NFL winners and losers: Franchise QBs (Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson), franchise tags make news
The NFL's 2022 league year – and free agency – commences March 16, a date which once loomed as the meaningful kickoff to the offseason.
Then March 8 happened ... and everything changed.
First, diplomacy worked for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers – here's hoping the rest of the world can learn from this, albeit comparatively trivial, example – the parties reaching a long-awaited, long-term accord.
Shortly thereafter, unable to pry Rodgers out of Wisconsin, the Denver Broncos pulled off what's likely to stand as the blockbuster trade of the year, acquiring Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks in a package that sends a slew of high draft picks and several players to the Pacific Northwest.
One of the most eventful four-hour windows in league history came to a close at 4 p.m. ET, this year's deadline for teams to use the franchise tag – and both notable and surprising pending free agents were tagged. Several high-profile players were also essentially granted their freedom Tuesday.
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Such a major cascade of events obviously means the fallout will be extensive:
Aaron Rodgers: Duh. He's reset the market – again. Rodgers and the Pack reached a four-year contract extension worth $200 million – $153 million of it guaranteed – making the four-time MVP the highest-paid player in NFL history ... though he'd have us believe there's more to come on this front. Details of the financial structure are still emerging, but the ramifications promise to be significant. For all those superstars who feel fortunate to land a second major contract in their careers, it's crazy to think this is Rodgers' fifth. His first extension, which took effect in 2009, averaged a team-friendly $10.6 million per year, followed by deals that averaged $22 million, then $33.5 million. This new $50 million per year pact overtakes Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes' $45 million average annual compensation, while the $153 million guarantee surpasses Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen's previous mark by $3 million. Rodgers can rest easy knowing that he'll continue to enjoy personal and organizational stability – and it seems his influence within club headquarters has definitely grown, per his wishes – while avoiding any rebuild the 38-year-old already stated he wanted no part of. Now it appears he'll be in green and gold until his mid-forties – if he wants.
Russell Wilson: He's joining a relatively loaded Broncos roster – his situation not far removed from Tom Brady's transfer to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two years ago – and, in a vacuum, would seem to stand a better chance of winning his second Lombardi Trophy than he did with the Seahawks, a team showing serious signs of decline. Wilson, 33, is again surrounded by weapons – WRs Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick and RB Javonte Williams – but should enjoy far superior blocking than he had with Seattle, which allowed nearly 43 sacks per season during his 10-year tenure. And getting in on the ground floor with new Denver head coach Nathaniel Hackett should give Wilson more latitude to influence the offense's direction than he might have had otherwise. But, boy, that AFC West is going to be a mother in 2022. (Just wondering, but do you think we'll have to now hear Wilson punctuate all of his interviews with "Go Broncs"? Seems more than likely.)
Lamar Jackson: The 2019 MVP and Baltimore Ravens superstar continues to drag his feet – he serves as his own agent – on a contract extension. Looks pretty cagey all things considered now that Rodgers has upped that compensation bar significantly.
Los Angeles Rams: Pretty good month when you win the Super Bowl, watch Wilson leave your division and see the Arizona Cardinals dealing with QB Kyler Murray's virtual tantrums. LAR, NFC West champs 2022?
Brian Gutekunst: The Pack's GM apparently built a bridge to Rodgers rather than burning it. Being aligned with your best player is much better than being at odds – especially now that it's time to get on with the business of retooling a team 11 years removed from its last Super Bowl berth. Reaching an accord that allows Gutekunst to reduce Rodgers' previous $46.7 million salary cap hit for 2022 is a great place to start, especially since the team began Tuesday more than $26 million overspent for the upcoming season, per Over The Cap. After months of uncertainty, the franchise can finally move forward with a plan knowing its All-Pro quarterback is in place for the next half-decade.
George Paton: Denver's second-year general manager seems to have successfully addressed the quarterback position – finally – given it's been a revolving door since Peyton Manning retired following Super Bowl 50, which also happens to be the last time the Broncos made the playoffs. Paton's acquisition of Wilson – Denver is sending two first-round picks, two second-rounders and a handful of players, including QB Drew Lock, to Seattle as part of the deal – was made easier when he effectively rented OLB Von Miller to the Rams for the second half of last season and got second- and third-round choices in return. (Miller is already telegraphing a desire to return to Denver.)
Mike Williams: Coming off a season in which he posted career bests with 76 receptions and 1,146 yards, the Los Angeles Chargers' plus-sized wideout landed a plus-sized contract – three-years and $60 million ($40 million guaranteed) – while avoiding the franchise tag players typically loathe.
Davante Adams: He was franchised by the Packers, his one-year, guaranteed tender worth $20.1 million. Adams, 29, would naturally prefer more money and long-term security, yet Tuesday may well have been a step toward those goals. Rodgers' return means Adams should remain one of the league's most productive receivers. And the deal for Williams, a far less accomplished player than Adams (a perennial Pro Bowler since 2017 and All-Pro the past two seasons), means the latter has more leverage to seek a package from Gutekunst that will make him the league's best-paid wideout.
Chris Godwin: Pretty good show of faith for the Bucs to franchise their wideout a second straight year (for $19.2 million) given he tore his ACL in mid-December.
The untagged: Reminds you of the Unsullied from "Game of Thrones," but we digress. And yet the soon-to-be free agents who avoided the franchise tag Tuesday have to feel rather unsullied and must be pretty pumped. A week hence, New England Patriots CB J.C. Jackson, Cardinals RB James Conner, and New Orleans Saints LT Terron Armstead and FS Marcus Williams will be among those who stand to cash in handsomely as each team's salary cap expands to $208.2 million.
Harold Landry: The blossoming Pro Bowl pass rusher also sidestepped a tag ... then landed a five-year, $87.5 million extension from the Tennessee Titans on Tuesday night. Money. Literally.
Aidan Hutchinson: Considered by many as the top prospect of the 2022 draft, the University of Michigan's star pass rusher should be more firmly part of the conversation as the No. 1 pick of the draft after the Jacksonville Jaguars surprisingly franchised middling LT Cam Robinson for the second year in a row.
Tight ends: The Cleveland Browns' David Njoku, Miami Dolphins' Mike Gesicki and Dallas Cowboys' Dalton Schultz, all franchised, will see their salaries balloon to nearly $11 million in 2022 – exponential increases for the latter two, who weren't first-round picks like Njoku. And with that trio off the market, the free agency prospects for veterans like Evan Engram, Zach Ertz, Rob Gronkowski, Hayden Hurst, Robert Tonyan and C.J. Uzomah should improve as the supply side dwindles.
Cowboys: QB Dak Prescott and G Zack Martin agreed to contract restructures to free up $22 million in cap space. Toss in the expected release of WR Amari Cooper, and the NFC East champs might actually have the opportunity to lure a significant free agent or two.
Matt LaFleur: He's off to a historically good start as a head coach, winning 13 regular-season games in each of his three years, reaching the NFC championship game twice and earning two No. 1 playoff seeds. Rodgers is obviously the predominant factor in LaFleur's success, and they've clearly established a deep rapport – one Rodgers has spoken glowingly of in recent months. Now LaFleur can rest easy knowing he's still got the most important piece to completing a Lombardi puzzle.
2022 draft quarterbacks: Going into last week's combine, it wouldn't have been a surprise if none of this year's incoming passers cracked the draft's top 10 picks. But Malik Willis and Co. might have already altered that perception – and Seattle's sudden takeaway of the No. 9 overall pick could very much change that calculus.
2022 draft left tackles: In recent weeks, North Carolina State's Ikem ‘Ickey’ Ekwonu and Alabama's Evan Neal had seemingly emerged as frontrunners to be the prospective first pick of April's draft. It could still play out that way, but Jacksonville's tag of Robinson likely reduces the probability ... even if the best move would be shifting him to right tackle and opening up QB Trevor Lawrence's blind side for one of the kids.
Pete Carroll: He's suddenly got a bunch of high-end draft picks – great, except for the fact Seattle has grossly mismanaged such assets in recent years – no proven quarterback and was already looking up at the rest of the NFC West. Word even emerged Tuesday evening that six-time All-Pro MLB Bobby Wagner, who was drafted in 2012 with Wilson, was also being released. But, hey, maybe a rebuild is just what a soon-to-be-71-year-old needs to put a little spring in his step.
Patrick Mahomes: The AFC West was brutal enough without the Broncos becoming relevant.
Justin Herbert: The AFC West was brutal enough without the Broncos becoming relevant ... though at least Herbert gets to stick with Mike Williams.
Derek Carr: The AFC West was brutal enough without the Broncos becoming relevant ... and it's now apparent Fresno State BFF Adams won't be joining Carr's Las Vegas Raiders any time soon.
Asking price for Deshaun Watson: By numerous accounts, the Houston Texans have been seeking a compensatory package for their franchise quarterback, who still faces a rash of legal issues, that includes three first-round picks and additional assets, whether players or mid-round selections. But with Wilson on the move for a bundle headlined by two first-rounders – and the 2020 Walter Payton Man of the Year recipient is in a whole different off-field class than Watson now occupies – probably time for Houston GM Nick Caserio to lower his demands given the imperative to remove the Watson albatross.
Jordan Love: Like so many recent Packers QB2s – Matt Hasselbeck, Mark Brunell, Matt Flynn, Ty Detmer, Aaron Brooks, Scott Tolzien, Brett Hundley – the 2020 first-round pick should be seeking employment elsewhere. (And to think Gutekunst could have taken WR Tee Higgins instead ...)
DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Noah Fant: That gravy train of Seattle passing yards is almost certainly on a one-way ticket to the Rockies. Maybe Fant can remain a 60-catch, 600-yard guy as he moves west from Denver, but you have to wonder if Lockett or (more likely) Metcalf might be the next Seahawk traded from an organization that seems more likely to return to its smashmouth, "Legion of Boom" roots.
Smith 'brothers': Rodgers' new deal may free up cap space in Green Bay, but Gutekunst still has work to do. In addition to making room for Adams' hefty tag and perhaps doing an extension for Pro Bowl CB Jaire Alexander, the GM must also consider his No. 2 receiver spot and what to do about free agents like All-Pro LB De'Vondre Campbell, CB Rasul Douglas, Tonyan and others. OLBs Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith – they're not actually related – could be collateral damage given Gutekunst could recoup roughly $28 million by releasing the duo, which is less prohibitive given the emergence of Rashan Gary.
Browns: Their ongoing infatuation with Njoku remains baffling given his five-year career numbers (148 catches for 1,754 yards and 15 TDs) are only slightly better than a typical Travis Kelce season – not to mention a pair of capable tight ends, Harrison Bryant and Austin Hooper, remain on Cleveland's roster. GM Andrew Berry has said all along that the team plans to move forward with QB Baker Mayfield in 2022, and tagging Njoku further depletes the cap and any notion the Browns might be absorbing the contract of a better veteran passer.
Washington Commanders (update): They struck out on Matthew Stafford last year and struck out on Wilson last week before backpedaling into a deal for Carson Wentz on Wednesday. Wentz cost far less than Stafford or Wilson, but you get what you pay for.
NFC: With Wilson leaving Seattle, Brady retiring – allegedly – and ex-Saints coach Sean Payton on a sabbatical at minimum, the league's senior conference feels significantly diminished in comparison to an increasingly deep AFC.
Brett Favre: Rodgers surpassed his Packers record for career TD passes (442) last season and is now virtually assured to take Favre's club standards for passing yards (61,655) and wins (160), among others.
Aaron Rodgers: It's been a fascinating 10+ months for Rodgers, whose previous grievances with the Pack came to light hours before the 2021 draft. He's largely remained atop the league's headlines ever since – whether it was speculation about his future; his belated return to Green Bay for last year's training camp, when he elaborated at length about his misgivings with management; his contraction of COVID-19, which cost him a start in Kansas City, and subsequent admission that he misled the public about his vaccination status; or his latest stellar season between the lines, one that ended with his second MVP trophy in two seasons ... and second playoff collapse at Lambeau Field in two seasons for a team boasting the NFC's No. 1 postseason seed. Rodgers has forfeited quite a bit of goodwill over that time and, fairly or not, will doubtless lose more from those who view his latest windfall as being financially driven when, by comparison, Brady – the guy who owns fewer league MVP awards than Rodgers but has six more Super Bowl rings – didn't seek top-of-market contracts while trying to leave bread on the table for his teammates. Sorry, Aaron.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.