GREEN BAY – When his thumb hit Tweet in the upper right corner of his iPhone 5 screen last Wednesday, Aaron Rodgers was thinking about his feelings, not the potential literal interpretation of his 138 characters and clever hashtag.
9 years ago the G & G took a chance on a 21 year old kid from Cali. It's been an amazing run, looking forward to more memories. #9in9togo— Aaron Rodgers (@AaronRodgers12) April 23, 2014
The intention, the Green Bay Packers quarterback would explain later, was to express gratitude for how his football life had played out thusfar, to give a nod to where he came from (trapped in the Jacob Javits green room as pick after pick after pick in the 2005 NFL Draft went by), where he’s been (Super Bowl XLV champion, NFL MVP) and where he hopes he’s headed (toward a long, productive second half of his career).
To Rodgers, the specifics weren’t as important as the sentiment. Nine more years, eight more years, a dozen more years – point being, he’s in it for the long haul, with much more on his personal to-do list – both on the field and off.
“I would like to play a number of years – for as long as Mike keeps me around,” Rodgers said at last week’s Wisconsin Sports Awards, pointing at coach Mike McCarthy. Rodgers was receiving the Baird Community Involved Player of the Year award, recognizing his off-the-field charitable work. “I would like to play nine more years if possible. But regardless of that … [Last Wednesday] was the nine-year anniversary of me getting drafted by the Packers, it’s been an incredible nine years.
“This place is very special to me. I feel like, as much as I love living in Southern California in the offseason, this is home to me. And I’m going to try and make an impact as much as I can during my time and after I’m done.”
Inadvertent though it may have been, Rodgers’ social media missive did give Packers people pause. His brilliant play in six years as the starter has given the Packers over two decades of sustained greatness at the position, following the 16-year career of sure-fire first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer Brett Favre, whose Packers career ended with an acrimonious 2008 divorce that set the stage for Rodgers’ emergence. What will happen when the organization is without him – not just for eight games, like the Packers were last year because of his broken left collarbone – but for good?
Without a quarterback, retired Packers general manager Ron Wolf has long said, you don’t have a chance in the NFL. It’s why Wolf, after getting the Packers job in November 1991, traded for the little-known Favre in February 1992, giving up a first-round pick to get him. To Wolf, getting a quarterback was his first priority, having seen firsthand during as the young vice president of football operations for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went 0-14 in 1976.
“That time in Tampa, it substantiated what I learned to know and what I believed,” Wolf said. “That in order to be successful in professional football, you'd better have a quarterback.”
And as next week’s NFL Draft approaches, there’s little doubt that the have-nots in the quarterback department are tossing and turning. Those teams know they need a quality quarterback in order to win big in the NFL; the problem with this year’s draft class is that not one of them can be viewed as a sure thing.
Among scouts and draft experts alike, there seems to be a general consensus on who the top four quarterbacks in the draft are: Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Fresno State’s Derek Carr. But ask four people which one will be the best of the bunch, and you might get four different answers.
“I really do believe this is a deep class,” said Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, whose team could draft a quarterback in the first round for the second time in four years, as 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder has been a disappointment. “Now, I don't know what the answer is on who’s the No. 1 quarterback. I think everyone's going to have different theories on that.”
Bortles looks the part of a franchise quarterback (6-foot-5, 232 pounds), but battled inconsistency and didn’t face top-level competition week-in and week-out. Bridgewater is a breathtaking athlete but has hurt his stock with less-than-stellar auditions for teams during the draft process. Carr has an NFL bloodline (his older brother David was the No. 1 overall pick in 2002), but his small hands and slight build are a concern, despite his production.
And then there’s Johnny Football, whose extra-curricular activities, lack of ideal height (5-11) and improvisational style make some wonder what kind of NFL quarterback he’ll make. Others swoon at his stunning talent, his ability to make plays and his impressive durability despite his build (207 pounds) and see potential greatness.
“Out of all the quarterbacks, if I had to take one -- you put a gun to my head and you’re only allowed one -- that would be my guy,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said of Manziel on The Rich Eisen Podcast. (Mayock has Manziel as his No. 1-ranked quarterback in his latest rankings.)
“It's two things: One is off the field. You want him as the face of your franchise. Do you want to manage this kid off the field for four or five years? No. 2 is, you have to believe that he can win from the pocket. And if he can go through his progressions, if he can throw the ball down the field, and then do his ‘Johnny Football’ thing, I think you get the best of both worlds.
“If the answer to those questions is, ‘I’m OK with him off the field, and I believe he can win in the pocket,’ you take him in the top 10.”
And for the team that takes Manziel – as with the teams that take Bortles, Bridgewater or the other quarterbacks – the hope will be that that player will solidify the position as Rodgers has in Green Bay. But just as in 2005, when Rodgers tumbled from being in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick to No. 24 and into a three-year apprenticeship behind Favre, making the right call won’t be easy.
“It’s a tough position to play. So drafting it, getting it right, it’s a tough position, (too),” San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. “There is so much that goes on from a mental standpoint, a physical standpoint, it’s just a very difficult position to play. Some have mastered. Some are at the level of trying to master it, and some never will master it. So it’s just a position that has changed over time. It was difficult from the beginning and it’s still difficult.”
NFL DRAFT 2014: QUARTERBACKS
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Blake Bortles, Central Florida (6-foot-5, 232 pounds, 4.9 seconds in the 40-yard dash): Completed 259 of 382 passes last season for 3,581 yards with 25 touchdowns with only nine interceptions as a junior. … Was 22-5 as a starter. … Has an NFL build with quick feet and good vision but lacks elite arm strength. … Has high football IQ and professional in approach
BEST OF THE REST
2. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville (6-2 1/8, 214, 4.79): Completed 303 of 427 passes for 3,970 yards with 31 TDs and four INTs last season as a junior. … Three-year starter with terrific athleticism and mobility who can throw accurately on the move and also has a quick delivery and very good accuracy. ... Has somewhat of a slight build, which could result in durability issues at the next level. … Must improve deep-ball accuracy.
3. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (5-11 3/4, 207, 4.64): Completed 300 of 429 passes for 4,114 yards with 37 TDs and 13 INTs while rushing 144 times for 759 yards (5.3) and nine TDs in 13 games (12 starts) last season as a third-year sophomore. ... Had a 19-6 career record in 25 starts. … Electrifying athlete who lacks ideal size but has large hands (9 7/8) that allow him to grip the ball well. … Greatest strengths might be his field vision and improvisational gifts. … Must disprove doubters who believe he is immature and driven by celebrity. … Should benefit from evolution of NFL game toward mobile, playmaking quarterbacks in up-tempo offenses.
4. Derek Carr, Fresno State (6-2 3/8, 214, 4.69): Completed 454 of 659 passes for 5,083 yards with 50 TDs and eight INTs last season. …Was 24-15 in 39 career starts. … Athletic passer with excellent movement within the pocket or escaping outside. … Strong arm and quick release but needs to improve on deep throws. … Tough, instinctive player and mature leader with spread offense-fueled big numbers who must prove he can go through all progressions and adapt to next level
5. Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois (6-2 1/4, 226, 4.98): Completed 375 of 568 passes for 5,050 yards with 53 TDs and nine INTs last season. … Had 23-22 career record in 45 starts. … Four-year starter with excellent production at FCS level who was durable and well-respected as a leader. … Extremely quick release and anticipation as a thrower. … Must prove he can elevate his game at the next level after playing in spread/shotgun offense where he wasn’t forced to make a ton of quick reads.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Tom Savage, Pittsburgh; A.J. McCarron, Alabama; Zach Mettenberger, LSU; Aaron Murray, Georgia; Brett Smith, Wyoming; David Fales, San Jose State; Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech.
“I play with a lot of heart, play with a lot of passion. I feel like I play like I’m 10-feet tall. A measurement to me is just a number. ... I’m looking forward to shoring up all the people that are saying that I’m just an improviser. [I] feel like I worked extremely hard this year to all-around hone in on my game, getting better as a pocket passer and as a quarterback in general.” – Manziel, on those who doubt him because of his lack of height and ad-libbing playing style.
Position analysis: It’s hard to imagine the Packers, who’ve done so much right in building a Super Bowl champion and perennial contender, bungling a position worse than they did the backup quarterback spot last year. Overestimating the talents of Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman, waiting so long to bring in Vince Young that he never had a chance to pick up enough of the playbook to put his best foot forward in camp, and being forced to add two backups (Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien) the week of the regular-season opener – it was so out of character for a regime that seems to always be developing young, up-and-coming starters-in-waiting. And wouldn’t you know it, the year they look the least prepared, they lose Aaron Rodgers for essentially eight games to a fractured collarbone.
The good news is, that problem appears to have been rectified. The Packers got lucky when Matt Flynn was dumped by the Buffalo Bills five days before Wallace tore a groin muscle on the opening series of his start against Philadelphia after Rodgers’ Nov. 4 injury, and Flynn had enough recall of his old playbook to go 2-2-1 in the five games he played, keeping the season alive until Rodgers’ heroics in the finale. Tolzien, meanwhile, has the football IQ and work ethic to make him an intriguing developmental prospect who comes with the added bonus of three games on NFL regular-season experience after he was thrown into the fire after Wallace’s injury. With Flynn and Tolzien behind arguably the league’s best player, the Packers now have insurance if their 30-year-old star misses time again.
“We’ve got a very healthy room. We’ve got an excellent room,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of the quarterbacks. “We’ve obviously got the best player in football, we’ve got Matt Flynn, he’s a proven guy, there’s a comfort level definitely there. I know Matt wants to get better, he has room to improve in front of him. And we’ve got a young guy in Scott Tolzien that has a bunch of growth. So it’s a very healthy room, the personalities are excellent. It’s exactly what you’re looking for.”
Draft strategy: Even though McCarthy says the room has “exactly what you’re looking for,” that doesn’t mean the Packers won’t be looking at the position. They were among the teams to have Pitt’s Tom Savage in for an official visit, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Silverstein, and Savage could be the kind of long-term project that would appeal to McCarthy, a former Pitt assistant coach who loves the idea of developing young talent at the position. At the NFL Meetings in March, McCarthy said he’d love to bring four quarterbacks to camp, but he also acknowledged that reps are hard to come by in such an environment. That might mean a Day 3 flier on a quarterback who’s tumbled unexpectedly, or it may mean signing an undrafted free agent or two to participate in the post-draft rookie orientation camp.
While Ron Wolf drafted quarterbacks in seven of his nine drafts, Thompson hasn’t focused on the position as much. In the last 22 drafts, the Packers have taken 13 QBs: Ty Detmer (1992), Mark Brunell (1993), Jay Barker (1995), Kyle Wachholtz (1996), Ronnie McAda (1997), Matt Hasselbeck (1998), Aaron Brooks (1999), Craig Nall (2002), Rodgers (2005), Ingle Martin (2006), Brian Brohm (2008), Flynn (2008) and Coleman (2012).
NEXT: Running backs.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.