Last week, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the Green Bay Packers were progressing toward a contract agreement that will make quarterback Aaron Rodgers the highest-paid player in NFL history. Based on current context, the deal would average more than $20.1 million per year.
There are several ways to view this process and that number.
OH MY GOD THAT'S AN INSANE AMOUNT OF MONEY FOR PLAYING A GAME isn't one of them. I think most of you understand that professional sports exist in a financial fantasy land.
Some of you, however, are voicing a more subtle objection that's worth exploring: C'MON! WHY CAN'T RODGERS TAKE A HOMETOWN DISCOUNT AND HELP THE PACKERS BUILD A GOOD TEAM AROUND HIM? Eric of Madison put it this way in a note to the mailbag:
Regarding the talk on the Rodgers extension, don't you think that there's significant drawback to paying one player $25 mil a year? Maybe as a Packer fan I'm romanticizing him, but Rodgers seems like the kind of guy who would be open to something under market value -- say $18 million a year, although I don't know how anyone can live on that -- to give the team more financial flexibility to keep more talent around him. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Assuming recent reports are accurate, Rodgers hasn't made that offer and -- importantly -- the Packers haven't asked him to. At the very least, a "hometown discount" would put Rodgers below the $20.1 million threshold set last month by Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. By definition, a record-setting deal can't be viewed as much of a discount.
But should Rodgers have stepped up and made that offer? After all, he has on several occasions lobbied publicly for the Packers to re-sign some of their free agents, from receiver James Jones to running back John Kuhn. NFL teams are operating under a relatively flat salary cap, and the chart shows how large the annual cap numbers have been in the most recent contract agreements for elite quarterbacks. It might be difficult for Rodgers to argue for future veterans if his cap number limits the Packers' flexibility.
To me, however, the answer is simple. The only value in taking a hometown discount is public relations. There is no reason to believe it would impact the Packers' future team-building.
Rodgers has acknowledged his role as the "face of the franchise" and the Packers undoubtedly love having one of the NFL's top quarterbacks on their roster. I know many of you think of him as the type of player who doesn't care about the difference between $15 million and $22 million. That might well be the case. But Rodgers would be naive to assume that the Packers or any NFL team would capitalize on the discount -- at least not in the desired fashion. There are no quid pro quos in the NFL, and if you don't believe me, look at what has transpired this offseason between the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady.
As NFC West blogger Mike Sando and I discussed on the Inside Slant podcast, Brady signed a contract extension that added $3 million in guarantees to his current deal but locked him in to below-market salaries for the 2015, '16 and '17 seasons. Although Brady never directly acknowledged it, the widely held assumption was that he had granted the Patriots extra financial flexibility to maintain an elite team. Weeks later, of course, the Patriots stood firm on an offer to free agent receiver Wes Welker -- one of Brady's favorite teammates -- and watched as he signed with the Denver Broncos.
And in case there was any confusion about the Patriots' operation after Brady's deal, owner Bob Kraft had this to say at the recent NFL owners meeting: "I don't answer to Tom Brady." Kraft went on to deny any hard feelings that might have arisen from Welker's departure and added:
"[Brady] never put a demand or expected anything when he did what he did. He never put quid pro quos, and to be honest, we wouldn't have accepted them had he done that. He did what he thought … and what he did was tremendous. It's given our team a real competitive advantage to be in a position to win. And now it's how well our personnel people make the decisions."
In other words, the Patriots continued doing business as usual after Brady's agreement. And there is every reason to think the Packers would do the same if Rodgers took a discount. Do you really think general manager Ted Thompson would, say, start signing free-agent running backs if Rodgers' average cap number is $17 million (almost twice what it is now) rather than $22 million?
In the end, the best thing Rodgers can do is cooperate on the timing and structure of the deal. As you look at the chart, you see that the Ravens pushed a disproportionate amount of Flacco's cap hit into 2016 and beyond. That means the sides almost certainly will have to renegotiate in three years or face a truly paralyzing cap problem. The same could be true for the New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees, whose cap figure jumps to $26.4 million in 2015.
The best model is what the Denver Broncos did with Peyton Manning, whose cap figure averages just under $20 million. Manning's cap numbers over the five-year deal range between $18 million and $20 million, a smart pay-as-you-go approach.
Rodgers surely wants the Packers to be competitive. But by now, he must know how the Packers operate. They will use their cap space to re-sign key players and fall back on their draft-and-develop approach to fill in around them. Nothing about the value of Rodgers' next contract will change that.