Just when it looked like the Packers were committed to capitalizing on their Aaron Rodgers-dependent championship window, they impeded their star quarterback again.
Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst used his top offseason resource to trade up to No. 26 for Utah State QB Jordan Love on Thursday -– a strikingly similar move to the one previous GM Ted Thompson made 15 years ago when he drafted Rodgers 24th overall before Brett Favre’s age-36 season.
Gutekunst’s 2018 arrival had changed a staid strategy. The Packers' 2019 roster featured unrestricted free-agency additions contributing for the first time in ages, and Rodgers led the team to the NFC championship game.
This decision feels different than Green Bay's 2005 Rodgers pick. It represents strange resource management, with the Packers coming off a 13-3 season. It also heightens the degree of difficulty for a passer who has spent a career battling uphill for a franchise that refused to provide the kind of modern amenities top-tier peers Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes received.
The Packers choosing Love over a position player who could contribute immediately will worsen their odds of prevailing in a loaded NFC. This draft choice also puts a loose expiration date on a future first-ballot Hall of Famer's run that did not yet need such parameters set. Given the current NFC landscape, the chances the 36-year-old passer's Packers career will end up being remembered for what wasn’t accomplished increased Thursday night.
Teams obviously have the right to prepare long-term plans, but considering the circumstances Rodgers dealt with for much of his career, it is his right to view this as a betrayal of sorts. The Packers mostly resisted unrestricted free agency or the trade market to help Rodgers at his apex, and months after his fourth NFC title game appearance, a boom-or-bust successor arrives.
Although Love will not threaten to unseat Rodgers this year, the Packers drafted a true replacement option 12 years into his run as a starter –- earlier than any of Rodgers’ contemporaries encountered such an arrangement.
When Thompson drafted Rodgers, the Packers were not a true contender. Their 2004 team lost to the 8-8 Vikings in the first round of the playoffs. Green Bay went 4-12 in 2005 and had not ventured to an NFC championship game since 1997. Rodgers has guided the Pack to three in the past six years.
Thompson’s foresight with Rodgers preceded smart free-agency additions to help Favre in 2006. Future Hall of Fame defensive back Charles Woodson and fellow ’06 UFA signing Ryan Pickett, a nose tackle, ended up playing key roles for Green Bay’s Rodgers-led 2010 Super Bowl champion. Oddly, the Packers deprived Rodgers of such help the next six years -– all prime seasons -– and watched playoff shortcomings shift his legacy from a player on track for the greatest-ever conversation to one left off the NFL's 100th anniversary team.
The teams that eliminated the Packers from 2011-16 did so after committing more resources to acquiring talent than did Green Bay. So did the ones employing legendary quarterbacks.
In addition to the advantages coach Bill Belichick gave Brady, GM Bill Belichick outfitted him with the likes of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Aqib Talib via trade and 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore through free agency. The Saints brought in Jonathan Vilma, Darren Sproles and now Emmanuel Sanders to tilt Drew Brees’ Super Bowl odds. John Elway consistently spent for Manning, with the Broncos qualifying for two Super Bowls using drastically different models -– each including committed free-agency pursuits. Mahomes likely would not party at a frigid Super Bowl parade in Kansas City without the Chiefs signing Tyrann Mathieu in free agency and trading for Frank Clark.
By ignoring these player-procurement methods for most of Rodgers' career, the Packers placed an increased burden on a two-time MVP whose one Super Bowl appearance has become an unfair indictment.
Between Rodgers’ 2008 debut as Green Bay’s starter and Gutekunst’s 2018 arrival, the Packers signed no Pro Bowlers in unrestricted free agency and barely added any starters during the March-to-May UFA period. Not coincidentally, the Packers did not field a top-10 scoring defense from 2011-18.
Rodgers’ contract runs through 2023; he has indicated he wants to play into his early 40s. Green Bay’s Love selection likely alters that plan, at least regarding Rodgers doing so in Wisconsin. If the Packers are preparing another ultra-rare, years-long developmental program, they would not even benefit from Love’s rookie contract due to Rodgers’ $33.5 million salary. This would be a sobering use of the modern NFL's most valuable roster-building tool.
If the Packers land a much-needed Davante Adams wide receiver sidekick Friday night, concerns about Love wounding the team’s immediate Super Bowl chances lessen. The Packers found Adams, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson in Round 2 of previous drafts, but they do not pick again until No. 62. The Packers could be down to this draft’s 12th or 13th wideout by then. And recalling Raheem Mostert's NFC championship rampage, it is not like the Packers are only a receiver away.
Gutekunst’s gamble may end up extending the Packers’ run of superstar quarterbacks beyond 40 years –- should Love take the reins and keep them into his 30s in the 2030s. But odds the Packers found another quarterback near Rodgers' level are certainly less with an inconsistent mid-major product. Love threw a Division I-FBS-most 17 interceptions as a junior at Utah State.
Unlikely to pay dividends for a while, the Love pick undeniably limits the Packers’ chances of building another championship team with Rodgers. If it also ends up driving a wedge between the franchise and its most talented quarterback ever while he still has years to play, Thursday's premature maneuver would become an unfortunate turning point.