Every season, the NFL trade deadline gets enormous buzz about what could happen or what should happen, only to unfold into a story about what didn’t happen. After all the talk and speculation, it becomes less a practice in aggressive management and more about conservatively bypassing options.
The Green Bay Packers are going to be an example this week. Even after the additions of Jaylon Smith and Whitney Mercilus, there is a larger opportunity on the table before the Nov. 2 trade deadline. It leans into Aaron Rodgers in a way that is undeniable, speaking louder than a contract extension. Not a deadline acquisition, but a reaffirmation by subtraction.
That move would be trading Jordan Love.
If Rodgers and the Packers can go out and beat the undefeated Arizona Cardinals on the road Thursday — in prime time and potentially without star wideout Davante Adams, no less — it should dispel any doubts that Green Bay might have about Rodgers’ viability beyond 2021. Not with the franchise already sitting at 6-1 and Rodgers again playing near the highest level of his career. Not with a quarterback who is carrying himself like he’s buying into the program, and invested in his teammates and coaches. And not with Rodgers having cracked the door open for a return next season, with his read-between-the-lines remark about thinking that this season’s game in Soldier Field won’t be his last.
If he beats Arizona on Thursday — effectively elevating the Packers to arguably top-team status in the NFC — there will be no better opportunity for management to seize the moment and make a more permanent commitment to him. And to show the strength of that commitment is to trade Love without knowing if Rodgers is guaranteed to be aboard beyond 2021. That’s a type of decision-making vulnerability that is well outside the style of this Packers front office. It would effectively be an all-in bet on Rodgers for years to come, likely to the point of him finishing his career in Green Bay. It’s the type of gesture that should resonate deeply with a player who wants to feel valued by the front office.
It’s also a pretty good business decision, given that Green Bay is facing a rebuilding cliff in 2022 without Rodgers — but a salvageable salary cap next season if he stays under a new contract extension. As it stands, the Packers are looking at a $30 million cap deficit next season. That’s going to require some work to get the team under the cap and give it enough of a surplus to sign a draft class. If Rodgers is traded, it’s likely Randall Cobb would be released, saving the Packers $26 million off the top. The team would still have to make deep cuts at other positions or get aggressive with some extensions, especially if it wants to keep Adams, who is slated to hit free agency.
But if the Packers convince Rodgers to return and sign a contract extension, they could convince him and perhaps Adams to sign off on creative bonus structures that spread out their salary cap hits over a significant number of years. That would put Green Bay in position of being able to keep at least a large part of the current roster together, rather than engaging in a rebuild that removes the quarterback and top wide receiver.
From a cap standpoint, it makes sense. But it only works if you want to keep Rodgers and if you can convince him to do an extension that helps keep the talent around him largely intact. One way to convince him of that would be to get in front of the long-term commitment to him as soon as possible. That is precisely what a Jordan Love trade would do.
Of course, that brings us back to the things teams should do and the things they will do. Green Bay could have dealt Love in the offseason and reaffirmed its long-term commitment to Rodgers. It did the opposite, keeping Love and apparently cutting some kind of side deal that puts Rodgers’ fate in his own hands. If he wants out, the Packers will work with him. If he wants to stay, well, there’s no telling that the Packers would honor that, especially if they fall short of a Super Bowl this season and start calculating if Love can (or will) step up into the starting job.
The Packers have to decide what they want and what they need to see. Do they want Rodgers long term? If the answer is yes, then what do they need to see to make the commitment? Will a short-handed win over an undefeated Arizona team plant the exclamation point that Rodgers has been trying to deliver — stating once and for all that he has plenty left in the tank and plenty to offer the team inside and outside of the lines? Or are the Packers still sticking to the plan no matter how this season plays out, hellbent on seeing if Love can become what the front office hopes?
One guy is offering tangible results. The other represents unfulfilled hope. Both will likely be on the roster after the Nov. 2 trade deadline. And that in itself will be a message to Aaron Rodgers about ironclad commitment. Or more to the point, the continued lack of it beyond this season.