Super Bowl 57 may still be a few weeks away. But for 28 of the NFL’s 32 teams, the offseason is already well underway. And for more than a handful of them, that likely means what’s become the predominant storyline throughout the league in recent springs: Targeting somebody else’s starting quarterback.
This year, that could well mean acquiring the only active four-time NFL MVP. No, not Tom Brady … actually, Aaron Rodgers.
And, yes, the possibility seems to be growing that he could be on the move – much of it fueled by the longtime Green Bay Packers superstar himself.
“People want to say, ‘Oh, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.’ I always say the grass is green where you water it,” Rodgers said Tuesday on “The Pat McAfee Show.”
“Change is a part of this business. It’s a part of life. 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.”
Follow every game: Latest NFL Scores and Schedules
Coming off arguably the worst of his 15 seasons as the Pack’s QB1, Rodgers previously told McAfee that he thought 2022 was an aberration.
JARRETT BELL:With Super Bowl mission derailed again, there are hard lessons for Buffalo Bills
NATE DAVIS:How to fix the Dallas Cowboys? Seven things they must address going into 2023 NFL season
DAN WOLKEN:Greedy NFL should leave AFC and NFC championship games alone
“Can I play at a high level? Yeah. The highest,” he said. “I think I can win MVP again in the right situation. Right situation, is that Green Bay, or is that somewhere else? I’m not sure, but I don’t think you should shut down any opportunity.”
Moving on from Rodgers would require the Packers to make a trade given an outright release would incur an untenable $100 million salary cap charge in 2023. A deal would reduce that figure to a more palatable $40 million – particularly since Green Bay would consequently been entering rebuild mode anyway – given whomever Rodgers plays for in 2023, be it the Packers or another team, would owe him $59.5 million.
The majority of that, $58.3 million, can be paid out as a bonus at any point prior to the start of the 2023 regular season. While that basically makes a move for Rodgers, 39, feasible, he’s already shared a willingness to negotiate that number since very few teams are financially positioned to add nearly $60 million to the payroll this year.
“I don’t think there’d be a scenario where I would come back and that would be the number,” Rodgers said. “Definitely things would have to shift.”
But that comment alone seems to be another clue to Rodgers’ apparent willingness to shift his NFL address – assuming he continues playing at all. But he’s already stated he doesn’t want to be part of a rebuild and would also understand if Green Bay opts to move forward with QB Jordan Love, the team’s first-round pick in 2020.
“To be open to the possibility if I want to keep playing, that it might be somewhere else, I understand that,” Rodgers said. “I understand they might want to move on and go younger at a number of different positions. That’s a part of it.”
So where might Rodgers have a leading part if his career resumes somewhere other than Wisconsin? Here are what seem to be nine fairly realistic trade destinations ranked from least likely to most:
9. San Francisco 49ers
Silly, right? An already loaded team is on the cusp of reaching the Super Bowl, thanks in large part to rookie QB Brock Purdy and that seventh-round contract he has through the 2025 season. And, of course, injured Trey Lance, whom the Niners invested so heavily to obtain with the third overall pick of the 2021 draft was supposed to be the face of the franchise for the next decade. It’s also important to note San Francisco has no first-round pick to offer Green Bay as it was already offloaded in the deal two years ago that allowed the 49ers to select Lance. They do currently have roughly $17 million available, per OverTheCap, but a long-term extension for probable 2022 Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa is also a leading business priority for 2023.
Still, there’s always been some romanticism here, real or perceived, linked to Northern California native Rodgers, who grew up rooting for the 49ers … even though they infamously bypassed him to draft Alex Smith atop the 2005 draft. And surely whatever happens over the next Sunday – or three – will be informative given this organization didn’t take long to begin searching for Jimmy Garoppolo’s successor even though he was one good pass from likely securing victory in Super Bowl 54.
(Also, if the Niners decide they need to pivot, they could always sign that kid from up the street – Brady – without losing draft compensation.)
8. Baltimore Ravens
Silly, right? Only if their avowed plans to re-sign QB Lamar Jackson somehow go sideways – perish the thought. But if a break-up with Jackson comes to pass, how does Baltimore reload? Well, the Ravens have $27 million to spend, a good offensive line, an All-Pro-caliber tight end in Mark Andrews, good running backs and an intriguing wideout in Rashod Bateman. They also have a vacant offensive coordinator position that could be filled with someone to Rodgers’ liking. Probably farfetched, but this is a place where Rodgers’ goals and the team’s would theoretically be aligned … assuming a playoff outfit suddenly has a gaping hole under center.
FIVE CHAMPIONSHIP SUNDAY STORYLINES:As 49ers, Bengals, Chiefs and Eagles eye Super Bowl 57
‘LAMAR JACKSON IS OUR QUARTERBACK’:Ravens confident they can get deal done, but QB’s return no sure thing
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
Silly, right? They just spent a first-round pick on QB Kenny Pickett, and he made some game-winning throws late in the season. But, overall, his rookie year was decidedly average. And by the time Pickett develops into a frontline passer, assuming he does, a good chunk of an otherwise solid roster may have aged out. Even if Pickett reaches a Pro Bowl level, very good chance the Steelers would still be the weakest team in the AFC North from a quarterback perspective.
Rodgers’ shelf life probably orients better with a defense led by veterans T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick, and his presence would only optimize offensive playmakers like RB Najee Harris, WRs Diontae Johnson and George Pickens and TE Pat Freiermuth. The O-line needs work, but the Steelers should be able to do that even if they had to surrender the 17th pick of the draft. (But they would have to restructure some contracts – the aforementioned trio of defenders being obvious candidates – to fit Rodgers into the cap.)
And don’t forget that moment in a 2021 game when Rodgers and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin shared a bit of a bromance moment when Tomlin called timeout before Rodgers could run a free play while Pittsburgh had 12 men on the field.
“I’m a big Mike Tomlin fan, I have been for a long time. I like the way that he speaks about his team and the way he goes about his business,” Rodgers told McAfee after that game. “I like his confidence. I’ve heard nothing but good things from guys that have played there. I like Tomlin.”
6. Atlanta Falcons
From a fiscal point of view, they have more cap room – roughly $57 million – than any team aside from the Chicago Bears … and Rodgers isn’t getting dealt within the division to the franchise he already “owns.” The Falcons’ trade offer could also begin with a top-10 choice, No. 8 overall specifically, this year.
Atlanta additionally offers a bright offensive mind in head coach Arthur Smith and a nice array of young weapons – RB Tyler Allgeier, WR Drake London and TE Kyle Pitts. And given the state of the NFC South, especially if Brady bolts? Easily winnable, though this could concurrently be considered the kind of rebuild Rodgers isn’t interested in given that, even if Atlanta might be playoff caliber in 2023, it’s a stretch to think that the Falcons will suddenly be Super Bowl contenders.
5. New England Patriots
They haven’t won a playoff game – appearing in just one – since Brady left in 2020. Their current group of offensive playmakers isn’t nearly as good as Green Bay’s, and there’s certainly no budding star on a par with Packers WR Christian Watson. And New England just hired sometimes prickly Bill O’Brien as its offensive coordinator, ostensibly to work with QB Mac Jones.
So what does New England offer? The 14th pick of the draft, ample cap space (about $33 million) to accommodate Rodgers and maybe some upgraded weaponry and a championship pedigree that would seemingly appeal to a player hunting a long-sought second Lombardi Trophy – one that would enable Bill Belichick to get level with Brady again. BB might even issue Rodgers Brady’s No. 12 jersey.
4. Seattle Seahawks
You might’ve heard, but they could have an opening given QB Geno Smith is unsigned. They’ve also got a pair of great receivers in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett and are coming off an unexpected playoff season – catalyzed in great part by a miraculous 2022 draft that netted starting OTs Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas, RB Kenneth Walker and CBs Coby Bryant and Tariq Woolen.
And if an ascending roster isn’t enough to entice Rodgers? Well then, Seattle offers one of the few opportunities for him to play on the West Coast, the team has more than $30 million in cap space and also owns three of the upcoming draft’s top 38 selections. Pretty good calculus on all sides to get a deal done … assuming, of course, the Seahawks don’t bring Smith back.
3. New York Giants
Another team fresh off a surprise playoff run, the G-Men head into a compelling offseason – one in which GM Joe Schoen and HC Brian Daboll must decide what to do about QB Daniel Jones and RB Saquon Barkley, both pending free agents. The Giants currently project to have the league’s third-most cap space (after Chicago and Atlanta) and could allot much of that $45 million to, say, Rodgers and Barkley? But that may not leave much to address a receiving corps where Isaiah Hodgins (351 yards) is the top performer on the roster under contract in 2023 – especially if the Giants have to surrender the 26th pick of the draft or more. WRs Sterling Shepard and Wan’Dale Robinson are options, but both are recovering from torn ACLs.
Playing in the New York media market would surely be a temptation for Rodgers, and so, too, might be working with a respected offensive coach like Daboll. And, at this point, it seems like the NFC’s pathway to the Super Bowl is still more forgiving than the AFC road.
2. Las Vegas Raiders
They’re obviously in the market for a new quarterback, Derek Carr already sending his goodbyes to Raider Nation after being benched late in the season. He’ll likely be released before Feb. 15, otherwise, Las Vegas would owe him more than $40 million in contractual guarantees. However, if the Raiders manage to trade Carr first, not only would they save the money, they’d also pick up a bit of ammo that could conceivably be repackaged as part of a deal for Rodgers – perhaps along with the seventh and/or 39th picks of the 2023 draft.
LEAVING LAS VEGAS:Seven logical landing spots for Raiders QB Derek Carr
Brady has also been widely connected to Sin City given his longtime relationship with coach Josh McDaniels – and, again, signing him would only cost money, not draft capital. But what’s more valuable, a quarterback who will be 46 next season but knows the playbook? Or one who will be 40 and knows All-Pro and former Pack WR Davante Adams? (And placating Adams, who joined the Raiders to play with his good friend, Carr, could be a significant consideration for Vegas.)
From Rodgers’ standpoint? A reunion with Adams, plus the opportunity to throw to TE Darren Waller, slot WR Hunter Renfrow and All-Pro RB Josh Jacobs (if the Raiders can keep him) sounds pretty good. So, too, might living in Nevada, which has no state income tax and is a short flight from his Malibu home. And surely he’d embrace the challenge of playing in a division alongside fellow quarterbacking stars Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Russell Wilson (assuming he’s still a star).
1. New York Jets
Similar to the Giants, the NYJ offer the lure of playing in the New York market – presumably quite an attraction for Rodgers given his ample off-field interests, including media opportunities.
Unlike the Giants, the Jets have a championship-caliber defense and burgeoning offensive stars like WR Garrett Wilson and RB Breece Hall. They also have an opening at offensive coordinator … and recently interviewed Nathaniel Hackett, a favorite of Rodgers’ from their time together in Green Bay, when Rodgers won his most recent MVP awards in 2020 and 2021. Heck, Hall of Famer Joe Namath has even given his blessing for Rodgers to wear his retired No. 12 jersey should he choose to don “Gotham Green” and “Spotlight White.”
The Jets would have to free up money for Rodgers – and will need more to extend All-Pro DT Quinnen Williams. But considering owner Woody Johnson’s willingness to pony up for a long-awaited championship – and fact that QB Zach Wilson is the main impediment to that objective right now – this could be the best win-win scenario for Rodgers and a prospective future employer.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.