The king isn’t dead. But he’s threatening to abdicate his throne.
And with Aaron Rodgers’ future in Green Bay very much in doubt as the NFL shifts into its next offseason phase, the NFC North’s feudal system finally may be in jeopardy.
What does that mean for the Lions and the early stages of this apparent rebuild in Detroit? And how might that play into whatever decisions the Lions make regarding their own quarterback down the line?
It’s too early to say, of course. But it’s not too early to see what new general manager Brad Holmes might be thinking after celebrating his first NFL draft haul in Detroit.
Holmes was understandably excited about this draft class, headlined by offensive tackle Penei Sewell and bolstered by some explosive athleticism for a defensive roster that was clearly lacking in that area.
“I think that it’s a great start, Year 1 of this regime, to get some building blocks in place,” Holmes said. “I think it will only go up from here.”
How fast? Probably not as quickly as some fans want. But at the same time, if Rodgers really is on the way out in Green Bay, it’ll open a window of opportunity that just might match up with the Lions’ timeline, particularly if Jared Goff proves he’s more than simply an expensive stopgap at quarterback.
The Packers have dominated the division over the last three decades, thanks largely to the fact they’ve had 29 consecutive years with either Brett Favre or Rodgers under center.
Since the Lions’ last won a division title in 1993, the Packers have won 14 of them — including seven of the last nine — while the Vikings have claimed seven (one of them with Favre, no less) and the Bears five. (Adding insult to injury, even Tampa Bay has won the division more recently than Detroit, even though the old NFC Central ceased to exist a year after Matt Millen took control of the Lions.)
But with Rodgers’ simmering frustration with the Packers’ front office boiling over this spring, culminating with reports last week that he’d told teammates and others in the organization his time in Titletown is over, there’s at least a chance we could see a changing of the guard there.
The Packers have gone 28-8 (including the postseason) the last two seasons, including a pair of NFC championship game appearances, and they remain the class of the division at the moment. But if they can’t find a way to coax Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP, back to Lambeau with a huge contract extension — or even a more drastic front-office sacrifice — they’ll be turning the reins of a would-be Super Bowl contender over to second-year quarterback Jordan Love, who has yet to take a regular-season snap, or some other veteran they bring in this summer.
It was the Packers’ decision to trade up and select Love in the first round of last year’s draft — blindsiding Rodgers with the move — that uncorked much of this current mess. But all the passive-aggressive posturing that has gone on since points to some deep-rooted issues in Green Bay, where there’s no true owner — just a team president in Mark Murphy who often acts like one — capable of stepping in to smooth things over with a franchise player of Rodgers’ stature.
“Obviously, there’s some things that can become complicated, and we’re working through it the best we can,” Packers GM Brian Gutekunst said Saturday. “We’ve been working through it for a while. We’re very optimistic that we can get through this for what’s best for the Green Bay Packers, which is Aaron suiting up for us this fall.”
But if he’s not — if he’s suiting up for some other team, or perhaps even wearing a suit hosting “Jeopardy!” on TV — the question is which team, and which quarterback, is best prepared to take the throne in the NFC North?
The Vikings might be the pick in the short-term, with a top-10 offense that features two young playmakers in Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson and a veteran quarterback in Kirk Cousins. Minnesota also added badly-needed reinforcements on the offensive line in this draft, after spending money in free agency shore up a defense that was easily the worst of Mike Zimmer’s seven-year tenure last season.
But the team also appears to be hedging its bets on Cousins, who turns 33 in August, is owed $56 million (fully guaranteed) over the next two years and carries a $45 million salary-cap charge in the final year of his deal in 2022. The Vikings spent a third-round pick in this year’s draft on a quarterback, Kellen Mond, hoping that he can develop into a starter in a couple of years when they’re free of Cousins’ onerous contract.
The Bears, meanwhile, are convinced they’ve finally found their answer at quarterback, making a bold move up in the first round of the draft to select Ohio State’s Justin Fields. It’s a move the Vikings reportedly contemplated making but didn’t — or couldn’t — pull off last week. And it’s one that GM Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy are staking their respective futures on now, having traded away three draft picks, including next year’s first-rounder, to move up nine spots for Fields.
There will be pressure to get Fields on the field early this season in Chicago, even though Pace insisted this weekend that Andy Dalton remains the Bears’ starter “and we’re gonna have a really good plan in place to develop Justin and do what’s best for our organization.” Still, what’s best for Pace and his job security is Fields quickly making Bears fans forget he picked Mitch Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson four years ago.
Here in Detroit, there’s a much different sense of urgency, with a new GM, a new head coach and a much younger roster in 2021. The Lions just traded away their franchise quarterback, and while Campbell is quick to say, “We don’t feel like we’ve got a free pass,” most of the Lions’ offseason moves have been geared toward long-term success rather than instant gratification.
Still, the presence of Goff remains the wild card here. At 26, he already has twice as much postseason experience as Cousins. Only Tom Brady has won more games the Goff as an NFL starter since 2017. And if he can find a way to thrive in an offense tailored to fit his strengths in Detroit — something that didn’t happen in Los Angeles the last couple of seasons — the Lions could be closer to contending than we originally thought.
Only because when it comes to crowning a champion in their division, addition may matter less than subtraction.