The title belongs to Baltimore's Joe Flacco, who signed a six-year deal averaging $20 million per season shortly after winning the Super Bowl. If Rodgers gets to $23 million, which was the number thrown out by ProFootballTalk.com, that profoundly would change the financial fortunes of the franchise. Rodgers' cap number for this season is $9.75 million and his cap figure for 2014, the final year of his contract, is $11 million. A contract averaging $23 million would more than double Rodgers' final-year cap number.
Former Colts general manager Bill Polian knows the team-building challenge that awaits the Packers' Ted Thompson. When the Colts won the Super Bowl following the 2006 season, Polian's team revolved around Peyton Manning, whose cap number of $17.766 million took up about 14.8 percent of the $102 million cap.
For a ballpark guess on where the Packers would stand with Rodgers, his $23 million average worked into this year's $123 million cap would mean he'd eat up 18.7 percent of the cap.
"I don't think it's terribly hard; it's just different," Polian, now an analyst for ESPN, told Packer Report on Friday. "You have to take a different approach. You can't have midlevel-type veterans, because you're in a situation where they take up too much money and you're not allowed to have that much money on the books."
One obvious byproduct of having one player eating so much of the salary-cap pie is the impact it has on the quarterback's supporting cast.
The 10 highest-paid quarterbacks for 2013 (in terms of base salary, not cap) are, in order, Denver's Peyton Manning ($20 million), New York's Eli Manning ($13 million), Oakland's Carson Palmer ($13 million), Detroit's Matthew Stafford ($12.5 million), San Diego's Philip Rivers ($12 million), Dallas' Tony Romo ($11.5 million), New England's Tom Brady ($10 million), Atlanta's Matt Ryan ($10 million), New Orleans' Drew Brees ($9.75 million) and Rodgers ($9.25 million). Not included in that list is Flacco, whose base salary is a mere $1 million.
Only Denver, which signed four of the top free agents (guard Louis Vasquez, receiver Wes Welker, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and defensive tackle Terrence Knighton) could be called a "free-agent winner." Even the Broncos, however, have their hands tied. They botched the cap and wound up releasing top pass rusher Elvis Dumervil and, at just $50,000 below the cap, they'll have to slash some salaries to sign their rookie class. If the Broncos win the Super Bowl, it'll all be worth it. If not, they'll be paying the price for years.
The Ravens have been gutted, having lost three of their four starting linebackers as well as safety Ed Reed and receiver Anquan Boldin.
The Giants lost two standouts, tight end Martellus Bennett and safety Kenny Phillips, and had to release defensive end Osi Umenyiora and running back Ahmad Bradshaw. The Raiders lost four top players (defensive tackle Desmond Bryant, tight end Brandon Myers, defensive end Matt Shaughnessy and punter Shane Lechler).
Even the Falcons, who signed running back Steven Jackson and, apparently, Umenyiora, are anything but overwhelming winners. They had to release cornerback Dunta Robinson and potentially will lose ace corner Brent Grimes. In a pass-first league, losing two starting cornerbacks is trouble.
"The approach that we took at Indianapolis is we felt like we had 12 players that we could pay — including the very highly paid quarterback,' Polian said. "After that, you're basically going with young, low-priced players. When you're a good team, as the Packers are, when you count up the number of good players that you need to pay, that's kind of the way the ratio boils down."
Going back to our math, if Rodgers' cap goes from $11 million to $23 million, that'd be a difference of $12 million. That's two or three fewer players the Packers can afford to "pay." That puts a premium on Thompson's draft-and-develop philosophy. If you can't afford to fill holes through free agency, then there's nowhere else to turn than the draft and rookie free agency. That, in turn, puts a premium into coaching those players into the next group of difference-making players who will command top dollar when they reach free agency after four seasons.
Increasing the challenge is the NFL's revamped offseason, which debuted last year. There are fewer practices in the offseason and less hitting in training camp. Limits to padded practiced during the season only amplify the challenge of turning that raw-but-talented rookie into a season professional.
Still, the facts of the salary cap — especially a cap that has been relatively stagnant — leave little choice.
"It has to come through drafting and player development," Polian said.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.