The saga of Matt Forte's contract is over. Another saga may be just around the corner: Jay Cutler's contract. The difference is that after this season, there are still two years left on his contract. If the Bears front office acts quickly, we may be set on the offensive side of the football for quite some time.
It's time to extend Cutler as soon as possible.
There is currently a dearth of replacement-level QBs. Relying on promoted back-ups or signing a vet off the scrap heap means taking a huge step back with your offense. It's the reason QBs like Mark Sanchez, Kevin Kolb, and Matt Cassel are getting ~10m/yr. Legitimate #1 QBs are scarce, and when you have one, you hang on. You don't have to jeopardize your whole cap to do so, if you're smart and if you act early.
A summary of Cutler's contract history: Cutler was drafted in 2006, signing a 6yr/48m contract with an 11m signing bonus. When he was traded to the Bears before the 2009 season, his cap hit was 1.035m with a 4m bonus. The Bears took the opportunity to resign him during that season (Oct 2009) with a 5yr/50m (20m guaranteed, 7m signing bonus) extension despite two more years remaining on his then current contract. This led to cap hits of 2.4m, 3.2m, 9.5m, 9.6m, and 10.4m (2009 - 2013). And that's where he stands now, due to make 9.6m, and 10.4m over the next two seasons.
Drew Brees is in the elite tier of QBs, and under threat of holding out, has just signed a 5yr/100m (40m guaranteed over the first 2 yrs, 20m guaranteed after that) contract, or 20m/yr. His cap hits are 10.4m, 17.7m, 18.7m, and a ridiculous 26.7m and 27.7m the last two years. A survey of the other elite QBs shows the following:
Tom Brady (16m/yr; remaining cap hits: 8m, 22m, 22m): Brady has already restructured his contract twice, including this offseason. His huge remaining cap hits may force the Pats to extend him well beyond age 37 even if his production drops, since there is still >30m in dead money left if they cut him. Such an extension would likely be at a rate comparable to Brees (20m/yr).
Peyton Manning (19m/yr; remaining cap hits: 18m, 20m, 20m, [19m, 19m]): Only the first year (18m) is fully guaranteed, but if he's still on the roster for 2013, then the two 20m cap hits come in (fully guaranteed). The last two years of 19m each are unlikely to pan out, as there is no dead money after that 3rd year. Either way, the Broncos are looking at 18-20m/yr cap hits, and it would be virtually impossible to extend him to open up new space.
Aaron Rodgers (10.8m/yr, remaining cap hits: 11.2m, 12.4m, 13.7m): With the same number of years left and being underpaid, the situation with Rodgers is similar to Cutler, except he's coming off an MVP season and is expected to get more than Brees. Expect the Packers to try and extend him as early as possible for something like 6-7 yrs @ 22-23m/yr, with 65-70m guaranteed in the first 3 years and giant 30m+ cap hits in the last two years. If Rodgers can maintain even 80% of last season's production, he would be smart to decline any early offers until at least next year to leverage higher pay. Either way, it will be a monster contract--the largest in NFL history--and Rodgers will likely restructure at least once to save cap space after it is signed. His next contract will almost certainly cripple Green Bay's cap in the future.
Leverage: it's not just a cheesy show on TNT
Listed below are several factors to consider in any current negotiation with Cutler.
Don't take it so personally
Some players only show their best in a contract year, others when it gets to crunch time. However, there's a certain type of player whose performance is affected by mood. Brandon Marshall, the Beast, is clearly this type of player. I believe Cutler is as well. He often times wears his emotions on his face, and it's fairly easy to deduce when he's having fun out there and when he's frustrated. Hell, sometimes he makes his feelings explicit with 4-letter words to his coordinator. I believe a happy and content Cutler is a better performing Cutler, and no football player is more content when they have long term security.
Who's the real GM?
Cutler was unhappy with his coordinator, so the Bears fired the coordinator. He wanted better weapons to throw to, so the Bears acquired the best weapon he's ever had. He wanted to emulate the success he had in Denver, so the Bears got him the QB coach who helped him blossom. Short of Dwight Howard and the Magic, I don't think there's another example in the past few years of a team trying so hard to please its star.
No matter what happens in the next few offseasons, the Bears can do no better in demonstrating their commitment to Cutler's success than this offseason. That's a lot of good faith currency that can be used at the negotiating table, but good faith doesn't last forever.
Daddy's going to buy you a mockingbird
With his first child, Cutler has a major new factor to take into consideration for the long term. No one likes to think of fatherhood as leverage in a contract negotiation, but it can't be ignored. It's another bit of pressure to get long term security sooner rather than later.
If 2012 is the year of the apocalypse, is 2014 the year of rainstorms?
In 2014, several new (already negotiated) TV contracts are expected to significantly raise revenues, and subsequently, the salary cap. Until then, the cap is expected to remain largely flat at around 120-125m. I'm sure Cutler and his agent have already discussed the idea of waiting for 2014 to make it rain (thanks to JoeVanTheBearsFan for the link). In fact, some unofficial back-of-the-envelope calculations have pegged that increase at up to 30m--a 155m cap! However, other reports have indicated that due to some horse-trading during the lockout, the cap will stay relatively flat, even with the new TV contracts.
No one will know exactly how much new cap space will be created in 2014, since the cap is only recalculated after the previous year's Super Bowl. Is Cutler willing to bet on that uncertainty? Although the Bears may have upwards of 50m in cap space that year, much of their roster will also be free agents. Does Cutler want to compete for dollars then or secure his position now?
Rodgers on the clock
After what Drew Brees just signed, Aaron Rodgers must be licking his chops. The reigning MVP will benefit not only from his own formidable talents, but the evolution of the game to more QB-dependent passing attacks. Every year that goes by without a new contract only increases Rodgers' leverage, and therefore his bottom line. Cutler and Rodgers may be texting best friends, but they are also fierce competitors. Cutler knows he won't see the same money Rodgers will (at least as things stand right now), but they are both central to their teams' long term success, and he will always compare himself to his cheesehead counterpart. If Rodgers gets his contract before Cutler is signed, it will certainly inflate his asking price, justified or not. Green Bay is racing to get Rodgers extended, and the Bears can't afford to lag behind.
One more bite at the apple
Unlike other (non-kicker) positions in the NFL, upper tier QBs are in their prime well into their 30s and are still viable past 35. Cutler is 29, considered to have just started his prime. The choice is simple: he can negotiate an extension now and be set up for another lucrative contract in 4-5 years, or he can wait two years and get one last bite at the big contract apple at age 31. With the right structuring, he can gain significant leverage on that second big contract if he acts now (assuming he maintains a high level of play).
Tag, you're it
With only 10.4m in the last year of his contract, franchising Cutler would not be that expensive--12.5m or the 5 year average of the top 5 QB salaries, whichever is greater (likely the latter). Obviously, we'd be right back where we were with Forte, but the Bears might consider the risk of the tag (and even tagging him again the next year) if they weren't sure of his performance past age 32. However, as mentioned above, the Bears will have up to 10 free agents that year, and may not be able to afford tying up so much cap space with one player. It's a situation both sides want to avoid, and something that should drive them to the table earlier rather than later.
So what's the damage?
Assuming Cutler is willing to be paid a step below the elite tier (which is where he is currently seen), a reasonable extension signed some time during the current season could look something like 6yrs/96m (16m/yr), with 30-35m guaranteed in the first 2 yrs. The Bears could do this by converting most of his 8.5m base salary from the last year of his current contract (2013) into a signing bonus and adding an additional 19.5m of new money for a total signing bonus of 28m. The rest of the negotiated guaranteed money would be roster bonuses in the first 2 years, say 2-3m/yr. The overall structure would look something like the following (all values in millions):
*Residual bonus reflects previous signing/workout bonuses in the last year (2013) of his current deal which cannot be converted to a signing bonus in the new contract
There are several advantages to this structure. For the Bears, it provides reasonable cap numbers (for a legit #1 QB) to continue surrounding Cutler with talent. In addition, the last two years only carry 5.6m in dead money, which protects the organization if there is a significant decline or injury. However, if Cutler continues to perform, the contract give the Bears a lot of motivation to extend him again in 2017 or 2018. In addition, his 2018 take is high enough to make an extra franchise tag year (27.6m @ 120% of previous year) highly unpalatable.
With a bit of good faith, a candid look at the issues, and a little elbow grease, Phil Emery and the Bears can avoid the long and frustrating saga that plagued Forte's negotiation, at the same time freeing up the franchise tag for a different long and frustrating saga. It's not too early to extend him, as he was extended in 2009 at the same point in his previous contract. Time to step up and get this done.