Olivia Reiner and Tom Silverstein take a look at a play from the Rams' NFC championship game and discuss how the Packers will run a similar offense. Olivia Reiner, PackersNews
For much of Aaron Rodgers career, the Green Bay Packers have looked at his backup as an afterthought.
But they can no longer neglect the position, not with Rodgers at age 35 and coming off a two-year stretch in which he has sustained three significant injuries (broken collarbone, sprained knee and concussion).
One of the many important matters general manager Brian Gutekunst and new coach Matt LaFleur have to work out as we approach the start of the free-agency and draft season is what they’re going to do to back up Rodgers.
Should they break form and sign a retread veteran, maybe even one on the expensive side? Draft one with a valuable pick in the early rounds? Or go as is and on the cheap with DeShone Kizer, Tim Boyle and an undrafted rookie or late-round pick to compete with them?
It’s no small issue, because the Packers need a backup who at least gives them a chance to win if Rodgers has to miss a couple of weeks or more because of an injury. It could be the difference between making the playoffs or not.
Let’s start with this: Kizer is not the answer.
The Packers acquired Kizer from Cleveland last year in a deal between two teams looking to unload former high draft picks (the Packers sent Damarious Randall to the Browns). To be sure, Kizer looks like an NFL quarterback and sounds like an NFL quarterback. He just doesn’t play like one.
He has a good arm and can run, but like most who don’t make it in this league, his reactions as a passer just aren’t quick enough. Nothing he did with Cleveland as a rookie or with the Packers last year suggests he’s even a No. 2 in the NFL. Brett Hundley was a little better than Kizer, and he wasn’t good enough.
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Boyle is the better prospect, which is startling based on his undistinguished college career. He threw 12 touchdown passes and 26 interceptions at Connecticut and Eastern Kentucky combined, including 11 and 13 as a redshirt senior at the latter. Who makes it in this league with numbers like that?
Yet, there’s a good argument he was the best, or at least most promising, backup quarterback in Packers camp last year. He’s big (6-3½, 232), athletic (reported 4.75-second 40 and 35½-inch vertical) and has a good NFL throwing arm. He stands tall in the pocket and gets the ball out. He at least looks like a real passer.
Late in the season I was talking with a player on the Packers’ defense and said that from what I saw in camp, Boyle was better than Kizer. Had it looked that way in practice during the season? The player nodded and gave a thumbs up.
Does that mean Boyle will be a legit No. 2 in this league? No. But it suggests he at least has a chance.
Still, the Packers can’t count on it from a player this young and green. They have to be on the lookout for a No. 2.
Only, the list of likely veterans available isn’t pretty. Also, no player is signed in a vacuum, so the Packers’ spending at other positions could determine how much they can put into Rodgers’ backup.
The most interesting veteran in free agency is Tyrod Taylor, who has a 23-21-1 record in the NFL and started Cleveland’s first three games last year before giving way to Baker Mayfield. Taylor made $16 million last season, but that deal assumed he’d be Mayfield’s placeholder most if not all season.
Rodgers will count $26.5 million on the Packers’ 2019 salary cap, and they can only devote so much cap space to the quarterback position. It’s hard to know what Taylor will go for, and there's a chance another team will want him as a bridge starter. But if Gutekunst could get him for $5 million or so, that would be an attractive insurance policy against another Rodgers injury. (For comparison, Nick Foles had the highest cap hit for a true backup last year at $14 million).
After Taylor, though, the list is thin. Josh McCown is 40 and went 0-3 as a starter with the Jets last year. Matt Schaub is 38 and hasn’t started a game since 2015. Ryan Fitzpatrick (36) has had some eye-catching games so maybe he’d be worth the $3.3 million he made last year, but then again he was 2-5 as a starter with Tampa Bay last season.
If the Raiders cut A.J. McCarron (2-1 career record as a starter with Cincinnati), he might be worth a shot. If Jacksonville cuts Blake Bortles? I don’t know. Doubt it.
Then there’s the draft. And here, if I’m Gutekunst, quarterback is on the table beginning with his second first-round pick, No. 30 overall. I doubt there will be one worth taking there, but if undersized Kyler Murray is on the board and Gutekunst thinks he’s a player, I don’t know how he could pass him up.
The second and third rounds should be in play, too.
Yeah, that’s a little tough to swallow for a team that has only four picks in the first three rounds and would rather spend them on guys who can help them win when Rodgers is on the field. Clearly, the Packers can use help pretty much everywhere else on their roster.
But the same was true when Ted Thompson drafted Rodgers in the first round in 2005, and that turned out well. Two years after that, with Brett Favre still at quarterback, the Packers hosted the NFC Championship game. Favre, by the way, was the same age (35) when the Packers drafted Rodgers as Rodgers is now.
Of course, drafting a quarterback high guarantees nothing. Bill Belichick has picked a backup for Tom Brady in the top three rounds three times since 2011, with very mixed results. He swung and missed on one (Ryan Mallett, third round ’11), hit big on another (Jimmy Garoppolo, second round ’14) and did OK on the third (Jacoby Brissett, third round ’16).
But if the Packers hit with the pick, even if Rodgers plays into his 40s they at least can recoup value. Belichick flipped Garoppolo for a second-rounder, and traded Brissett for a backup receiver (Phillip Dorsett).
There are potential risks and rewards no matter which way Gutekunst goes. But it’s time to put some real capital into backing up Rodgers.