Is Jay Cutler Worth Even Close to $20 Million a Season?


Mike Sando had an interesting piece on ESPN yesterday looking at the big free agent QB’s and prices they may command (subscription required).  Unfortunately its an insider piece but since posted some comments from it we’ll do the same here. Sando was able to get a cap manager of one of the teams to discuss some potential contracts for players. This was the one that floored me and everyone else:

Jay Cutler is going to eventually get $20 million no matter how much he deserves it. I think there will be a team desperate for a quarterback who doesn’t like the quarterbacks in the draft. Maybe they think they’re close and the GM says Jay Cutler is no different from Joe Flacco, that you can win a championship with him. It just takes one of 32 teams to make that judgment, and I think there’s a good chance someone will. Cutler can still be pretty darn good.

I have to admit I was stunned that a person in charge of managing the cap for his team would believe that Cutler would fetch $20 million dollars per year. Currently there are only four players in the $20 million dollar per year club- Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, and Aaron Rodgers.  Each is there for a number of reasons. Brees is a prolific passer who was a Super Bowl MVP. Flacco is considered to have tremendous upside and put together a tremendous stretch of games that culminated in his Super Bowl MVP trophy.  Its also worth noting that Flacco was only going to receive around $16 million a year before the Super Bowl win and the Ravens were not going to hand him $20 milion a year because “you can win with a guy like Flacco”. Matt Ryan is considered the best young passer in the NFL and looks to be on his way to becoming a 5,000 yard passer. Rodgers is the best QB in the NFL, putting up tremendous statistics and winning a large amount of games.  Cutler is not even in the discussion right now with these four players.

I think sometimes we forget that Cutler is not a young player anymore. There is an argument to be made that Matt Ryan was paid on the dreaded P word- “Potential”.  Now in Ryan’s case it was the potential to win a Super Bowl not be a great passer as he had already established himself as a passer. It is the same reason Philip Rivers became the second highest paid QB in the NFL in 2009. He had enough numbers and success to convince teams that he was going to win it all just like Eli Manning. Ryan and Rivers, in the season of signing, were both 28, right about to enter the prime of their careers. Jay Cutler will be 31 when he takes the field for a new team in 2014.

Potential doesn’t come into play over 30 and it should never cloud the judgment of a team. Cutler’s “potential” year came off his last season in Denver when he threw for 4,500 yards and looked like he had that Rivers/Ryan potential. The Bears traded for Cutler the following season and did extend him at just under $14.7 million a year in new money, which was near the top of the market at the time, but he opted for the short term extension assuming he would cash in after winning some big games for Chicago where Cutler was to be the missing piece to the puzzle. That money was based on potential.

Four years later and no potential was realized. His numbers have plummeted while the average QB numbers, in general, have risen. He has thrown for less yards in his last two healthy seasons than Mark Sanchez of the Jets.  You don’t go back to what a player did at 25 when he is 31 to come up with a pricing point.

It doesn’t mean Cutler has had an easy time of it in Chicago. They have had a revolving door of bad offensive coaches, bad decision makers selecting poor wide receivers and horrific offensive lineman. Cutler did himself no favors either as he carries himself with a bit of an attitude that rubbed many players, specifically veteran defenders, the wrong way. Players didn’t come to his defense and I don’t think he ever assumed a leadership role with the team.

The highest end comparisons you could make for Cutler are Matt Schaub of the Texans and Tony Romo of the Cowboys. Schaub was 31 when he signed his extension and Romo will be 33 this season. Schaub earns $15.5 million a season while Romo earns an inflated $18 million. Neither comes close to $20 million. One of the difficult items in comparing Cutler to other players is the pressure he deals with in Chicago. Last year Cutler saw pressure on 37.5% of his dropbacks according to Pro Football Focus. Romo and Schaub are closer to 30%. That said Cutler deals with it well and is one of the rare QB’s who has very limited decline statistically under duress, perhaps because he is so used to dealing with it. Last season Cutler completed 60.5% of his non-pressured passes and 54.1% of his pressure attempts.

Looking at the last two more or less healthy seasons of work for each QB and breaking things down into yards per pass attempt by throw distance you get the following look at the players:

Jay Cutler YPA

Cutler is considerably less effective than both Romo and Schaub passing down the field and for most QB’s this is where they get paid, not by throwing little dink and dunk passes. For what it’s worth the presence of Brandon Marshall did little to the results and his yardage totals actually decreased, significantly in the 10 to 19 yard category, in 2012 compared to 2010.  I often look at something I call incremental yards which more or less measures actual yardage produced by distance compared to the average NFL QB.

jay cutler incremental yards

Romo pretty much makes his living throwing the ball down the field while Schaub is an intermediate passer. Cutlers failures down the field have made him an average QB overall. Part of that is the Bears offensive design faults and some may be Cutler’s decision making. Romo completes over 40% of his passes over 20 yards. Cutler completes only 28.5%, yet Cutler’s pass selection sees 15.6% of his passes travel over 20 yards while Romo is under 12%.

Those decisions hurt Cutler even more than just yardage, but also in turnovers.  Schaub only throws 9.2% of his passes deep because there is no upside to him doing so.  Even though he completes over 36% of his down the field passes his interceptions per attempt are 8.7%. That works out to a 23.8% interception to completion ratio which is a ridiculous number, so the Texans just avoid it. Cutler is at 8.3% I/A and a whopping 28.9% I/C. Someone needs to just have him stop those passes. Despite the arm strength that is not his game in Chicago and may not be anywhere else.

The bottom line is that he is nowhere near as productive as your next tier of salaried QB’s. I think you can argue about Romo vs Schaub and make a strong case that Romo’s salary should be closer to Schaub’s, but I’m not sure the rationale behind arguing that Cutler should make as much as either of the 30+ year old players, let alone $20 million a season.

The most realistic data point for Cutler should be that of Carson Palmer. Palmer is one of the “potential” graded QB’s simply because of where he was drafted and how he played very early in his career. By the time his days were coming to an end in Cincinnati he was unproductive, even moreso than Cutler, but the distance passing results were nearly identical:

Jay Cutler vs Carson Palmer

The major difference is just the short yardage passing which helped him produce more productive yards than Palmer. Because of his limitations Palmer rarely threw the football deep(8.2% of his attempts)  as a Bengal, a model maybe the Bears should consider with Cutler. The Raiders ended up trading for Palmer in 2011 and then extending his contract for cap relief.

Palmer, a former number 1 pick that the Raiders had bet the farm on, only received a deal worth $10.75 million per year. The Raiders were, at the time, the worst managed team in football and that figure represented a 40% decline from Peyton Manning’s top of the market $18 million per year contract from the Colts. Palmer was 32 years old and 7 years removed from his draft when he signed with Oakland, very similar to Cutler’s situation next year. The Raiders traded Palmer in 2013.

If we bring those dollar figures into today’s salary market, Cutler should be looking at a deal worth $13.1 million a season, a far cry from the $20 million mentioned by the cap manager. Cutler is a bit better than Palmer so maybe we push that to $14 million, but that range is likely going to max out somewhere below $15 million. Those figures are assuming the Raiders contract with Palmer was considered legitimate in the eyes of the rest of the NFL. Given their history it may have been viewed as an inflated price tag.

Of course we can throw this all out the window if Cutler goes out and wins a Super Bowl and is named Super Bowl MVP. If that occurs he has something that Romo, Schaub and Palmer do not, and as we have seen with Eli Manning and Flacco, albeit at a much younger age, the Super Bowl trophy means big dollars to teams. I still don’t think this would bring him to $20 million a year but it may at least be a discussion since teams are certainly showing a willingness to spend big on the plus 30 QB. But without it there is no way a team can pay him based on what they have seen for 8 seasons.

Cutler will have another coach this year that is supposed to be an offensive expert. He has his old buddy Marshall again at Wide Receiver and they brought in Martellus Bennett to play Tight End. The team signed a new Left Tackle and Left Guard. They still have a capable runner and pass catcher out of the backfield in Matt Forte. Cutler is going to need to see his stats go way up this season and see the team go into the playoffs to bring himself into the Schaub/Romo conversation. If he continues to be the same QB we have seen I just can not picture a team going long term into Cutler at the upper tier price level.  Moderate price, sure, but the upper level is going to be very difficult for him to achieve without going on a tremendous run in 2013.