Could Aaron Rodgers' Next Contract Change the Way the NFL Does Business?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 5, 2018

Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers pauses as he speaks to the media after an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
Bob Leverone/Associated Press

Give Aaron Rodgers credit. He could be asking for all the money. All the Packers' money. All the NFL's money. All the advertisers' money. Your money. My money.

As the NFL's best quarterback, Rodgers could ask for just about everything short of the keys to the federal reserve and get it—or at least not get laughed at for thinking he deserved it. And he's not doing that. Instead, according to a report last week by the NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, all Rodgers is asking for is "player control" over his future.           

Garafolo's NFL Network colleague Ian Rapoport on Monday said his understanding is that Rodgers is looking for a series of player options.

Rodgers, asked about the reports, called it all "just conjecture" (at least he didn't stomp his feet and shout Fake News)—but if these are indeed his demands in his next contract, they sound reasonable enough. Who doesn't want a little more financial control over their future?

Rodgers has two years left on a deal that ranks 10th in the NFL in average money per year (all contract data courtesy OverTheCap.com). He is slated to earn a total of just over $42 million in salary and bonuses over the next two seasons. In the same span, Kirk Cousins will make $53 million; Jimmy Garoppolo, who has thrown fewer career touchdown passes (12) than Rodgers threw before getting hurt in mid-October last year (13), will make $57 million; and Derek Carr will make $47.5 million thanks to a contract extension that, in fairness, seemed like a pretty good idea at the time.

Rodgers should be looking to restore order to the salary spreadsheets. And all the better if he does so not by becoming the highest-paid quarterback—a fleeting honor that only lasts until the next good quarterback hits the market—but by being the first one with the flexibility to renegotiate on his own terms, not the team's terms.

It'd be downright revolutionary—represent an evolution of the NFL contract, one that turns quarterbacks, contractually, into a whole new species.

The seeds of all this have been germinating for years. Rodgers signed the seven-year extension he currently plays under in 2013, and at the time its $110 million value broke records. But quarterback salaries escalated so rapidly that seven-year contracts soon ceased to make sense for franchise-caliber quarterbacks.

Russell Wilson signed a five-year extension in 2015, and while it was considered team friendly at the time, it guaranteed that he would either return to the free-agent market to dip his beak again while still in his prime or (much more likely) that the Seahawks would be forced to pony up with an even more lucrative extension after just a few seasons. Incidentally, Wilson is slated to make about $49 million over the next two years—$7 million more than Rodgers—but will probably earn more because the Seahawks cannot risk letting him pursue free agency after the 2019 season.

The pay-as-you-go quarterback salary model reached its zenith when Cousins bounced contentedly from franchise tag to franchise tag in Washington. His salary leapt from around $20 million in 2016 to just under $24 million in 2017 to his current deal worth $28 million fully guaranteed per year for three years. Cousins began out-earning Rodgers simply by bobbing with the tide of quarterback salaries while Washington procrastinated and handed him franchise-tag-mandated guaranteed raises. It was like riding a stock-market boom while Rodgers stashed his money in savings bonds.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Of course, quarterbacks don't face the same risks players at other positions do. For someone like Le'Veon Bell, the franchise tag eats up a year (or two, or three) of negotiating leverage in a career that might only consist of five or six big-earning years, and it carries no guarantees against a blow to the knee ending a career. Quarterbacks of Cousins' caliber, let alone someone like Rodgers, are all nearly certain to command high salaries well into their 30s and remain in high demand after coming back from major injuries.

Running backs and defensive tackles need the security that comes with guarantees. Being a franchise quarterback is a guarantee. Top quarterbacks aren't really gambling when they gamble on themselves. Quite the opposite. They sell themselves short when they make the kind of deal folks like us might crave: a safe, secure long-term hitch with reasonable raises each year.

Which brings us back to Rodgers, who may want the ability to somehow opt out of his next contract.

While Garafolo clarified that Rodgers isn't seeking a contract that is tied to any other player's contract, Rodgers presumably would like several guaranteed seasons—but also the right to void those seasons after Carson Wentz and Jared Goff sign extensions that send the quarterback pay rate through the ionosphere, or when the NFL trades a higher percentage of league revenues for the players' right to free speech in the next CBA or something.

Folks like us cannot rewrite contracts for ourselves. We can refinance mortgages, but we cannot say, "Based on the current market, I decree that I will only pay $700 per month for my house." We can ask for raises or quit and look for new jobs, but none of us can announce to our bosses that we will be making more money next year.

So that little thing Rodgers may be looking for is actually kinda a big deal.

The Packers may be willing to make Rodgers the highest-paid player in the NFL. They may be willing to offer a short extension that sends everyone back to the bargaining table in two or three years. They may load up Rodgers' deal with workout bonuses, performance escalators, fins and spoilers. But there's no incentive for a team to allow a player to declare himself a free agent by fiat. It turns any contract the team signs into a de facto one-year contract.

Even adding performance thresholds for opting out of a contract isn't feasible. Offering $1 million for throwing 40 touchdowns makes sense; offering the chance to void a contract after 40 touchdowns is giving a player like Rodgers the right to print money on the open market while the team loses control of its greatest asset. And adding "guaranteed highest-paid player" language is a boondoggle; all it would take is a handful of players with similar language to destabilize the league's pay scale.

The real angle for Rodgers here in the early "leak a wish list to the public" stage in negotiations is preferential, exceptional treatment—a mix of money and power that no other player has ever possessed.

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

If Rodgers does pursue and receive an extension with any real "player control," it may be the final break that separates quarterback pay structure from the rest of the NFL. It's not hard to imagine some sort of "Larry Bird Exemption" built into the next collective bargaining agreement, allowing teams to re-sign their own quarterbacks without salary-cap ramifications, or some other arrangement that allows a handful of players to go behind a velvet rope and into a club where money is liquid and contract adjustments (read: raises) for the best of the best occur almost annually.

However it's structured, Rodgers may soon sign a new deal that's both colossal and unique. But if the last decade of quarterback contracts have taught us anything, it's that after just a few years, no deal looks all that unique or colossal.

         

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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