Big bucks at stake for Rodgers

It's essentially a two-year trial for one the NFL's lowest-paid quarterbacks. If he's worthy, the Packers would be wise to follow how the Cowboys handled Tony Romo's lucrative extension, PackerReport.com's Steve Lawrence says.

A lot has been made about all of the pressure facing new starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Replacing a legend, knowing your play will dictate whether a talented team is a Super Bowl contender and fighting off a hotshot rookie. That's what confronts Rodgers this season.

Oh, and one other thing adds to the pressure.

Money.

Rodgers' was the Packers first-round draft pick in 2005. For common-sense reasons, Rodgers wasn't going to be paid starting-quarterback money until he actually became the starting quarterback. Once he became the starter, escalator clauses would kick in for the following seasons.

Thus, according to NFLPA salary figures, Rodgers will be playing for a mere $680,000 this season. That's not chump change, of course, unless you're a NFL starting quarterback.

The average base salary for the NFL's 30 other projected starting quarterbacks — I took Matt Ryan, Atlanta's unsigned first-round pick, out of the equation — is $3.29 million. Only seven projected starters will make less this season, and one of those is Oakland's JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft who pocketed a signing bonus worth almost $20 million.

Of course, there's no reason to renegotiate at this point. Rodgers' significant regular-season game experience consists of one dreadful performance against New England in 2006 in which he broke his foot and one stellar performance in which he almost rallied the Packers to a key win at Dallas.

The escalator clause will kick in for the 2009 season, when Rodgers' base salary will rise to $3 million if he remains the starter.

Rodgers' contract expires after that season, making this basically a two-year trial run. If Rodgers' succeeds, he'll be in line for a big raise. If he fails, the Brian Brohm era will begin.

When would the Packers consider giving Rodgers a new deal? That's a tricky question. Packers general manager Ted Thompson on several occasions has rewarded his talented young players with new contracts before they entered their final season under contract.

That would mean reworking Rodgers' contract at some point this season, but that would be a high-stakes gamble on a quarterback with a thin body of work.

Thus, the Packers might follow the approach the Cowboys used with Tony Romo. Romo had a breakthrough 2006 season and entered 2007 — the final year of his first NFL contract — as one of the NFL's lowest-paid starting quarterbacks.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wanted to see more out of Romo before making a major financial investment. When Romo came out of the gates strong in 2007, Jones rewarded Romo at midseason with a six-year, $67.5 million contract with $31 million guaranteed.

The timing is noteworthy. Waiting until midseason 2009 would give Rodgers about 24 starts, enough time to not only judge if Rodgers is a worthy NFL starter, but time to see how he adjusts to the adjustments opposing defenses made during the preceding offseason.

Wait until the end of the 2009 season, however, and the Packers would risk losing Rodgers to the financial free-for-all that is the NFL's unrestricted free-agent market. Starting-caliber quarterbacks who are in the prime of their careers never become unrestricted free agents for one obvious reason: Quality quarterbacks are hard to find — ask the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions — so why risk losing one?

By going from Brett Favre to Rodgers, the Packers are going from one of the NFL's highest-paid quarterbacks to one of its lowest. If Rodgers plays like he did at Dallas last season, that will change sometime in the next 17 or 18 months.

Steve Lawrence is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com. E-mail him at steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com


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