Aaron Rodgers' return has wide-reaching fantasy impact during championship push

Michael Salfino

He’s back.

Aaron Rodgers announced Tuesday night that he’s been medically cleared to play Sunday’s game at Carolina.

Now the question is whether we should start cold perhaps the greatest quarterback to ever play and certainly the best fantasy quarterback of our era (21 points per game over 141 career starts), according to Pro-Football-Reference.

We have a one-game sample in almost the exact same situation, in Week 17 of 2013. That day, against a Bears defense that finished the season ranked 21st in passer rating allowed, Rodgers threw for 318 yards and two TDs. He also uncharacteristically misfired on two picks and 148 of those passing yards came in the fourth quarter in the 33-28 comeback win. The next week, in the playoffs against the 49ers, Rodgers was quiet with just 177 passing yards and a TD (no picks), losing 23-20.

In 2013, excluding the game where he was hurt early after just two pass attempts, Rodgers had 15 TD passes in seven games (2.1 per game). This year in five games he had 13 TD strikes (2.6 per game). Rodgers TD pace given his early performance would be 34 right now. To put a finer point on it, in 2013, he averaged 21.5 fantasy points per game; this year, he averaged 21.4 points. Mr. Consistency. In that comeback game, he totaled 17.2 points (only because of the uncharacteristic picks).

But were those picks a predictable product of rustiness? And what about the seemingly stout Panthers defense? Well, Carolina’s passer rating against is, wait for it, 21st this year just like the Bears in 2013. That’s worse than the Colts. If Rodgers was playing Indianapolis would we be hesitant? I don’t think so. The Panthers are also 17th in passing TDs allowed, tied with the Raiders and the Bucs, and also behind Indy. Again, against all of those defenses, Rodgers would be a slam dunk start. So how much of this hesitancy on the part of some Rodgers’ owners is perhaps undue caution resulting from an inflated sense of the Panthers pass defense.

The injury in 2013 was a similar break. And it’s not like Rodgers has gotten out of a hospital bed yesterday and is starting a football game Sunday. He’s been practicing for weeks. And he’s been looking like, well, Aaron Rodgers, overwhelming the Green Bay first-team defense as the scout-team QB.

I’m betting that he’s better than in the 2013 comeback against a similar caliber of pass defense. Then, in Chicago, the wind was 16 mph and windchill was 14 degrees, hardly ideal for coming back from a broken bone. While this can change, the weather in Carolina on Sunday is forecast to be mild: 52 degrees and partly cloudy with a light breeze.

Note the risk of re-injury is low. He’d basically have to break another part of that clavicle given how fortified the break is with screws and plates.

The other factor here is that the Packers are likely going to need to score. Green Bay’s defense is 19th in points allowed but has allowed over 400 yards four times already this year. With Cam Newton on the other side, there’s a chance this game can evolve into a high-scoring affair. I’m going to go out on a limb and give Rodgers his very chalky 21-point projection. Right now, Yahoo has him at 17.7 points (likely to rise), making him the 13th quarterback, between Marcus Mariota and Case Kennum. Newton is projected for 21.5 points, but if that happens, it actually bodes well for Rodgers.

Put Rodgers at the top of the queue in the tier with the top QBs this week: Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees…. If you have one of those guys, fine, bench Rodgers or let him sit on waivers. But if not, he should be in your lineup. Let the most money fantasy quarterback win you some money in Week 15.

There’s also the issue of how Rodges impacts the rest of the Packers skill players. Basically, the question is whether Jordy Nelson instantly becomes a playable fantasy wide receiver after being lost in the wilderness with Brett Hundley. Yes, he does. But Davante Adams is so clearly superior now relative to the aging Nelson that the former belongs in a separate, higher tier. So Nelson goes up only because there is a bigger passing-game pie now, but Adams should still get the lion’s share of the action. Nelson is going to be largely touchdown dependent and it’s more likely than not that he finds the end zone, given he did so six times in the five games with Rodgers (zero TDs since).

More expected Packers points means a better projection for running back Jamaal Williams, too. And even if Rodgers eschews the running game in the red zone, Williams’ excellence as a receiver (10.5 yards per catch on 22 grabs plus two scores) still makes him a scoring threat.