Agent’s Take: How Aaron Rodgers’ future decision affects the Packers’ bottom line

All options are on the table for quarterback Aaron Rodgers after the Packers’ season came to an end with a 20-16 loss to the Lions in Sunday night’s regular-season finale. The 39-year-old said during a postgame conference that he was undecided about returning to Green Bay but wouldn’t have any regrets if he retired. Rodgers indicated that he would not hold the Packers hostage by dragging out his decision. He also acknowledged the possibility of Green Bay wanting to give 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love a chance to start, meaning he would have to play elsewhere to continue his football career.

Rodgers became the NFL’s first $50 million-per-year player last March once he decided he wanted to remain with the Packers rather than try to force a trade. The contract is widely considered to be $150,815 million over three years, although there are two additional below market years (2025 and 2026) in the deal. Rodgers established new standards for guaranteed money in football contracts with $150.665 million in total guarantees and $101.515 million fully guaranteed at signing until Deshaun Watson’s fully guaranteed, five-year, $230 million contract with the Browns shattered those marks a couple of weeks later.

Rodgers is scheduled to make $59,515 million in 2023 — $59,465 million of the $59,515 million is fully guaranteed.

The Packers used one of the NFL’s more complex contract structures with Rodgers. Initially, Rodgers’ 2023 base salary is a fully guaranteed $59,465 million. A $58.3 million payment is required to exercise an option for Rodgers’ 2025 contract year worth $20.9 million to drop his 2023 base salary to a fully guaranteed $1.165 million. The window to exercise this option is the first day of the 2023 league year (March 15) until a day before Green Bay’s first 2023 regular-season game in September.

From a salary cap standpoint, the presumption is option years will be picked up. Option bonuses are prorated over the life of a contract (up to a maximum of five years), including the option years, beginning in the league year when the option is exercised. This means the $58.3 million option bonus is prorated on the salary cap at $14.575 million annually from 2023 through 2026.

Rodgers is counting on Green Bay’s 2023 salary cap at $31,623,570. His cap number consists of $8.16 million in proration from his fully guaranteed $40.8 million 2022 roster bonus, $14.575 million in option bonus proration, the reduced $1.165 million base salary, a $50,000 workout bonus and $7,673,570 of preexisting bonus proration from previous Packers contracts.

Retirement

Rodgers would be forfeiting his rights to the fully guaranteed $59.465 million by retiring. He insisted that his decision would not be influenced by the money because of the generation of wealth he has accumulated from playing football. Rodgers has made over $300 million from his NFL player contracts.

The Packers would have $40,313,570 of dead money, a salary cap charge for a player no longer on the roster, with Rodgers retiring. The dead money would consist of $32,640 million in roster bonus proration and the $7,673,570 of 2023 bonus proration that already existed before Rodgers’ new deal.

The $40.8 million was specifically designed by Rodgers’ camp to be a roster bonus. Unlike the signing bonus, the Packers do not have rights of recoupment for any type of contract breach, including retirement, after the 2022 league year with the roster bonus.

Green Bay is not in the best position to absorb an additional $8.69 million of 2023 cap charges related to Rodgers. There are $229,946 million in 2023 cap commitments with 48 players under contract, according to NFLPA data. Under offseason accounting rules, only the top 51 salaries (ie; cap numbers) matter. There is $1.66 million of existing cap space that can be carried over to 2023. Assuming the 2023 salary cap is set in the $225 million neighborhood, the Packers would have approximately a $6 million surplus before restructuring contracts and/or releasing players.

The most likely retirement scenario would be Rodgers modifying his contract so the Packers could get more favorable cap treatment. Rodgers and Packers would need to sign a new contract deleting the option bonus where only his league minimum $1.165 million base salary remained as 2023 compensation. This move would free up $14,625 million of 2023 cap space by reducing his 2023 cap number from $31,623,570 to $16,998,570.

The Packers would carry Rodgers with his new $16,998,570 2023 cap number until June 2 when his retirement would be processed and his $1.165 million base salary would come off the books. By waiting until June 2, the $24.48 million in roster bonus proration from Rodgers’ 2024 through 2026 contract years wouldn’t hit Green Bay’s salary cap until 2024. The Packers would be able to split the $40,313,570 of dead money into $15,833,570 in 2023 and $24.48 million in 2024.

Trade

Green Bay would have the same $40,313,570 of dead money by trading Rodgers as with him retiring. Rodgers doesn’t have a no-trade clause in his contract. It’s highly unlikely that the Packers would attempt to trade Rodgers to a team that he didn’t want to play for because retirement is a viable option for him.

The Raiders might be attractive to Rodgers. He would be reunited with All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams, who was dealt to the Raiders last March after the Packers designated him as a franchise player.

Whether the Packers would be able to spread this dead money over two years would depend on the timing of the trade. The extended window to exercise the option gives the Packers a longer timeframe to execute a trade. Typically in NFL contracts, the period to exercise an option when there is a required payment is within the first five days of a league year.

The extra time might not matter salary cap wise because most trades for a veteran starting quarterback take place before the NFL Draft, which is April 27 through April 29. The acquiring team usually wants the quarterback to have as long as possible during the offseason to get comfortable with his new offense. Under this scenario, all of the dead money would be a 2023 cap charge because the trade would be occurring before June 2. Only by delaying a trade until June 2 at the earliest would the Packers get to split the dead money over 2023 and 2024 like with retirement.

In both trade circumstances, the Packers would not exercise the option. Picking up the option before making a trade would add $59,465 million to the dead money to bring the total to $99,778,570.

The acquiring team would be assuming the remainder of Rodgers’ contract, including the right to exercise the option. Technically, Rodgers would be under through 2026 but realistically for two years worth $108.815 million unless the two below-market salaries in 2025 and 2026 were adjusted.

The new team would have a $15.79 million 2023 cap hit for Rodgers consisting of the $14.575 million option bonus, his $1.165 million base salary and $50,000 workout bonus. Rodgers’ 2024, 2025 and 2026 cap numbers would be $32,541,666, $51,141,166 and $45,291,668.

The option would certainly be exercised because Rodgers’ 2023 cap charge becomes a $59.515 million cap hit if it isn’t. Such an exorbitant cap number for Rodgers isn’t practical or even possible for most NFL teams.

Remaining with Packers

Rodgers’ contract is structured in a manner where the cap ramifications get worse for Green Bay if he doesn’t retire this offseason. Although $31,623,570 is a manageable 2023 cap number for Rodgers to stay with the Packers, the dead money takes a big jump if Rodgers hangs up his cleats after the 2023 season.

Green Bay would have to contend with $68.205 million of dead money in 2024. It would be composed of $24.48 million of roster bonus proration and $43.725 million of option bonus proration from Rodgers’ 2024 through 2026 contract years. As with the roster bonus, Green Bay won’t have any recoupment rights with an option bonus last year when exercised.

There’s a second option in the contract that will compound the dead money problem if Rodgers plays in Green Bay beyond 2023. Rodgers has a $49.25 million 2024 base salary that was guaranteed for injury at signing. This $49.25 million becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the 2024 waiver period (five days after Super Bowl LVIII) on Feb. 16. A $47 million payment is required to exercise an option for Rodgers’ 2026 contract year worth $15.05 million to drop his 2024 base salary to a fully guaranteed $2.25 million. The window to exercise this option is the first day of the 2024 league year until a day before Green Bay’s first 2024 regular-season game.

The $47 million is currently being prorated on the cap at $15,666,666, $15,666,666 and $15,666,668 for 2024, 2025 and 2026 because of the assumption that options will be exercised. Rodgers’ 2024, 2025 and 2026 cap numbers are listed as $40,701,666, $59,301,666 and $53,451,668.

The Packers would be dealing with $76,803,334 of dead money if Rodgers retires in 2025. The components would be $16.32 million of roster bonus proration, $29.15 million of first option bonus proration and $31,333,334 of second option bonus proration. Green Bay would likely delay formalizing Rodgers’ retirement until after June 1, so the dead money would be taken over two years with $38,401,666 in 2024 and $38,401,668 in 2025.

Final thoughts

I suspect the fully guaranteed $59.465 million will ultimately provide enough incentive for Rodgers to remain with the Packers for the 2023 season. Most athletes aren’t going to walk away from such a substantial sum of money regardless of wealth. Given how the last couple of years have played out once Green Bay’s season is over, it would be a major surprise if the same dance about Rodgers’ future doesn’t repeat itself in January 2024.

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