Jay Cutler and the Bears’ Contract Dilemma

The recent play of Josh McCown may have added a new wrinkle to the contract implications between the Chicago Bears and Jay Cutler.

McCown has played well in his five starts for the Bears this season, completing 66.8 percent of his passes for 1809 yards, with 13 touchdowns and only 1 interception. Those are stellar numbers for any quarterback, especially one who spent part of last season at home on the couch as he was signed, released, and re-signed by the Bears in 2012.

Digging a little deeper into the numbers, McCown has produced a +17.4 Pro Football Focus grade to this point in the season. He is completing 72 percent of his aimed throws (a metric that takes away spikes and throwaways to get a more accurate measurement of a quarterback’s completion rate), which ranks him 4th among all quarterbacks who have taken at least 25 percent of their teams snaps this season. Only Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, and Drew Brees rank better than McCown in this area. McCown’s Average Depth per Aimed Trow, or aDOT, is 8.6, and ranks slightly below the league average. This means that while McCown is completing a lot of passes, he’s not taking a ton of shots downfield. He’s been conservative and smart with the football, which isn’t a particularly bad thing as this plays to both his strengths as a quarterback and his receivers’ strengths. Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall are both big, strong receivers who are hard to bring down after the catch. McCown has done a good job of eliminating risks and getting the ball in their hands and letting them do the work. Add in an offense that features the running back heavily in the passing game and these numbers make sense.

But what does this have to do with Jay Cutler?

Jay Cutler is in the final year of his contract and the Bears have a big decision to make when the season is over. The Bears have a few options and are essentially in the driver’s seat. According to Over The Cap, the Bears only have about $80 million committed to the cap for 2014. This leaves them with upwards of $40 million to spend next year, depending on where the official cap is set. Chicago has the cap room to sign Cutler long term, franchise tag him, or let him walk.

It was assumed by most of the league that there was no way that the Bears would let Cutler walk into free agency, and that he would likely be tagged. The recent surge of play of McCown has made a lot of fans and media believe that Cutler could be expendable and that the Bears might actually do the unthinkable and let him go without receiving any type of immediate compensation for him.

This is still highly unlikely. The franchise tag is still the most likely option when taking into account all of the factors – Cutler’s play, McCown’s age and play, how teams view these situations, cap space, etc.

If the Bears tag Cutler, it puts them squarely in the driver’s seat in terms of how they want to handle him going forward. It’s a powerful weapon that allows the team to dictate the situation as they see fit. They can tag Cutler and then search for a trade partner. No matter what you or I think of Cutler, there are many QB needy teams and it’s anticipated that one of those teams will be willing pay a premium for a signal caller that is as physically talented as Jay Cutler.

In terms of how NFL teams think, McCown’s play doesn’t make Cutler expendable. McCown is 34 and clearly not the long-term option for a team like the Bears. McCown is a prime example of QB Purgatory. On film, McCown’s play hasn’t been exceptionally great. He’s done a lot of good things, including taking care of the football, which is a stark contrast to Cutler’s gun-slinging type of play. McCown takes what he’s given but doesn’t possess any physical qualities that jump off the tape.

If you’re interested in the numbers, comparatively in 8 starts in 2013, Jay Cutler has completed 63 percent of his passes for 1908 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. Cutler has posted a +7.5 PFF grade with a 68 percent completion percentage on aimed throws and an aDOT of 9.9, which ranks him 6th in that category.

Cutler’s numbers fall short of Josh McCown’s in just about every way, except for average depth of target. Cutler is taking more shots downfield and when compared to McCown’s numbers, the drop in completion percentages and elevation in interceptions reflect that accurately. However, numbers mean very little without context.

In the weeks where Cutler took the most snaps (weeks 1-6, 10), the Bears are 4-3. When McCown has taken the most snaps (7, 9, 11-14), the Bears are 3-3. While McCown seems to have the better numbers, the Bears actually have a worse record under McCown. When looking at opponents, Cutler’s opponents are a combined 46-44 (51 percent) and McCown has faced teams whose records are now 31-45 (41 percent). Neither has faced a slate of tough competition but Cutler has clearly faced a more competitive schedule based on records. Based on Football Outsider’s week 13 DVOA rankings, Cutler has faced an average of defensive DVOA ranking of 14.7. McCown’s faced an average DVOA ranking of 22.0.

McCown has faced lesser competition and lesser defenses and put up better passing numbers, but with a worse record. Add in the fact that Cutler is younger and one of the most physically gifted throwers in the league, and it seems far fetched that the Bears would let Cutler walk free.

Once he’s franchise tagged, the Bears can try to work out a new deal with Cutler for the long term, let him play under the 1-year guaranteed contract of about $16 million to continue to evaluate him further, or they can seek a trade partner.

A long-term deal for Cutler at this point is possible if General Manager Phil Emery and his staff believe Cutler is capable of being their franchise quarterback for the next 5 to 6 years. While Cutler has improved greatly under new head coach, Marc Trestman (aka the QB Whisperer), injury history and consistency concerns make this option risky. A general manager and his staff essentially put their jobs on the line when signing a quarterback to a big contract. It’s something that isn’t taken lightly and I doubt that Emery is comfortable enough with Cutler’s play and progression to wager the house on Cutler just yet.

The “non-exclusive” franchise tag for quarterbacks in 2014 will reside somewhere in the $16 million range – based on the 5-year average cap percentage for the tag at that position. “Non-exclusive” means that the Bears are leaving the option open for Cutler to be traded. It’s extremely unlikely that the Bears would tag Cutler with the “exclusive” franchise tag, which results in a higher price paid to Cutler while not allowing other teams to negotiate with him.

With the non-exclusive tag, Cutler and his agent can negotiate a new long-term contract with any of the 32 teams – the Bears included. This is why it makes it so likely that the Bears will still tag Cutler. Chicago can tag Cutler and still negotiate with him while ensuring that they’ll be compensated should Cutler agree to terms with another team. And if the Bears and Cutler can’t reach a long-term deal and Chicago doesn’t want to pay $16 million, they can rescind the tag anytime up until July 15th, as long as Cutler hasn’t signed it.

Once Cutler signs the tag, he can still negotiate with the Bears but he can no longer negotiate with other teams. He will either be paid the $16 million guaranteed by the tag or he will negotiate a long-term deal with the Bears, which then supersedes the tag.

If Cutler doesn’t sign the tag and comes to terms with another team, the Bears and that team will then negotiate trade terms. These are tough negotiations as the Bears would have great leverage in the negotiations knowing that this team feels strongly enough about their quarterback to offer him a major deal. The franchise tag designates that a team receive TWO 1st round picks for any player signed by another team. However, teams can negotiate their own terms below this amount of compensation.

The trade terms could vary greatly from recent precedent as it’s between the individual teams to decide the worth of a player. The last quarterback traded in the NFL was Alex Smith this past offseason. Smith was sent from the 49ers to the Chiefs for a 2nd round pick and a conditional pick that eventually turned into another 2nd rounder. The last QB that was traded under the franchise tag was Matt Cassel in 2009. Cassel was sent from the Patriots, along with Mike Vrabel, to the Chiefs for a 2nd round pick (34th overall). The Chiefs signed Cassel to a 6-year, $63 million deal.

Chicago would likely want at least a 1st round pick for compensation in any deal. They might even value Cutler higher than that and ask for a 1st rounder and an additional pick, based on what the Chiefs dealt for Alex Smith. Both the Rams and Browns may be in the market for a quarterback and possess two 1st round picks in 2014. The Raiders could also take a look but they appear to be headed for a top 5 pick that may be tough to part with. In that situation, a 1st round swap of picks plus added compensation seems plausible.

If the Bears did decide to let Jay Cutler walk, they would likely end up receiving a 2015 3rd round compensation pick from the league for him. By team standards, the value of that pick is the equivalent of a 2014 4th round pick. That seems less than appropriate for a quarterback of Cutler’s talent level and a team with a massive amount of cap space in 2014.

It’s almost a certainty that Jay Cutler will be franchise tagged by the Bears. What happens from there is a mystery. It’s most reasonable that the Bears would allow Cutler and his agent to negotiate with other teams and demand a reasonable return in exchange for trading away the QB. It also remains to be seen if the Bears are comfortable with allowing Cutler to play under a guaranteed franchise tag. With the cap space they have available, it’s easy to assume Emery and Trestman would pay that amount to evaluate Cutler over the course of another year. They’d also consider drafting a young backup in 2014 in case Cutler proves not to be the answer.

Either way, McCown’s recent play probably does very little to sway how the Bears feel about Cutler. The two situations are likely mutually exclusive.

I stumbled across this chat with Bears’ GM Phil Emery. This is a screenshot of his response to a direct question about tagging Cutler.

Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 5.58.34 PM

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