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Aaron Rodgers' season – his riveting, disappointing, fantastic, shocking, tumultuous, must-see, MVP-caliber 2021 season – is over, much sooner than he (or just about anyone else not affiliated with the San Francisco 49ers) expected.
So now what? It's a question that must be broached more quickly than assumed – and with fresh eyes given Rodgers and his Green Bay Packers folded in the playoffs shy of the Super Bowl for the 11th consecutive season. The three-time MVP – Rodgers will almost certainly collect No. 4 next month – had no answers following Saturday's 13-10 loss to the Niners, acknowledging he'd need time to let the immediate disappointment sink in while also mulling his long-term options with a franchise now facing tough choices.
“A little numb, for sure,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to end like this."
Rodgers continued: "It’s disappointing, sad and fresh. I’ll have conversations in the next week or so and start to contemplate after that.”
NFL PLAYOFF WINNERS, LOSERS: Heartbreak for Aaron Rodgers, Packers
The Pack are projected to be more than $40 million over next year's salary cap, and that doesn't even account for pending free agent Davante Adams, a two-time All-Pro receiver who serves as Rodgers' favorite target and one of his closest friends in the locker room. Green Bay is 39-10 in the regular season during three seasons under coach Matt LaFleur, yet he's now 2-3 in the playoffs. Not good enough for Rodgers, who expected to have a second Super Bowl ring long before now. Now, in the aftermath of another sterling regular season – one when Rodgers dropped several hints along the way that seemed to suggest the bridges to Green Bay's front office had been repaired after being napalmed not even a year ago – everyone, AR12 included it seems, is left to wonder where he'll suit up in 2022. Worth noting next season is also effectively the final one on his current contract and would pay him roughly $27 million as currently constructed.
And fun as it is to think about Rodgers teaming up with Sean Payton (the New Orleans Saints are roughly $75 million over the 2022 cap at present) or Sean McVay (the Rams would provide an alluring West Coast base for Rodgers and could easily dump the final year of Matthew Stafford's contract ... but Los Angeles has nothing left to deal from its barren draft cupboard), it seems rather unlikely that Green Bay – if the Packers and Rodgers actually decide a trade is in both parties' best interest – would deal the face of the franchise to an established NFC power.
With all of that in mind, if Rodgers is allowed to shake loose, these eight teams (listed alphabetically) currently seem to be perhaps the most viable destinations:
They're clearly a quarterback away from becoming an unequivocal threat to the Super Bowl crown that continues to evade one of the four franchises to never play on Super Sunday. The talent on Cleveland's roster – and especially its offensive line and run game – would entice Rodgers, though he might want Adams as part of a package deal given the lack of firepower at receiver. And going to Cleveland doesn't get Rodgers closer to Hollywood, though maybe he could be sold on the Hollywood ending he'd enjoy if he became the Browns' long-sought savior. Packers' perspective: Take Cleveland's next three first-round draft picks and bring in Baker Mayfield to compete with Jordan Love in the interim.
They might be the closest facsimile to the turnkey operation Tom Brady found with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two years ago. Denver had a top-10 defense under since-fired coach Vic Fangio, which is nice. But the opportunity to line up behind a promising young O-line, hand off to RB Javonte Williams and throw to – here it is – a target suite that includes WRs Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick, plus Williams and TEs Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam, that's what might really get Rodgers' juices flowing. And that fresh mountain air ... which is just a short flight to LA. Of course, the Broncos need to find a new coach – GM George Paton has already interviewed Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and QB coach Luke Getsy – and may be poised for an ownership change. Still, a lot to potentially like here if you're Rodgers, maybe even the competitive aspect of trying to navigate the quarterback-rich AFC West. Packers' perspective: Take Denver's next three first-round draft picks and maybe then some.
Las Vegas Raiders
We're creeping ever closer to California – and don't forget that Rodgers' fiancée, Shailene Woodley, is an actress or that he, a Golden State native himself, would like that "Jeopardy!" gig. Being in Sin City sure could facilitate a lot, no? Rodgers would also get to take over a playoff team, and one that should have the financial wherewithal to also bring Adams aboard. And given his talent and rebellious proclivity – and, not least of all, the facial hair – doesn't Rodgers just seem like a perfect Raider? Again, another franchise searching for a new coach and also a general manager, factors that would loom large if trying to hit blackjack on Rodgers – but wouldn't owner Mark Davis do anything possible to rig that deck? Packers' perspective: Take Vegas' next three first-round draft picks and QB Derek Carr, who's under contract for one more season at less than $20 million and could maintain Green Bay as a viable contender in the NFC North ... even if he thinks "I am a Raider for my entire life." Not in this scenario, DC.
New England Patriots
Teaming Rodgers and Bill Belichick? Almost sinister, right? Yet they might need one another. Rodgers hasn't won a ring in more than a decade. Belichick hasn't won a playoff game without Brady. Sure, they're both headstrong, but Belichick and Rodgers also know greatness when they see it and are very self-aware regarding their own legacies. If it's Lombardi loot Rodgers wants, there may be no more better option. If it's more convenience in his personal life and organizational sway ... welp, then apply elsewhere. Packers' perspective: Take New England's next three first-round draft picks and QB Mac Jones and maybe flip Jordan Love elsewhere for extra sugar.
New York Giants
If the Packers are going to allow Rodgers to remain in the NFC, they may as well talk to a team that has two of the first seven picks of the 2022 draft and five of the top 81 selections. Again, no coach here at present, but Rodgers would have plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal while getting plunged into a division that's eminently winnable – and would allow him to stick it to Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, his former boss, too. New York isn't on Rodgers' preferred coast, but playing for a flagship franchise in the country's No. 1 media market might more than offset a few cross-country flights. Packers' perspective: They could rake in valuable draft compensation a whole lot sooner than in most other scenarios and could maybe take a look at Daniel Jones vs. Love in the short term.
If the Packers are going to allow Rodgers to remain in the NFC, they may as well talk to a team that has three of the first 19 picks of the 2022 draft and five of the top 83 selections. Philly is also fresh off a surprising playoff appearance, one built largely on a stout O-line and multi-pronged run game – though Rodgers could make better use of WR DeVonta Smith, TE Dallas Goedert and others. Did we mention a division that's eminently winnable – and would allow him to stick it to Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, his former boss, too? What could go wrong? It's not hard to imagine Rodgers' clashing with a tough fan base and in a city that's quite far from home, but stranger marriages have worked. Packers' perspective: They could rake in valuable draft compensation a whole lot sooner than in most other scenarios, and getting Jalen Hurts with two years left on his rookie contract could provide a compelling incentive.
We already know Rodgers and coach Mike Tomlin are founding members of a mutual admiration society. And Rodgers knows the Steelers are one of the league's best-run, most history- and championship-rich franchises – and one that will need a quarterback whether or not soon-to-be free agent Ben Roethlisberger retires. The offensive line needs work, but RB Najee Harris and WR Diontae Johnson headline a nice supporting cast. And a defense built around OLB T.J. Watt and DE Cam Heyward, disappointing as it was overall in 2021, should rebound. Pittsburgh is also a highly underrated town ... though it might only feel like a plus-sized Green Bay to Rodgers. Packers' perspective: Complicated. It's (obviously) easy to write that they should take Pittsburgh's next three first-round draft picks, but that's not how Pittsburgh historically operates – and even that's in question amid reports GM Kevin Colbert could step down following the upcoming draft. Though it potentially makes sense on the surface, this is probably also a long shot in reality.
Speaking of long shots, why not end with one? Rodgers would surely love relocating to the Pacific Northwest, earning the adulation of another rabid fan base while throwing to WRs Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. Seattle is projected to have more than $40 million in cap space, currently more than any other team on this short list. Packers' perspective: Yeahhh. It's not as simple as a Rodgers-for-Russell Wilson swap, even if the latter wants to explore his options, according to NFL Network, and concluded his college career at the University of Wisconsin. Wilson has built a carefully crafted brand and media presence over the past decade – hard to see that flourishing in Green Bay – and can veto any trade. Maybe it could work as a three-way deal if Seattle could find a destination Wilson fancies, though the Seahawks' lack of a first-round pick in 2022 doesn't give the Pack a whole lot of immediate reason to engage. Fun to ponder even if unlikelier than the Pittsburgh scenario.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Aaron Rodgers' next team? 8 fits if QB splits with Packers