Should the QB-needy Jets go all-in for Aaron Rodgers?
Stephen A. Smith tells Chris “Mad Dog” Russo why he thinks Aaron Rodgers could lead the Jets to the Super Bowl. (1:33)
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Fifteen years ago, the New York Jets made the splashiest trade in franchise history, acquiring a legendary, late-30s quarterback from the Green Bay Packers with the hope of energizing the franchise, saving a third-year coach from doom and satisfying a success-starved owner. Brett Favre led them to an 8-3 start in 2008, but he hurt his arm and the whole season fell apart.
The 2023 Jets are in a similar situation. This time, the third-year coach is Robert Saleh, but the success-starved owner hasn’t changed (Woody Johnson) and neither has the decades-old quest to find the “missing piece,” as Johnson called it recently. Which leads us to Aaron Rodgers, the Packers’ current late-30s quarterback who may or may not be traded this offseason.
As Rodgers mulls his future, and as the Packers decide on a direction for the organization, the trade speculation is rampant. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported last weekend that a Rodgers trade is “a real possibility,” causing Jets fans on social media to hyperventilate. The excitement climbed to a new level Thursday with the news that one of Rodgers’ former offensive coordinators, Nathaniel Hackett, had been hired by the Jets. Heck, even former Jets great Joe Namath, in a radio interview, said he’d be willing to let Rodgers wear his famous No. 12, which has long been retired.
It would be the ultimate Super Bowl-or-bust move for a franchise that hasn’t been there in 54 years. The Jets ended the season on a six-game losing streak, ready to replace Zach Wilson as their starter. There will be other veteran options in the quarterback market, perhaps Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo, but Rodgers, 39, is an all-time great (career record: 139-66-1) with tremendous box-office appeal.
The Jets had the same feelings about Favre, who was acquired for a third-round pick in training camp. Then-coach Eric Mangini, who had his own six-game losing streak the previous year, was so giddy with Favre’s arrival that he named his third son after him — Zack Brett Mangini, born Oct. 10, 2008, Favre’s 39th birthday. The stars appeared aligned, but the team skidded to a 9-7 finish, Mangini was fired and Favre was done in New York after just one season.
Will history repeat? Will Saleh have an eighth child and name him Aaron? (Or, if it’s a girl, Erin?) From a Jets perspective, let’s analyze the pros and cons of a potential Rodgers trade.
Hello? He’s a four-time NFL MVP: Rodgers would make them better the moment he steps foot in the building. The Jets haven’t had a player of his stature since … well, Favre. He’d provide instant credibility and leadership, qualities they’ve lacked at the quarterback position. He’d demand total commitment from everybody, especially the wide receiver room, which experienced dysfunction last season. (See: trade requests by Elijah Moore and Denzel Mims.)
Rodgers, appearing Tuesday on The Pat McAfee Show, got into a discussion about Wilson and the Jets, and he sounded impressed by their skill-position talent. Unsolicited, without naming names, he made complimentary references to wide receiver Garrett Wilson, running back Breece Hall and tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Major upgrade at quarterback (thanks, Captain Obvious): From 2009 to 2022 (Mark Sanchez to Wilson), the Jets are dead last in the NFL in Total QBR (41.5), touchdown passes (257) and completion percentage (57.7), and tied for the most interceptions (245). Detect a trend? Yeah, they’ve been dragged down by poor quarterback play, never more evident than in 2022. Rodgers would change that.
“He’s still a top quarterback, behind [Patrick] Mahomes, [Joe] Burrow and [Josh] Allen,” one opposing coach said this week. “He’s not No. 1 anymore, but he can still throw the ball.”
A familiar face: Players who change teams late in their careers often look for familiarity and comfort. The idea of playing for strangers and learning a new system can be a turn-off. This is where Hackett comes into play. If Rodgers ends up with the Jets, he’d be reunited with Hackett — they were together from 2019 to 2021 — and wouldn’t have to worry about the chore of mastering a new playbook. Hackett’s presence doesn’t mean Rodgers will end up in New York, but it could factor into his decision if there’s a choice of destinations.
A mentor to Wilson: Team officials insist that Zach Wilson, despite his second-year regression, will be on the 2023 roster. Their objective is to continue his development. If the Jets were able to pull off this trade, he’d have the opportunity to sit and learn from his boyhood idol — the ideal teacher-pupil arrangement.
Wilson grew up studying Rodgers and trying to copy his style, and they’ve developed a friendship over the past couple of years. Wilson won’t be happy on the bench, not after being drafted No. 2 overall in 2021, but perhaps he’d be able to stomach it better if it’s Rodgers ahead of him instead of, say, Garoppolo.
Rodgers said Wilson is “super talented,” adding, “I think a little humility is good for all of us at various times in our careers.”
Cost and compensation: Woody Johnson said he’s “absolutely” willing to spend major bucks for a quarterback. That statement would be put to the test with Rodgers, who signed a three-year, $150 million contract last March.
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Any team that trades for him would be responsible for $59.5 million in 2023 salary (fully guaranteed), which includes a $58.3 million bonus payable from March 17 to the start of the regular season. There’s also a $49.3 million salary in 2024 that becomes fully guaranteed if he’s on the roster after the fifth day of the 2024 waiver period (mid-February).
The good news is that the cap hits for the new team would be palatable — $15.8 million and $32.5 million in 2023 and 2024, respectively, according to overthecap.com. (The 2023 cap charge is so low because the bonus is prorated over four years.) On Tuesday, Rodgers said he’s open to reworking his deal, but that wouldn’t change the fact that he’s owed nearly $109 million in guarantees if he plays the two years.
On the flip side, the Packers would get hit with a $40 million dead charge if he’s traded before June 1 — a potential deterrent.
Then there’s the trade compensation. Presumably, the Packers would demand at least a first-round pick, which might be deemed excessive for a 39-year-old quarterback because of the massive contract. There probably would be a negotiation, with the interested team looking for compensation relief based on how much of the contract it is willing to take on.
Commitment: Taking a page from the Favre script, Rodgers has become an offseason waffler, annually mulling whether he wants to continue playing. For the record, he’s still noncommittal about 2023, saying, “All the other ideas about [a] trade and whatnot, that’s all conjecture until I decide what I want to do moving forward for myself.”
In other words, Rodgers could be a one-year rental. Would the Jets want to take that risk? Typically, general manager Joe Douglas isn’t a quick-fix kind of executive; maybe the pressure to make the playoffs will change that. If Rodgers were to leave after a year or two, the “dead” cap charges would be enormous. Chances are, the Jets would try to make it a conditional trade, with the compensation based on how long — and how well — Rodgers plays. Still, it would eliminate the cost benefit of having a starting quarterback on his rookie contract, which would impair roster building.
Age and performance: Rodgers will be 40 by the 2023 playoffs, and he’s coming off one of his worst seasons. He threw for the fewest yards (3,695) in any season in which he played at least 15 games and his most interceptions (12) in more than a decade. He had two fewer 300-yard passing games than Zach Wilson — zero. To be fair, Rodgers dealt with injuries, including a broken thumb, and inexperienced wide receivers. Rodgers, who won the MVP in 2020 and 2021, believes he can get back to that level.
Was 2022 a one-year blip or the start of a trend?
“I think he’s still elite,” a rival defensive coordinator said. “Rodgers needs to have wide receivers he totally trusts, and that trust didn’t happen until late in the season.”
Technically, Rodgers’ career began in New York. The 2005 draft was held at the Javits Convention Center, where he endured that infamous draft-day fall to the 24th pick.
Could it end there, too?