Dougherty: Playing tag with Davante Adams most likely way for Packers to bring back Aaron Rodgers

Pete Dougherty
Packers News

GREEN BAY - Brian Gutekunst dropped a little surprise at his pre-NFL scouting combine news conference last week when he didn’t immediately dismiss the possibility of Davante Adams departing the Green Bay Packers in free agency.

When asked if there’s a scenario in which Adams wouldn’t either sign a contract extension or get the franchise tag, the Packers general manager hedged, if only a little: “Possibly. Again, like I said, there’s a lot of things to be determined there.”

Since the Packers, and most NFL teams, are not in the business of letting premier players walk out the door, the smart money still says Gutekunst will use the tag by next Tuesday’s deadline if he hasn’t signed Adams to a contract extension.

The bigger question is whether Gutekunst would be tagging Adams to buy time to negotiate a new deal or to trade the All-Pro receiver for something better than the 2023 third-round compensatory pick the Packers would get if Adams left as a free agent.

It’s pretty much a given Aaron Rodgers’ return to the Packers will be contingent on, among other things, Adams returning as well. You can guarantee the quarterback will insist on it, and really, what would be the point of bringing back Rodgers at age 38 without his All-Pro receiver?

But that could work both ways. If Rodgers isn’t back, Adams very well might have zero interest in returning to the Packers either. Adams is on a trajectory for the Pro Football Hall of Fame but needs a couple more big seasons to get there. Playing with unproven Jordan Love in 2022 and who-knows-who the year after could jeopardize his chances. That’s something Adams surely is thinking about with free agency right around the corner.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) celebrates with wide receiver Davante Adams (17).

The Packers should want Adams back either way. With Rodgers he improves their Super Bowl odds. Without Rodgers, they’ll want talent around Jordan Love to see whether their young quarterback has what it takes to win in the NFL.

But if Rodgers isn’t back and Adams wants out, the Packers would have a big decision: Force him to play under the one-year tag or trade him.

If he plays under the tag, he probably wouldn’t sign it until the season started, so he’d miss all offseason and likely training camp as well. Then they’d still be in the same spot next year at this time.

If they trade him, an NFL scout this week predicted they’d get a late first-rounder or early second. That might seem light for a guy who probably was the best receiver in the league last year, but Adams will turn 30 late next season, and more importantly any team trading for him would be spending not just a high draft pick but also a lot of money on a new long-term contract. That’s no small impediment, especially at a position that’s been loaded in the draft for a few years now.

There’s also the financial lengths the Packers will have to go to tag Adams, though in the end it’s something they definitely can do, albeit by pushing the cap can down the road. The official tag numbers aren’t out yet, but the estimate for receivers is about $20 million, which is a big chunk of cap space.

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According to Ken Ingalls, an independent Packers cap analyst, the Packers are about $30 million over the cap even after several major contract restructures in the last week, and that’s not counting the restricted free-agent tender they’ll likely use on Allen Lazard or the cost of the upcoming draft class. To fit Adams’ franchise tag, they’d have to get clear another $20 million beyond that before the start of free agency on March 16.

They can do it, but it will require, among other things, that they do something they’ve never done: guarantee money beyond the first year of a new contract.

That would apply to at least one player, Rodgers. If they signed Rodgers to a usual contract extension, they’d save in the vicinity of $15 million in cap room. But they can save at least another $5 million, perhaps more, and still pay Rodgers market value (the $45 million-a-year range) if instead of offering an enormous signing bonus (say, $70 million), they guaranteed his 2023 salary on top of whatever they pay him in 2022. Without bogging down in the cap-calculating details, Rodgers would still get huge guarantees, it would just be structured to save more money on this year’s cap.

There’s no good reason for the Packers not to do it. It’s time they joined the rest of the league and showed more flexibility in their contracts, at least for a quarterback. Even the old-school Pittsburgh Steelers broke precedent last year and guaranteed future pay in their deal with T.J. Watt, and he’s not even a quarterback.

The Packers would still need other cap maneuvering on top of that – cutting Za’Darius Smith and Randall Cobb, extending contracts for Jaire Alexander and Preston Smith, among others. And the team would face greater cap pain down the road. But the Packers can create the cap room to keep Rodgers, tag Adams and, I would guess, re-sign one player from the group of De’Vondre Campbell, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Rasul Douglas.

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So it’s still hard to see Gutekunst letting Adams walk as a free agent, though you never know. If Rodgers is traded, maybe, just maybe, Gutekunst would be OK letting Adams leave for a pick in ’23, when he might need extra draft capital to go quarterback shopping, rather than this year. But if it comes down to it, the tag still looks like the smarter way to go.

No matter what Gutekunst is thinking, Rodgers presumably knows. It’s had to have come up in their talks after the season. And it’s hard not to think Rodgers and Adams are basically a package deal.