2021 looks like Aaron Rodgers’ last dance in Green Bay. So who is he auditioning for in 2022?

·NFL columnist
·7-min read

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Every year since Peyton Manning retired — every single summer rolling into training camp — the marquee hanging over the Denver Broncos' season has showcased the franchise’s defining storyline.

How to resolve the quarterback problem.

Thus far, the quest for a lasting starter has been a “wrong answers only” meme, chewing through a thicket of quarterback mediocrity, from Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler to Case Keenum, Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen. Now 2021 has delivered Teddy Bridgewater versus Drew Lock, which already feels like the latest iteration of irrelevant Broncos quarterback battles. It'll stretch right into the season for Denver as the franchise weighs whether it has anything more than a stopgap behind center.

It may not sound like it, but this is an Aaron Rodgers story for the Broncos. With a defense that has a chance to be among the best in the NFL — but an offense that is only going as far as Bridgewater or Lock can take it — you can’t help but wonder what kind of difference Rodgers would have made if he’d forced his way to Denver this offseason. As one opposing (and thankful) AFC general manager opined this week of the Rodgers and Broncos marriage that never happened: “[Rodgers] would have moved them onto a Super Bowl level this year.”

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers greet each other following Denver's 29-10 win on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver. (Mark Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
The Broncos haven't had stabiity at QB since Peyton Manning. Could Aaron Rodgers change that in 2022? (Mark Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Of course, the Broncos will have to sit and wonder what might have happened — for at least a year, anyway. And they won’t be alone in their curiosity about how Rodgers could have shaped their franchise, with a handful of teams that would have been on a Rodgers sweepstakes if it had unfolded before the NFL draft. For some of those teams, Rodgers’ potential "Last Dance" with the Packers will continue to be a story they’ll watch from afar, holding on to the idea that he could be available via trade in 2022.

With that in mind, here are some Rodgers frontrunners next offseason. How many? Well, it all depends on what unfolds with a swath of quarterback experiments being undertaken by multiple teams this season. Among them ... 

Denver Broncos

Two things were clear at a brief recent visit to Broncos training camp: First, the braintrust is leaning toward Bridgewater as the presumed starter; second, this is going to be a juggling process that will likely last all season. 

Indeed, it should be expected that Bridgewater and Lock will both get starting snaps. The Broncos don’t have the quarterback issue resolved — just like it hasn’t been resolved since the end of the 2015 season. That said, Denver’s defense is talented enough that it’s going to encourage head coach Vic Fangio and general manager George Paton to be decisive as the season unfolds. If Bridgewater or Lock struggles, expect changes at the position.

That kind of uncertainty keeps Rodgers on the radar in 2022 if the Broncos don’t ultimately take a sizable leap on Deshaun Watson (which continues to be a possibility). The flexibility for Denver is that the overall roster — and defense especially — should have a nice window for success. Denver adding Rodgers in 2022 would be very similar to the gamble the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took in 2020 on Tom Brady. The difference is how much the Broncos would have to surrender in a trade, and whether the Packers would hand over Rodgers to a team that would instantly become a Super Bowl contender with his presence. Whatever the answer, Denver will be keeping an eye on what develops over the course of the season in Green Bay.

Washington Football Team

This is another franchise similar to the Broncos, as it could have a Super Bowl-worthy defense by the end of 2021. Washington has talent on offense, too, and head coach Ron Rivera appears to have breathed some new life into the organization. Right now, it looks like a roster that come next offseason, will be only one good quarterback from being a very competitive team in a wide-open NFC. That could make Rodgers very enticing for team owner Daniel Snyder.

There’s a little bit of business to consider with Washington, too, given that 2022 will usher in the team’s permanent name change and open up a whole new world of marketing plans. Success on the field — and a marquee quarterback in the middle of it — could be an undeniable draw for the business side of the Washington Football Team in 2021. If Rodgers can bring a Super Bowl window to Washington for even a few seasons, it will be a tide that lifts all boats ... including the name-change implications that will dominate Washington in 2022.

Philadelphia Eagles

After the Carson Wentz implosion, general manager Howie Roseman is going to grind on getting the quarterback situation right. If you don’t believe that, you only need to speak with virtually every team that has shown some interest in Deshaun Watson — all of whom have put the Eagles right near the top of the list of teams that would compete for Watson on the trade market. Everyone who was initially interested in Watson over the offseason pointed at the Eagles as one of the teams that was intent on getting involved in trade talks.

At the very least, this shows Roseman is serious about any opportunity to get the quarterback position functioning at a high level. And while the age difference between Watson and Rodgers is significant, Roseman isn’t going to miss an opportunity to poke his nose into any trade scenario that could quickly turn the Eagles toward the right direction. If Roseman is interested in Watson (and he is), then he will definitely take a long look at Rodgers in 2022, as well.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers aren’t looking beyond 2021 with Ben Roethlisberger, which automatically opens up Pittsburgh as a possible Rodgers destination in 2022 and beyond. The three factors in play will be what Roethlisberger ultimately looks like this season; whether there are other younger quarterback options on the table; and how Super Bowl-ready the Steelers would be if Rodgers was dropped into the middle of it.

If Roethlisberger plays out 2021 like a quarterback who is at the end of his career, expect the Steelers to have a significant shakeup at the QB spot next offseason. The question will be how general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin view the immediate Super Bowl window. If the right veteran quarterback gets the Steelers into the picture in 2022 and 2023 — and there is no clear younger alternative that makes sense — Rodgers will become a conversation for the Steelers.

Carolina Panthers

This might seem like an off-the-radar spot for Rodgers, but it isn’t. Head coach Matt Rhule went into this past offseason envisioning a post-Teddy Bridgewater scenario where the Panthers could build up their roster to the point of handing it over to a high-level veteran and turning the key on Super Bowl contention. Team owner David Tepper was extremely interested in Deshaun Watson early in the offseason (to the point of being ready to make an aggressive trade offer), but Carolina had to settle on taking a looking at Sam Darnold in a reboot opportunity — and that will be a complication.

Adding Darnold and exercising his fifth-year contract option puts Carolina on the hook for his $18.85 million base salary in 2022. The only way out of that would be to unload Darnold to another team or hope that he could be part of any trade to bring in a veteran like Rodgers. It’s not ideal but if there was one thing we learned when Tepper bailed on Bridgewater after only one season, it’s that he’s not going to slug it out through a second year of Darnold if he struggles in 2021. Especially if there is another high-end option available, which Rodgers would be. 

Tepper’s itch to get the quarterback spot resolved — and Rhule’s hope to build a team that needs only the right veteran quarterback — is what keeps Rodgers in potential plans for 2022.

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