Dougherty: Aaron Rodgers deal puts Packers in position to pay Khalil Mack

Pete Dougherty
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack works out prior to an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Now that Aaron Rodgers has a record contract, the big question is whether the Green Bay Packers can afford a trade for you-know-who.

Yes, Khalil Mack is still holding out, and recent reports increasingly suggest the Oakland Raiders might be willing to trade him.

But to deal for Mack, the Packers would have to be willing to make him probably the highest-paid defensive player in the game. Can they afford to do that now?

The short answer is, yes, the Packers have the means to sign Mack if they want him and the Raiders are willing to deal.

In fact, finishing Rodgers’ contract provides certainty for general manager Brian Gutekunst and team vice president Russ Ball’s future costs.

I spent a couple hours Wednesday evening going over the Packers’ salary-cap present and future at and After a while it gets a little head-spinning. Many moving parts and plenty of cap history to compare. It’s easy to drown in the details.

So let’s make this as simple as we can.

Start with Gutekunst’s own words. Last week in a one-on-one interview with, the Packers’ GM was asked whether the franchise can afford the highest-paid quarterback and one of if not the highest-paid defensive players in the NFL. He knew Rodgers’ deal was almost done, and his answer sure sounded like a yes to me.

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“When you’re talking about unique players, there’s only so many of them out there,” he said. “At the same time, the financial challenges may be difficult, but without players you can’t win. It’s like any significant player, they’re not inexpensive, but you have to have them to win.”

Then there’s Rodgers’ contract, which while huge, in reality makes him the league’s highest-paid player only incrementally.

One of the big numbers you’ve seen is his $33.5 million average in new money ($134 million for the four years added to his contract). That’s an impressive $3.5 million more than the previous record-holder for new-money average, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

But this new-money stuff is bogus. What matters to the Packers is the true value — that is, how much money the player will make over the length of the entire deal. Rodgers’ true average is $29.2 million ($176 million over six years).

While he also set a record by that measure, that’s only by $1 million more than Ryan, who’s also No. 2 there. Rodgers will make an enormous amount of money, but he didn’t blow past the field. (What made the deal worth it for him? $80 million over the next 6½ months. That really does blow everyone else away.)

As an agent I texted with Wednesday put it, “I think (the Packers) made out huge. A six-year deal!”

You also can look to the Packers’ recent history to see them spend big on a quarterback and defensive player at the same time. In a 10-day period in April 2013 they signed Rodgers and Clay Matthews to contract extensions. Rodgers’ made him the highest-paid player in the league, and Matthews came out the NFL’s fourth-highest paid player on the defensive side of the ball.

While the numbers are big and scary — Mack probably will cost an average of $19 million or $20 million a year —  remember that the salary cap has gone up at least $10 million in each of the last five seasons. That’s not changing anytime soon. Just last January the Thursday night TV package alone sold for $3.3 billion over five years. Streaming rights are on the rise.

As Rodgers put it in a conference call Thursday: “We’re expecting jumps in the salary cap overall for a number of years, just the way the NFL is growing and progressing. … I feel like the team is happy with the cap numbers and they still feel like, Brian (Gutekunst) still feels like he can put together the kind of team he wants to put together.”

There’s no getting around the consequences of signing stars. You can’t pay everyone, and adding Mack to the Packers’ payroll would make for hard decisions down the road. But great players win games, and that’s what this is all about.

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Keep in mind, the Packers’ cap and roster outlook isn’t bad. estimated Rodgers’ cap hits based on what’s been reported so far and applied them to the team’s caps. Here’s the outlook for the next three years, assuming the cap rises $10 million a year:

» Rodgers’ cost on this year’s cap is essentially unchanged. The Packers have almost $11 million in cap space, which is about where they were before the new deal. Fitting Mack under that would not be an issue.

» They’re about $29 million under next year’s cap. If they have to watch costs, the headliners among their free agents are a 33-year-old Matthews, Randall Cobb, Muhammad Wilkerson and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. There’s not a must-sign player in the group.

» They’re about $58 million under the 2020 cap. Kenny Clark will be going into his fifth-year option, so they’ll want to extend him. Mike Daniels will be their best free agent and a player they’ll probably want to keep, too. Their other free agents will include Geronimo Allison, a 36-year-old Mason Crosby and Bryan Bulaga.

It’s not until 2021 that things get expensive, mainly because of David Bakhtiari and Kevin King. Other free agents will include Corey Linsley, Lane Taylor, Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Montravius Adams.

But who knows what the landscape will be by then? Three more draft classes will be on board, and at least half the current roster gone.

The question isn’t so much whether the Packers can afford Rodgers and Mack. The team has $420 million in cash and its reserve fund. In October the big TV checks for 2018 start rolling in. The Packers have their financial limits, for sure, with no multi-billionaire owner to tap. But in the last two years combined, they’ve made $112 million in profit.

Their resources are meant to be plowed back into football. They have the money to make big personnel moves.

A few weeks ago, a Mack trade looked like a long shot. But in the last few days, reports have gone from the Raiders “haven’t slammed the door” on the possibility (Pro Football Talk), to they’re open to trading him for “superstar-level” compensation (Yahoo Sports), to they’ll trade him for two first-round draft picks (

The Raiders really might be willing to move him after all. And guess who has two first-round picks next year?

Are the Packers’ two first-rounders enough to get Jon Gruden to bite? That’s not a given; both picks probably will be in the mid-20s or later. But maybe.

Rodgers’ deal is done. The season is about to start. The only big question left might be, does Gutekunst think Mack is worth the high cost?

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