Whatever you want to call it — the reminder tour, the revenge tour, the appreciation tour — this expanse of Aaron Rodgers canceling his Week 1 critics is steamrolling on.
Not only has the Green Bay Packers quarterback driven himself into the league MVP race for the second straight season, he has helped position his franchise at the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed following Thursday’s dramatic 24-21 win over the previously undefeated Arizona Cardinals.
Now comes a weekend of rest for the players and several days of pondering for a front office that should be thinking one thing: What else can we do to help this thing?
That’s what the next several days should be about for Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, who is 7-1 and suddenly staring a monumental opportunity in the face. The NFC is wide open for the taking and this weekend’s trade deadline has the chance to tilt the landscape for teams that have the luxury of a little salary-cap space to burn. And Green Bay is the only NFC team above .500 that is currently sitting with at least $5 million in cap space.
That might not sound like a ton of money, but this is going to be a buyer’s market for teams that can spare a few million in cap space and have a mid-to-late round draft pick to burn, which the Packers do, even after sending a sixth-round draft pick to Houston for Randall Cobb in the preseason. The ones that could be flipped at the deadline fairly painlessly include Green Bay’s fourth, fifth and pair of seventh-round picks (one of which came over from Houston in the Cobb trade). Any one of those will be ample ammunition for teams that will be looking to dump some salary at the deadline by moving players who aren’t getting snaps or simply want out of their current situations.
We’ll get to those players in a moment. First, it’s worth noting that Green Bay is at a pivotal point with Rodgers this weekend. While we’ve previously noted what a (totally unlikely) Jordan Love trade might look like in terms of a gesture of faith and investment, there are plenty of other options on the table that can serve Gutekunst’s need to succeed now while keeping options on the table in the future with Rodgers.
The bottom line here: Green Bay is 7-1 despite not having played its best football and also having caught some breaks along the way. It’s an imperfect team that in many ways looks similar to the ones we’ve seen in 2019 and 2020 — completely capable of making a run to the NFC title game, but also completely capable of laying a playoff egg on the doorstep to the Super Bowl.
All of this showcases what the Packers should have learned in those experiences: That it’s foolish to pass on opportunities to get even a little bit better down the stretch, especially when those opportunities are economical.
You could argue that Gutekunst is already showcasing his learning curve on this, having signed both pass rusher Whitney Mercilus and linebacker Jaylon Smith in recent weeks, two moves that should help make Green Bay’s defense a little better down the stretch. But now Gutekunst has to go one step further and show that he’s embracing (and not fighting) the “Last Dance” mentality that Rodgers invoked upon his return to the team in July.
If Gutekunst is capable of doing that, he’ll look for a trade deadline sweetener that will help Rodgers and the offense down the stretch, and protect against some of the injuries accruing on offense — not to mention help the team’s depth in the face of any future COVID-19 issues. This all sounds simple, but with the wonky relationship between Rodgers and the team’s front office, it really isn’t.
Think of it this way: If Rodgers hadn’t made the Randall Cobb trade one of his conditions for returning into the fold in the offseason, Cobb wouldn’t be on the Packers’ roster now. That means Green Bay would have gone into Thursday night in an even bigger pass-catching lurch without three of its top wideouts, then been rendered almost entirely toothless when tight end Robert Tonyan went down with a knee injury. Instead of dealing with that scenario, Rodgers had exactly what he wanted as a fallback option in this type of emergency — a familiar player in Cobb whom he could trust in pivotal red-zone situations, creating a pair of touchdown catches and a big pass interference flag in the end zone on a third possession (even if that flag was ultimately squandered).
For a player who has groused about wanting more input into the organizational moves that impact him and for a general manager who wasn’t always open to that input, Cobb’s contribution Thursday should be at least a mild inflection point for the franchise. It’s one where Gutekunst realizes that maybe Rodgers had a point about wanting another player around whom he could trust, and Rodgers realizing that it’s worth pushing the front office for extra investment. It could be the difference down the stretch and in another one of these NFC title game situations that always highlights a need for just a little more talent.
This is that moment — this weekend — that could make that difference. The Packers could take a page out the Cardinals’ playbook when they lost tight end Maxx Williams in early October, then went out and got an upgrade in Zach Ertz for a modest trade package. Green Bay has an opportunity to pick up some talent at tight end for almost nothing in draft compensation and it has a shot at a cheap wideout who could be remarkably impactful if he were slotted into a depth chart with Cobb, Davante Adams, Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
Who is out there waiting for a Gutekunst call? First and foremost, start with Houston Texans wideout Brandin Cooks, who appears (according to his Twitter account) to be unhappy with the franchise’s direction after it dealt running back Mark Ingram to the New Orleans Saints. Not only could the 28-year-old Cooks prove to be a dramatic deep-ball addition to the Packers, he’s owed less than $1.5 million of prorated salary the rest of this season — after which he can be released without a cap hit (or retained for his 2022 base salary of $12 million if the Packers were to lose Adams in free agency). Cooks could give Green Bay a boost this season and a keep-him-or-cut-him option next season.
Make no mistake, if the Packers wanted Cooks, they’d have multiple inside tracks. Not only do they have two former Texans already on the roster — Cobb and Mercilus — they already have a track record of completing a trade with the Texans’ front office for one of those players. Cooks also wants to play for an organization geared for winning a Super Bowl and representing a top end quarterback. Green Bay checks both boxes. And the Packers might be more inclined to cut Cooks after the season than another organization, which gives him the carrot of potential free agency while he’s still productive and in his late 20s.
Those positive stack up for almost any offensive player carrying a modestly low prorated salary who will be available for a middle- to late-round draft pick. Calls can also be put out on a swath of tight ends like the Atlanta Falcons’ Hayden Hurst (less than $1.2 million owed), the New York Giants’ Evan Engram (roughly $3.5 million owed), the Miami Dolphins’ Mike Gesicki (less than $1 million owed) and a handful of others.
The draft picks are there to take a poke in the market. The cap space is available. The history lesson has already taken place. All that is left is for the Packers’ front office to show that it has learned something the past two years, and make the choice that seizing on what is there for the taking. Rodgers is on board. The team is well positioned. The time is now. And if this ends up being the last dance for a Hall of Fame quarterback in Green Bay, the general manager has his opportunity to take the floor with him rather than against him.