extension in ’13, the news broke draft weekend in late April. With the stakes involved, it could take until at least the draft, if not later, again this time.
But there’s also the possibility the Packers will push to extend him before the start of free agency March 14. That way they’ll know exactly how their cap looks for the next two or three years regarding their highest-priced player.
Working against that fast timeline is Cousins. Rodgers very well might want to see what Cousins gets on the open market first. Cousins is a good player, but he isn’t in Rodgers’ class. If Cousins gets a ridiculous deal, then Rodgers will gain even more leverage.
“Probably best for Aaron to keep waiting, market can only get better,” emailed one source who works on NFL contracts.
As for what Rodgers’ deal might look like, assuming the sides can reach an agreement this offseason, it could go a lot of different ways.
One possibility that has come up in national media is a percentage of the cap. The franchise-tag numbers are based on that, and someday a player will get a percentage deal that will bring raises as the cap rises. But it won’t be Rodgers. He’s the rare player who’s good enough to get it, but with two years left on his contract, he simply doesn’t have the leverage.
If he and the Packers approach this like last time, they will add five years and about $150 million to Rodgers’ deal, with about half that fully guaranteed.
But the agent I spoke with offered a more novel possibility as well. He wondered if the sides might add, say, only three years and $90 million or $95 million, but fully guarantee the whole thing. That would be a first, a fully guaranteed long-term deal in the NFL. It would get Rodgers to $30 million or more in new money and leave the Packers on the hook if catastrophe struck, but it would be more than palatable as part of a five-year deal.
The Packers have a projected $16.9 million in cap room, and team vice president Russ Ball could structure Rodgers' deal to create more room if he, Gutekunst and CEO Mark Murphy desire. That’s where guaranteed money, whether as a bonus or in guaranteed salary, allows for a lot of flexibility.
However it goes, Rodgers will come out of this with a record-breaking contract. The Packers don’t absolutely have to do an extension; he still has the two years left on his deal. But they should. The price will only go up if they wait.