SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Nev. -- Aaron Rodgers broke into a smile. A quick one, the kind where your outward glee outraces your caution about showing too much emotion.
The question was about contracts, after all, and NFL players are well-schooled in the art of masking their feelings on such topics. They're not supposed to smile. But the Green Bay Packers quarterback grinned nonetheless, causing one to wonder what was on his mind.
What came out was his appreciation for the new deal signed by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, a competitor and colleague at the same time. Rodgers didn't need to be briefed on the details of the fellow Super Bowl MVP's five-year, $100-million contract.
"You got to say he's a fortunate man," Rodgers told NFL.com. "I don't think he's complaining right now."
Safe to say Rodgers is right on both counts. As the latest star signal caller to get PAID, Brees takes home $40 million this year and rises to the top of the mountain with an average salary of $20 million per year. The agreement begged a New Orleans-style celebration just like you'd expect, with congratulations coming from all corners of Who Dat Nation.
What you haven't heard or seen is the reaction from Green Bay -- aside from Rodgers' crack -- even if it calls attention to what Rodgers doesn't make. You likely won't hear much from either side, with the Packers taking their supreme value in stride and Rodgers not complaining about being one of the NFL's most underpaid players.
But considering the historic regular season he had in 2011, with a run toward perfection and the highest passer rating ever, isn't it time to mention one fact: Rodgers is due for a major raise.
Quarterback contracts in the NFL all affect one another. Brees' deal was not executed in a vacuum. At some point, it will filter down to Rodgers.
"That sets the market for everybody in our business," Denver Broncos executive John Elway said, referring to quarterback deals in general. "And obviously, the agents and everybody tie everything to where the market is. I can't comment on Drew, because he's under contract with somebody else, but I'm just saying the different contracts that come along all the time are the ones that set the market."
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Rodgers and Brees have reason to be linked. Ranked by their peers as Nos. 1 (Rodgers) and 2 (Brees) on the NFL Network's Top 100: Players of 2012, their stats -- and team success -- over the past three seasons are remarkably similar.
Rodgers has led his team to a 35-11 regular-season record with at least a 64.7 completion percentage and 103 touchdowns. Brees boasts a 37-10 record with at least a 68.1 completion percentage and 113 touchdowns. The Saints quarterback's numbers are slightly better, right up until you get to age: Rodgers is 28, Brees is 33.
Yet their levels of compensation are so different it's laughable. Brees joined ranks with some of the game's well-paid greats: Tom Brady and his $72 million over four years, Peyton Manning and his $96 million over five years, etc.
As for Rodgers?
When he signed his six-year, $65 million contract in 2008 -- midway through his first year as a starter -- he was the fourth-highest paid passer in the league. To some, it seemed like a reach because of lack of experience. It was also similar to Brees' first deal with the Saints, a six-year, $60-million deal that offered protection for Brees' previously injured shoulder.
In reality, for the Packers, GM Ted Thompson's move was one of the best contracts in recent memory. Rodgers is making just $8.5 million this year, $9.75 million next year and $11 million in 2014. In the business, they call that a bargain. Rodgers doesn't seem too anxious for a new deal, though.
"That stuff takes care of itself," Rodgers said. "I still have a few years left on my deal, and we'll talk about that when we get there."
Or before it expires? Perhaps. It's tough to say when, but the thought is that eventually the 2011 MVP will be compensated according to his value.
Rodgers could play out his contract, as agent Tom Condon advised Brees and Manning to do, maximizing the back end. But health isn't a guarantee for any player, and Rodgers has dealt with concussions. At the same time, it's one way to get what you are worth. Throw in the fact that the 2015 season could see a 31-year-old Rodgers benefit from a cap number bloated by new television deals, and he can break the bank.
On the other hand, if Rodgers receives a deal a year or two early, he may not trump Brees because Rodgers would likely take less than he's worth in exchange for upfront money earlier. Lots of factors.
"Aaron Rodgers is going to make a lot of money," Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. "And deserves it."
True. But until it happens, the Green Bay Packers will continue to reap the benefits. In fact, so will Rodgers -- it just won't be in the pocketbook.
One quarterback who found himself in a similar position understands. Elway, now the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations, was once the game's highest-paid player. By the time 1997 rolled around, Elway restructured his contract to save the team cap room and theoretically become one of the league's lowest-paid quarterbacks at $600,000. Elway wasn't the only player that year to take a reduction as the Broncos stocked up. They went on to win Super Bowl XXXII.
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Though he wouldn't specifically talk about Rodgers' value because he's under contract with another team, Elway did speak of one important issue. The more Rodgers makes, the less there is for teammates. That's the reality of the salary cap era.
"You gotta look at the salary cap, too," Elway told NFL.com. "There's always a fine line of, if there's one guy eating up all the salary cap, where are the priorities? I know that was something I always looked at as a player. I wanted to make good money. But I knew the more I made, the less there was going to be around me. So, they have to figure that out."