With 2022 title hopes dashed, how can Packers salvage remainder of Rodgers era?
If Aaron Rodgers returns for the 2023 season, the Packers will have to make a series of changes to the personnel and coaching staff in order to have one last shot at a Super Bowl.
Without question or qualification, the 2022 Green Bay Packers will not achieve their Super Bowl aspirations.
That much became clear well before Sunday's 15-9 debacle against the Detroit Lions, the Packers' fifth loss in a row. That game saw more than a half dozen Green Bay players leave the field due to injury. Some, including ascending star pass rusher Rashan Gary, will not return for the rest of the season while others, like rookie wide receiver Romeo Doubs, will miss at least a few weeks.
But the injuries, however severe, don't define the Packers' 2022 season. Rather, the decisions made months and years earlier doomed the campaign before it began. The offense, burdened by several changes along the offensive line and in the receiving corps, now routinely stalls out near midfield like light caught on the wrong side of a black hole's event horizon. Meanwhile, the star-laden defense hasn't gone a week without one level of the unit faltering in a critical moment.
Now mired at 3-6 with an upcoming schedule featuring only opponents with winning records from now until December, the Packers' goose is cooked regardless of what they admit publicly. With the Lombardi Trophy no longer realistically attainable this season, the focus shifts to whether the team can salvage the remainder of Aaron Rodgers' time in Green Bay.
And on that front, the Packers have little clarity. Less than a month away from turning 39, Rodgers' future once again looks like a beautiful mystery. The two-time reigning MVP has played markedly below that standard so far in 2022 and has shown signs of physical decline. He has previously discussed retirement and could conceivably walk away this offseason. At the same time, the extension he signed this past March gives him approximately 59 million reasons to return for another year.
If Rodgers hangs up the cleats, the Packers would kick off a new era, one that may or may not feature Jordan Love, the quarterback the team drafted in the first round two years ago. However, assuming Rodgers does return for 2023, the situation gets more interesting and complicated.
Regardless of exactly where next season's salary cap falls, the Packers will need to create some cap space. Over the Cap estimates the team to have around $3.6 million in available funds but minus-$5.5 million in effective cap space, all assuming the NFL sets at $225 million. Given the players that Green Bay hopes to extend, the cost of signing a rookie class, and other personnel considerations, the front office will have to shed salary, move money around, or both.
Perhaps the biggest decision on that matter involves David Bakhtiari, the All-Pro left tackle who missed essentially all of 2021 due to complications from an ACL tear. Bakhtiari has played in six games so far this season and performed well, showing little drop-off from his All-Pro form. However, his health makes him a weekly uncertainty, as the past two weeks attest. Bakhtiari became a surprise scratch before Week 8's tilt with the Buffalo Bills despite practicing that entire week and then missed about half of Week 9's game against the Lions due to some unspecified knee trouble.
At present, Bakhtiari would count more than $29 million against Green Bay's 2023 cap, an untenable figure given the financial restraints the team faces. The Packers could convert his $9.5 million roster bonus into salary to lower the cap hit, a maneuver they've done with him before. However, with Bakhtiari on the wrong side of 30 and unable to reliably suit up or stay in games, that seems like a dicey proposition.
And the Packers might have Bakhtiari's successor already on the roster. Zach Tom, a fourth-round selection in this year's draft, has handled himself admirably when called into action despite appearing at three positions. Tom needs to add more mass -- similar to Bakhtiari coming out of college -- but the upcoming offseason will provide the opportunity for such gains in the weight room. Green Bay can't reasonably expect Tom to become an All-Pro like Bakhtiari, but he looks like a decent bet to become a capable starter.
Of course, whether Rodgers would accept Bakhtiari's departure remains entirely unclear. By all accounts, the two have a close relationship and often appear in tandem around 1265 Lombardi Ave.
Perhaps the Packers could leverage that relationship and Bakhtiari's health concerns into a reduced contract, but the veteran left tackle's representatives will presumably push back on that idea. One way or another, it seems improbable that Bakhtiari returns to Green Bay for another season without some adjustment to his deal.