Ranking the Packers (No. 1): Aaron Rodgers
GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a tradition that stretches more than a decade, here is our annual ranking of the 90 players on the Green Bay Packers’ roster. This isn’t merely a look at the best players. Rather, it’s a formula that combines talent, salary, importance of the position, depth at the position and, for young players, draft positioning. More than the ranking, we hope you learn a little something about every player on the roster.
No. 1: QB Aaron Rodgers (6-2, 225, 16th season, California)
At every turn last season, coach Matt LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst heaped praise on the play of Rodgers even though, statistically speaking, the praise was generally exaggerated.
“I thought Aaron had a really, really good year, especially adapting to a completely new system,” Gutekunst said at the end of the season. “There were times he had to carry us, and I thought he did that. I think this was one of the years we had a team that didn’t always have to rely on that quite as much. I think he’s still playing at an elite level. There were some challenges we faced, not only him but some other guys on our team, where I was really proud how those guys faced those challenges. They really came together as a team, and that really takes your best players, your leaders, to do that. He obviously was a big, big part of that.”
Rodgers, the player with the best quarterback rating in NFL history, finished only 12th in that statistic last season. Moreover, he was 21st in completion percentage and 17th in yards per attempt.
Other than what was in the wins column, LaFleur didn’t want to hear about numbers.
“I thought he played pretty damn good last year,” LaFleur said at the Scouting Combine. “He led us to 13 wins and a playoff win. Too many times, the quarterback’s going to accept all the blame when things don’t go right and they’re going to get a lot of the praise when things do go right. It’s just the nature of that position and everybody’s going to be critical of it. That’s fair. That’s what you sign up for when you get into this league.”
Why were the Packers so vociferous in their praise for Rodgers? There are two reasons worth considering. One, he legitimately had a strong season for reasons that don’t show up in the box score or even the coaches’ tape. Or, they were running cover for a player who no longer was elite but was being paid like an elite player under the monster contract extension he signed just before the 2018 season.
Lending credence to the second possibility: Gutekunst traded up in the first round to select quarterback Jordan Love.
“We think he has a very good upside to become a starter in the National Football League,” Gutekunst said after drafting Love. “But we’ve got the best quarterback in the National Football League and we plan to have him for a while competing for championships.”
For probably the next two seasons, those championship hopes will ride on the arm and experience of Rodgers. For the all the TV-ratings obsession over whether Rodgers would actually allow himself to be coached by LaFleur, the veteran quarterback and rookie coach got along swimmingly. Nonetheless, while Rodgers embraced all the changes after growing disillusioned with Mike McCarthy’s way of doing business, he statistically wasn’t any better.
In 2018, while playing through a knee injury and the carnage of McCarthy’s last season, Rodgers finished 13th in passer rating (97.6), 26th in completion percentage (62.3) and 17th in yards per attempt (7.44). In 2019, Rodgers finished 12th in passer rating (95,4), 21st in completion percentage (62.0) and 17th in yards per attempt (7.03).
On the bright side, in NFL history, there have been only two seasons of a quarterback throwing for 4,000-plus yards with 25-plus touchdowns and four-or-fewer interceptions: Rodgers in 2018 and Rodgers in 2019.
That’s winning football. Still, it’s undoubtedly true the Packers need better play from their Hall of Fame-bound quarterback. Is Rodgers’ declining performance a byproduct of the lack of pass-catching talent beyond Davante Adams? The result of age and injury? The challenge of adapting to a new offense and a new way of doing things? A combination of all three?
Gutekunst didn’t procure any talent at receiver. In fact, his big addition at receiver, Devin Funchess, decided to opt out of the 2020 season. So, if the Packers are going to take the big leap needed to get past mighty San Francisco in the power-packed NFC, it will be up to Rodgers to play better and show the world that Gutekunst drafted his successor a couple years too early.
Why he’s so important: Quarterback is the most important position on the football field. He is expected to raise the level of everyone around him. Teams without a good quarterback have almost no chance of winning the Super Bowl. That’s why quarterback is the highest-paid position. Rodgers’ four-year, $134 million extension averages $33.5 million, the fourth-highest figure in the league behind only Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger.
Rodgers agreed to renegotiate his contract to provide some badly needed salary-cap relief. Thus, his 2020 cap charge of $21.64 million ranks only 10th among quarterbacks. That will soar to $36.35 million in 2021 and $39.85 million in 2022 before dipping to $28.35 million for 2023, his final year under contract. Presuming, of course, he’s still on the team in 2023. The time to move onto Love might be 2022, when parting ways would create $17.2 million in dead money but create $22.65 million of cap savings.
“I think it was more the surprise of the pick based on my own feelings of wanting to play into my 40s and really the realization that it does change the controllables a little bit because, as much as I feel confident in my abilities and what I can accomplish and what we can accomplish, there are some new factors that are out of my control,” Rodgers said in May. “And so my sincere desire to start and finish with the same organization, just as it has with many other players over the years, may not be a reality at this point. And as much as I understand the organization’s future outlook and wanting to make sure they’re thinking about the team now and down the line, and I respect that, at the same time, I still believe in myself and have a strong desire to play into my 40s and I’m just not sure how that all works together at this point.”
That’s for the future, though. For 2020, Green Bay needs Rodgers to take a big Year 2 step with LaFleur. In last year’s four losses, he tore apart the Eagles but wasn’t up to the task against the Chargers or either game against the 49ers.