“Show me the money, show me the money” – Aaron Rodgers (probably)
5-years, $110 million. That was the contract extension Aaron Rodgers signed prior to the 2013 season. At the time it was the largest annual salary and the largest total value of any contract in NFL history. I recall a conversation I had in the lead up to that contract with a gentleman who told me he thought it would be a bad idea to pay a quarterback that much money (18% of the salary cap in 2013). How could one player on a 53-man team get nearly a sixth of the money?
My reaction to his stance? I laughed out loud. It was clear then that Aaron Rodgers was worth it, in fact he’s worth a whole lot more. Two things have changed since Rodgers signed that deal. The first, and perhaps the most important thing, we saw on two occasions what the team looks like without him. Now, I don’t need to tell you, but I will, it’s not good. He alone raises the Packers from a team with a snowflake’s chance in Hell at winning a championship to a Super Bowl favorite. He’s a cheat code, a one-man wrecking crew. The other thing that’s happened? Other players have gotten paid more, a lot more. Aaron Rodgers is now the eighth highest paid player in the NFL on a per-year basis. There’s not one player worthy of making more money than the Packers’ #12, let alone seven.
Now, Rodgers’ contract isn’t up for another two years. This fact leads to two thoughts, the first being good, he’s in Green Bay and he’s cheaper than a lot of better quarterbacks. The second? With every year that goes by, the price of Aaron’s next contract goes up. It goes up a LOT. While the team can try to negotiate a deal early, Rodgers and his agent know that the longer they wait the higher the price tag will go.
The reason this issue is on our minds now is that a few major contracts have been and will be handed out this offseason. The first blockbuster deal went to Jimmie Garoppolo. After starting in just five games for San Francisco, the 49ers gave Garoppolo the largest contract-to-date in NFL history, $137.5 million over five years ($27.5 million per year). The second blockbuster deal is waiting right around the corner. Kirk Cousins’ free agency is a first in the NFL. Never before has a franchise quarterback in his prime (Cousins in 29) hit the open market. The Browns ($110 million), Jets ($73 million) and Vikings ($49 million) are three teams with a ton of money to spend and a desperate need at quarterback. A bidding war for Cousins will undoubtedly push his yearly salary and guaranteed money into uncharted waters. Current predictions are that he’ll receive somewhere close to $30 million per year, and could get as much as $150 million over the course of a five year deal.
So, for argument’s sake, let’s assume that Cousins does indeed get a contract of $30 million per year or even slightly higher. What does that do to Rodgers? First, keep in mind that the NFL salary cap is expected to reach, at a minimum, $178 million for the 2018 season, which means that a $30 million contract would represent about 17% of a teams cap space. Rodgers can, and likely will, get a contract that, at the time he signs it, is again the largest in league history. The only question is by how much? Using the 18% benchmark that was used on Rodgers’ last contract, he’d be looking at roughly $32 million per year if he signed an extension today. In two years though? Don’t be surprised if Aaron gets a deal that makes him the highest paid player in American sports (Steph Curry’s $34.7 million per year is the current high) with an annual salary north of $35 million.
Of course, a salary of this magnitude raises multiple questions. The first, is that too much money to spend on one player? Well, yes and no. For a normal human being it is. For Aaron Rodgers it completely fair. Second, will Aaron’s age (he’ll be 36 when his current contract expires) lower his value? Not at all. With Tom Brady powering into his 40s at a high level of play and the league continuing to protect quarterbacks, there’s no reason Rodgers can’t play well into his 40s. So no, his price isn’t coming down. In reality, $35 million for Aaron Rodgers is below market value.
Teams are willing to give Kirk Cousins, a man who has never come close to getting his name in the MVP conversation and has never come close to a Super Bowl, the largest contract the league has ever seen. Ask yourself, what would Cleveland do with their $110 million in spending money if Rodgers hit the open market? If you answered pay whatever it takes, you’re correct. The price would not matter, it might hit $40 million tomorrow if that were the case. The fact is, a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback is expensive. Really expensive. You can be sure Brian Gutekunst is thanking his lucky stars that the only problem with the starting quarterback is what to pay him, rather than how to find a better one. When you have the greatest quarterback ever (no, this is not a debate), you pay him like it. End of story.