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Aaron Rodgers is still with the Packers after his darkness retreat. Here is where things stand

Aaron Rodgers is still with the Packers after his darkness retreat. Here is where things stand

GREEN BAY — Now that Aaron Rodgers has emerged from his darkness retreat, spent in a Hobbit-style quasi-cave hovel in southern Oregon, the four-time NFL MVP quarterback can take the thoughts, feelings and insights he gleaned from his reflective getaway and begin the process of discerning what — if anything — he’d like to do with the football portion of his life.

Does he want to keep playing? If so, does he want to do so with the Green Bay Packers, the lone professional team he has known for his 18 seasons as a player? Or will he and the team come to the conclusion it’s best for everyone involved to go their separate ways, with Rodgers accepting a trade to another club and the Packers moving forward with 2020 first-round draft pick Jordan Love after his three-year apprenticeship on the bench?

When we last heard from Rodgers, during what was apparently a season-finale appearance on “The Pat McAfee Show” on YouTube, Rodgers told his favorite new-media outlet he planned to return to his Malibu, California, home after his time in isolation, then had travel plans for this weekend. He said his weekend getaway would take him up to March 1, which is Wednesday, and intimated that’s about when he could reach the first decision he must make: Whether to retire or keep playing.

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During one of his sessions with McAfee and ex-Packers teammate A.J. Hawk after the season ended, Rodgers emphasized he still is certain he can play at the same level that earned him four NFL MVPs (2011, 2014, 2020, 2021) — despite 2022 being the worst statistical season of his 15 years as the starter.

Completing 64.6% of his passes for 3,695 yards with 26 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and 32 sacks for a career-low passer rating of 91.1 in 17 games, Rodgers didn’t throw for 300 yards in a single game and had a passer rating above 100 in just three games.

During his back-to-back MVP seasons of 2020 and 2021, Rodgers completed 69.8% of his passes, threw 85 touchdowns versus nine INTs and had an overall rating of 116.7.

Amid out-of-the-blue reports that had the Packers “done” with him and frustrated with him and subsequent reports the team wants Rodgers back if he’s fully bought in, it’s anyone’s guess at this point what the 39-year-old future Pro Football Hall of Famer will ultimately decide.

If Aaron Rodgers returns to Packers in 2023, an all-in approach might hold the key

He’s done little to tip his hand to this point, though he has talked more openly about the idea of playing for someone other than the Packers more than ever before — especially for a guy who back in June claimed his new three-year, $150 million contract would guarantee he’d finish his career with Green Bay.

“Listen, I’ve never been a free agent, which is pretty wild. I’ve never gotten to the end of my contract. So, to even think about being in another uniform, never really crossed my mind,” Rodgers told McAfee and Hawk on Jan. 24. “Even when Jordan was drafted, I thought, ‘That might be a possibility, for sure, ‘I might not finish in Green Bay.’ Then I won two (NFL) MVPs and it obviously seemed a lot less likely.

“You never know. Anytime there’s a situation where change is possible, what’s the old adage that people want to say? ‘Oh, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.’ And I always say, ‘The grass is green where you water it.’ I think that’s the most important thing to remember.

“Change is a part of this business. It’s a part of life. And I think being open to it and embracing whatever that change looks like is an important part of coming to peace with whatever decision lies ahead of you.”

With that in mind, here’s a closer look at some of the variables that will factor into what ultimately happens with Rodgers, the Packers and any would-be trade partners.

The contract

Rodgers claimed after the 20-16 season-ending loss to the Detroit Lions on Jan. 8 at Lambeau Field the nearly $60 million he is guaranteed for 2023 is not a factor in whether he will play this year. Having already earned what he called “generational wealth,” Rodgers asserted his decision wouldn’t be predicated on money.

“For sure,” Rodgers said at the time, “I can definitely walk away from that.”

Unfortunately for the Packers, they cannot — at least, not without major salary-cap ramifications.

Rodgers is scheduled to make $59.515 million in 2023, and all but $50,000 of it is guaranteed. As part of the complicated contract, the Packers owe Rodgers a $58.3 million payment in the form of an option bonus, an option they must exercise sometime between the first day of the new league year on March 15 and the final day before the regular-season opener in September.

According to CBS contract analyst Joel Corry, a former NFL agent, the option is for a voidable 2025 contract year. Exercising it would lower Rodgers’ 2023 base salary to a fully guaranteed $1.165 million, thereby creating much-needed cap space for the Packers. The option bonus is then prorated over the remaining years of the contract, spreading out the cap charge.

One under-the-radar tidbit of news that came out of Rodgers’ weekly chats with McAfee was his acknowledgement that his cumbersome contract would have to be altered if he plays in 2023 — be it with the Packers or with someone else.

Just what alterations would he be willing to make? Hard to say, but it’s hard to imagine him taking a pay cut the way running back Aaron Jones shaved $5 million off his scheduled 2023 compensation to stay in Green Bay. But the fact Rodgers would be willing to adjust his deal to help his team’s cap situation is noteworthy.

“I think definitely things would have to shift,” Rodgers said of the contract at the time. “There would have to be some adjustments, for sure.”

The salary-cap situation

No matter what Rodgers does — calls it a career, returns to the Packers or engineers a trade elsewhere — the contract as it is currently constructed poses salary-cap challenges.

According to OverTheCap.com, following Jones’ restructuring of his contract, the Packers currently stand $9.67 million over the NFL’s 2023 salary cap of $224.8 million. After the season, general manager Brian Gutekunst said only half-kiddingly, “With the way we’re doing things lately, we’ll probably restructure everybody and try to keep making some room.”

In the seemingly unlikely event of Rodgers retiring, the Packers would presumably ask him — much as the New Orleans Saints did with Drew Brees upon his retirement — to alter his contract to make absorbing his cap charges more palatable. Rodgers’ retirement would leave the Packers with $40.3 million in dead cap money, and if Rodgers accommodated them by modifying his deal, they could spread that cost over the 2023 and 2024 caps, with $15.8 million counting against 2023 and $24.5 million against 2024.

How a trade would impact the Packers’ cap would depend on how amenable Rodgers would be to altering his deal on his way to his next team. As the contract is written now, the Packers cannot exercise the option and subsequently trade him; if they did, he’d count a mind-boggling $99.8 million against their cap. Otherwise, the salary-cap accounting rules relating to Rodgers’ potential retirement are the same as they’d be for a trade.

If Rodgers decides to stay and the Packers do indeed want him, he would count a reasonable $31.6 million against the cap — hardly exorbitant for a quarterback with his resumé. The problem is the Packers’ salary-cap black hole would only worsen for next year as a post-2023 retirement or trade would leave the Packers with $68.2 million of dead money in 2024.

The trade possibilities

From ex-Packers wide receiver Davante Adams’ attempts to recruit his old partner to the Las Vegas Raiders to the New York Jets’ hiring of Rodgers’ former consigliere in Green Bay, Nathaniel Hackett, as their offensive coordinator, the rumor mill was in high gear several weeks ago when it came to possible trade destinations. Sportsbooks across the nation were posting odds on Rodgers’ next team, with those odds seemingly shifting by the day.

It’s unclear what the Packers’ asking price would even be for Rodgers — a guess is they’d want at least a pair of first-round picks, even after Rodgers’ down statistical season in 2022 — but the king’s ransom the Denver Broncos gave the Seattle Seahawks for Russell Wilson (two first-rounders, two second-rounders, quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant and defensive tackle Shelby Harris) surely will have a chilling effect on Rodgers’ trade price tag after how badly the deal has turned out for the Broncos.

Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Davante Adams and quarterback Aaron Rodgers played eight seasons together in Green Bay.

Nevertheless, here’s a look at the three seemingly most likely trade partners:

• Las Vegas Raiders: After moving on from longtime starting quarterback Derek Carr, the Raiders have $48.4 million in cap space, the third-most in the NFL behind the Chicago Bears ($98.0 million) and Atlanta Falcons ($55.6 million). But there are all kinds of reasons to wonder if Rodgers is a good fit on the Vegas Strip, from coach Josh McDaniels (who seems unlikely to give Rodgers as much sway as Packers coach Matt LaFleur has afforded him), to a difficult division (with Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Wilson already residing in the AFC West), to a roster that doesn’t seem like it’s a quarterback change away from being championship-caliber (especially on defense).

All that said, the Packers and Raiders did collaborate on the Adams trade, and Gutekunst and Raiders GM Dave Ziegler also went back-and-forth on a potential trade-deadline deal that would have sent tight end Darren Waller to Green Bay. Gutekunst also would surely covet the Raiders’ No. 7 overall pick in the first round.

• New York Jets: The Hackett factor cannot be understated, given his close relationship with Rodgers. Although the Jets aren’t flush with cap space at the moment — they’re about $265,000 over the cap as of now — they can surely create ample space with some restructured deals quite easily. They also boast a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball and have some fascinating young talent at the offensive skill positions.

Here’s the SI crew on a potential trade of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets.

Rodgers has mentioned on multiple occasions the respect and admiration he has for Jets coach Robert Saleh, a former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator and one of LaFleur’s best friends in the world. And Jets owner Woody Johnson did very little to disguise his admiration for Rodgers or his frustration with his club’s quarterback troubles during a red-carpet interview at the pre-Super Bowl NFL Honors event earlier this month. 

One last consideration: Bringing in Rodgers for, say, a two-year stint would still allow the Jets to salvage their future with their own young quarterback, Zach Wilson. The No. 2 overall pick in 2021, Wilson was problematic both on the field (with inconsistent, inept play) and off it (by failing to take responsibility and rubbing teammates the wrong way) last season, but he might benefit from a two-year apprenticeship behind Rodgers, who seemed to take to Wilson during the joint Packers-Jets practices last summer.

• Carolina Panthers: Despite reports the Packers would like to send Rodgers to the AFC if they did end up trading him, the Panthers are a darkhorse good fit for him. Not only is another of his favorite people, ex-Packers offensive line coach James Campen, on the staff in Carolina, but new coach Frank Reich played the quarterback position and has assembled an impressive staff that includes ex-Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

The Panthers aren’t in great cap shape (over by $2.3 million) but that’s easily fixed. They hold the No. 9 overall pick in the first round and have a pair of second-rounders they can offer in a trade package. Owner David Tepper watched as an NFC South rival, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bent over backwards for the GOAT of quarterbacks, Tom Brady, leading to a Lombardi Trophy. Perhaps Tepper, especially after the Panthers played Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and P.J. Walker at the position last season, would like to give that approach a whirl.

The reality

Other than Rodgers, who — regardless of the eccentricities that have come to irritate some Packers fans — deserves the opportunity to figure out what’s best for him, everyone else with a horse in this race would like clarity sooner rather than later. Although no one knows for sure what will happen, including apparently Rodgers himself, the Packers haven’t said or done anything publicly that would indicate they don’t want a fully engaged Rodgers as their quarterback in 2023 if he decides to play.

Whether all parties can strike an accord on how to make that idea work for everybody remains to be seen. But for all the talk about Gutekunst’s supposed frustrations with Rodgers, it’d be wise to remember what Gutekunst himself said he learned early in his Packers personnel department career about the most important position in the game.

“As I’ve been taught from the time I walked into this building,” Gutekunst said during a bye-week Q&A session with reporters on Dec. 5, 2022. “‘Whatever comes with having great quarterbacks, it’s worth it.’”

If Gutekunst has needed to remind himself of that from time to time lately, no one would blame him. But frustrations don’t always lead to actions, and unless Gutekunst is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Love, with 157 career regular-season snaps, is ready to be the starter, moving on from Rodgers is much easier said in frustration than done in reality.