GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Maybe 2021 wasn’t a “Last Dance” for the Green Bay Packers.
It sure seemed that way at the start, when quarterback Aaron Rodgers sounded reluctant about his return following his offseason of discontent.
However, winning covers up a lot, and by the end of a third straight 13-win regular season that gave Rodgers his second straight MVP and fourth overall, everyone seemed to be in their happy place.
But did another early playoff exit, this time in the NFC divisional round at home against the San Francisco 49ers where Rodgers did not play well kill the vibe? The Packers believe they can run it back with Rodgers and receiver Davante Adams, who would become a free agent next month if they don’t sign him or tag him, but at this point, that seems up to Rodgers.
They have major salary-cap problems, and Rodgers said he doesn’t want to be part of a rebuild. But coach Matt LaFleur insisted they can make it work and contend for a Super Bowl.
Projected salary-cap space: $48,910,955 over the projected cap
Potential cut candidates: OLB Za'Darius Smith seems most likely. He had back surgery following the season opener and didn’t return until the playoffs. He counts $28 million against the 2022 salary cap, and they would pick up $15.75 million in cap space if they moved on. A bounce-back year by Preston Smith and the emergence of Rashan Gary make him expendable. The Packers need to create even more cap space, so guys like WR Randall Cobb, T Billy Turner, TE Marcedes Lewis, DT Dean Lowry, S Adrian Amos and K Mason Crosby could be on the way out.
The big question: What will Rodgers do? And when will he do it? He said he won’t take long to decide. The start of free agency on March 16 seems like the absolute latest, but they probably need to know at least a week before so they can begin restructuring contracts or cutting players because they have to be under the salary cap by the start of free agency. No one knows for sure what Rodgers will do and when he will do it, so the Packers almost certainly have one plan that involves Rodgers and one that doesn't. But until he decides, they’re essentially at a standstill.
Best-case offseason scenario: Rodgers and Adams return, the Packers keep as many veteran players as possible while still re-signing some of their key free agents, they give special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia some players to work with, and everyone is happy. All that would seemingly give the Packers as good a shot at fielding a contender as they had last year.
Worst-case offseason scenario: Rodgers retires or wants to be traded, and it becomes Jordan Love’s team. Clearly, the Packers don’t think Love is ready -- and why would they, based on his uninspiring performance in his only start at Kansas City and in an extensive replacement role at Detroit in the season finale? If they did, maybe they wouldn't be so emphatic about wanting Rodgers back. If they did, then maybe they'd be more inclined to trade Rodgers and get as many high draft picks as possible to aid in the rebuild. This isn’t to say Love won’t be successful at some point, but he doesn’t seem ready now.
Early look at the NFL draft, from ESPN analyst Jordan Reid: Improving the younger depth along the defensive line and providing Rodgers with another perimeter weapon should be top boxes for general manager Brian Gutekunst to check off this offseason. The Packers have identified Day 2 as the sweet spot to take pass catchers, and that trend could continue in a strong receiver class.
Top needs: WR, EDGE, IDL
Top pick: No. 28