Aaron Rodgers has made it clear, in his own roundabout way, that his time in Green Bay is coming to an end.
And for the Detroit Lions and everyone else who has spent the past three decades playing second fiddle to the Packers, first with Brett Favre at quarterback and more recently with Rodgers, that presents a golden opportunity.
Rodgers, the reigning MVP and future first-ballot Hall-of-Fame quarterback, has sent smoke signals this will be his final season with the Packers. He hinted at a separation with his “beautiful mystery” riddle after Green Bay’s stunning loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC championship game. He doubled down on those comments recently with Pat McAfee, and by musing about his future as Jeopardy! host.
And the Packers showed their hand by refusing to convert some of Rodgers’ base salary into signing bonus to go get the help he desired in free agency, thus making it easier to trade him and turn the team over to Jordan Love next spring.
The Packers have been the model franchise in the NFC for 30 years, rivaled in the NFL only by the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, in part because they have had the longest continuous run of great quarterback play in football history.
Star quarterbacks cannot win alone, as Rodgers can attest. But having one remains the single biggest predictor of sustained success.
That is why this offseason has seen unprecedented turnover at the position, and why more teams than ever are jettisoning young quarterbacks to roll the dice on unproven replacements.
Quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones are expected to go 1-2-3 later this month in the NFL draft, and either Justin Fields or Trey Lance could end up at No. 4, making it the first time in NFL history that quarterbacks will have gone with the draft’s first four picks.
None of Lawrence, Wilson or Jones is ticketed for the NFC North, a division that suddenly seems in disarray when it comes to the most important position in sports.
Two weeks before the draft, it is not a stretch to say that whichever division team emerges from this cycle of uncertainty with the best quarterback will be positioned as the team to beat for the foreseeable future.
Green Bay might very well keep that mantle. The Packers, after all, had the foresight to draft Love last spring in a move that was all about the future.
No one outside that organization knows how Love has developed in the past 12 months, but the Packers’ track record at the position speaks for itself and the fact they remain only loosely committed to Rodgers long-term might be a hint.
In Minnesota, Kirk Cousins turns 33 in August and has a middling .500 record as a starter. In Chicago, the Bears just christened Andy Dalton QB1 after desperately searching for other options at the position. Neither is a long-term solution.
The Lions, in fact, might have the brightest future at quarterback, having traded for 26-year-old Jared Goff in January, though their relationship now seems bonded by a promise ring and not binding nuptials.
General manager Brad Holmes, who was part of the Los Angeles Rams braintrust that spent the first pick of the 2016 draft on Goff, has said he remains open to taking a quarterback with the No. 7 pick in the draft. Holmes attended pro days for Lance, Fields and Wilson in-person, and he will have one more chance to see Lance and Fields in the coming days.
Fields is scheduled to hold a second pro-day workout Wednesday, while Lance has one more opening throwing session next week.
Nationally, talk of the Lions taking a quarterback at No. 7 seems to have cooled, and perhaps that’s just the way Holmes wants it. If he really does have eyes for Lance or Fields, there is no reason to tip his hand and give the Denver Broncos, Patriots or Washington reason to trade up.
I wrote last fall, when it seemed clear the Matt Patricia-, Bob Quinn-era in Detroit was coming to an end, that the Lions’ No. 1 objective going forward had to be finding a long-term solution at the quarterback position. Heck, I advocated for them to address the position in the draft last spring.
Nothing has changed in the months since Holmes and Dan Campbell took over, though it bears repeating that objective can be achieved any number of ways.
If the Lions love Lance or Fields and believe either can be a star, they have to take him at No. 7. Whether he’s ready to play as rookie or not is irrelevant. Drafting a quarterback is entirely about the future, and there’s no telling when the Lions will have a chance to get a quarterback prospect of that caliber again.
If the organization truly thinks Goff can be the long-term solution and intends to use 2021 to see if its hypothesis is correct, then it is imperative to surround Goff with the right help to make that evaluation.
The Lions made few meaningful moves to bring talent into their organization in free agency, but at No. 7 should have a chance to get a top-tier pass catcher (Kyle Pitts or Ja’Marr Chase) or edge protector (Penei Sewell), with viable fallbacks in Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and Rashawn Slater.
It would be disappointing but not wrong if the Lions finish this season without a clear plan at quarterback. The bigger sin would be hitching their future to the wrong guy.
That’s why, no matter what direction they go, the Lions cannot lose sight of the opportunity the NFC North has presented them, and the fact they need to nail the quarterback position to get it right.