Current Estimated 2016 Cap Space: $52.6 million
Expected 2016 Cap Space: $67.1 million
Every year we are surprised when successful football teams either falter or fail to bounce back after a season that fans and media alike both seem to consider an aberration. From 2010 through 2013 the Bears were a successful team. They made the conference championships in 2010, won 10 games in 2012, and won 8 games in 2013 despite losing their starting quarterback for a few games. They seemed like a team poised to break out and they went into 2014’s free agency period, spent some money, and then struggled through a 5 win season.
In 2015 they hired John Fox to coach the team and get some return on their investments, but just 3 games into the season they are already selling of pieces after realizing they are one of the worst teams in the NFL.They are one of the best examples (and there are many this year) of how successful teams crash and burn because of poor management and a lack of ability to critically scout themselves as they make big financial decisions.
Bears tight end Martellus Bennett is unhappy with his contract and according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter is now available in a trade. Bennett is in the third year of a four year contract that he signed with Chicago that averages $5.1 million per season and he will earn $5 million this year. Those numbers rank 13th and 12th respectively among the position. Is that a fair figure or does he deserve, (or perhaps more importantly is someone willing to give him) a raise.
At the time Bennett signed his contract I would certainly have considered the contract to be more than fair. Bennett had largely been a disappointment with the Dallas Cowboys before signing with the Giants on a one year contract. In New York, Bennett began to meet the expectations that the Cowboys had for him and that was enough to get him a, at the time, upper mid level contract with Chicago in free agency.
But in the last two years the market dynamics changed considerably for the position. Actually the market probably started to change days after Bennett signed his contract when Jared Cook signed a $7.02 million contract with the Rams that was a surprising deal. That was followed by big deals for unproven players like Dennis Pitta and Kyle Rudolph. The market then was turned upside down when Charles Clay and Julius Thomas sign monstrous contracts this offseason.
Over the last two seasons here is how Bennett stacks up statistically with the players who earn more than him.
|Player||APY||% Games Played||Targets per Game||Rec. Per Game||Yards Per Game||TD per Game||Catch rate|
In the above table I have the player’s listed by their average ranking across the final five categories, just to get an idea of how the players have done. In general you can make an argument that he is the 5th most productive veteran despite earning $1.3M less than the next closest player (the always injured Pitta). Bennett really doesn’t have a standout category, but he is steady across the board.
If we make each category a multiple of the contract’s annual value we get the following:
If we apply those averages to Bennett we get a salary range between $7 and $9.1 million, with an average of just under $8.3 million a year. So I think it’s fair to say that Bennett is certainly underpaid right now.
Now being underpaid, especially with two years remaining on a contract you signed as a veteran, doesn’t mean you should or will get a new contract, but it makes sense for Bennett to try. If Bennett plays his contract out he will be 30 when he hits free agency and while that may not be the kiss of death it is for other positions, it is not an ideal situation.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is the uncertainty that surrounds Chicago. Bennett right now is in a position of strength from a statistical standpoint. Whether those numbers will continue in a different style offense that has lost Brandon Marshall and stands to lose Matt Forte within a year is a matter of debate. The new staff has no allegiance to Jay Cutler either and if he goes the numbers most certainly will drop.
Last year Vernon Davis was in a similar spot and tried to play his cards to get an extension since he was coming off a terrific season. He knew his role would likely diminish in 2014 and with it his chance of top dollar. The 49ers never would extend him and Davis was a disaster. Another year like that and he will be playing for a very low salary as a free agent in 2016. That is the kind of situation that Bennett wants to avoid.
I don’t believe the Bears would extend him. Often a new front office does not want to get a reputation for being very eager to re-negotiate team friendly contracts that have multiple years remaining. The Bears are undergoing a facelift and it is doubtful they see Bennett as part of a long term solution. So they should be open to trading him and getting anything in return.
The question now is if a team would be willing to trade for him and extend him? When you look at the current prices for free agents I would say it is clear that a market exists and that teams should be open to doing it. Because Bennett has two years remaining at just under $10.2 million, a team could conceivably extend him for $8 million a year over three new contract years, but have an effective cost of just $6.84 million in doing so. Since the new team, unlike Chicago, paid no bonus money or any other considerations they would clearly look at this as a 5, rather than 3 year deal. He is still a good bargain under $7 million.
Whether he would reach $8 million is of course debatable. My feeling is that at best he would get the $7.5M that is similar to Olsen. There is also the consideration that teams were unwilling to pay Clay and Cameron more than the $7.5M number and those teams that passed on them are the same ones that will be bidding here. While Bennett is better than those players he is also older and has less upside. There is also a question about chemistry with him. Realistically he might be looking at $7.2M a season, which would be an effective cost of about $6.4 million. I see that as reasonable.
If Chicago trades him they will gain $3.875M of cap room this year and get his $6.31M 2016 number completely off the books. They traded Marshall, who is 31 and a higher caliber player at a more important position, for a 5th round pick, so they can’t ask for much here either. For a 6th or 7th round pick I would think many teams would be interested, specifically a team like the Falcons who can desperately use a good veteran tight end.
The Chicago Bears are next up in our look at the best and worst contracts series.
I’ve always liked Matt Slauson since he was a member of the New York Jets. The Jets did not seem to care much for him, but he found a home in Chicago and played very well in 2013 on a very reasonable one year contract. Slauson graded out as one of the top Guards in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus metrics and one would have thought it would have led to a contract that definitely surpassed $4 million a season.
The Bears acted quickly to re-sign Slauson, who seemed to really enjoy playing in Chicago, but did not offer him an over the top contract to avoid free agency. Instead it was a very moderate deal that offered him the peace of mind of knowing where he would be playing in the future and by no means tied Chicago to the player for anything longer than a year.
Slauson’s contract averages $3.2 million a season, which is much lower than the contracts signed by other free agent guards this season including Geoff Schwartz ($4.2M), Jon Asamoah ($4.5M), and Shaun Lauvao ($4.25M). His guarantee, which is essentially his first year payout of $4 million, is less than each of those player’s guarantees, so it is not a situation where he traded in potential upside for guaranteed money.
In no year of the contract will Slauson’s salary cap charge will be more than $3.5 million. The dead money cost of the contract in year two is just $1.25 million and in year three is just $835,000. He can earn an additional $400,000 in back end salary escalators, but those are based on both player and team performance and even if earned would not materially change the value of the contract.
The one concession the Bears did seem to make to Slauson was the use of a fully guaranteed roster bonus rather than a signing bonus. Using this mechanism allows the team to prorate the bonus like a signing bonus but forces them to renounce the teams’ rights for forfeiture recovery due to suspension, retirement, etc… if such thing was to occur at anytime after 2014. I would not consider that a major concession by Chicago if the end result is getting a player around what seems to be a 20 to 25% discount. A nice contract for the team.
I had a hard time coming up with the worst contract on Chicago. They are a team that I do feel overpays on a number of contracts, but uses contract structures that make the contracts more flexible. I personally believe that Jay Cutler is one of the most overpaid players in the NFL and I’m sure readers of the site would have been certain he was the player I would select. The fact is there will likely always be a market for a decent quarterback and the Bears made the meaty part of his contract at more realistic price tags of $15 to $16 million which will make him attractive to other teams in a trade. The additional $7 million he earns this year is the cost I see the Bears being willing to pay to get a first round pick or two second rounders if they do need to move Cutler. That’s not necessarily bad management.
I selected Tim Jennings for two reasons. One is that I felt that this was a “jump the gun” signing that indicated a incorrect reading of the market. Secondly this contract seemed to not follow the same pattern that the Bears used for most of their signings. In 2013 the cornerback market took a major step backwards. While there was a rebound of sorts in 2013, Jennings was the first contract signed at the position.
The Bears will pay Jennings $7.5 million in the first year of his contract, which I think is a high figure. That’s just one million less than Brent Grimes, who I feel is a much better player. The $11.8 million in full guarantees is on the high end for the position as is having over 50% of the contract value fully guaranteed. The contract just seems better suited for a 28 year old first time free agent rather than a 30 year old who probably just gave you the best two years of his career in 2012 and 2013.
For the most part it’s the guarantee on the contract that has me selecting Jennings. His contract was fully guaranteed which is different than almost every other Bears player who has a vesting guarantee during the second year of his contract. I’m not really sure why that was the case, but it stood out to me as something that the Bears gave in on to avoid Jennings hitting free agency, which I am not sure that they needed to do.
Of all the contracts I have done thus far this is the least egregious of any of them. I think a strong argument can be made for Cutler being worse and Robbie Gould being worse as well. But a few of the small things with this one made me classify it this way for the team.
2013’s Best and Worst Bears Contracts:
2013 Best Contract: Charles Tillman (Re-signed with Chicago)
2013 Worst Contract: Devin Hester (Contract expired; Signed with Falcons)
Both contracts are a bit unique in that they contain roster bonuses rather than signing bonuses, however in both cases a portion of the roster bonus if fully guaranteed, which allows it to be prorated over the life of the contract just like a signing bonus. What this does, however, is limit the teams’ ability to ever recover money through a forfeiture. In both cases the players entire roster bonus is guaranteed for injury, but with no games to be played between the signing of the contract and the due date I would say its unlikely that such a clause matters.
Jennings contract is worth $22.8 million of which $11.8 million will be fully guaranteed by the 3rd day of the 2014 League year. That is a great deal for Jennings who will be 31 years old in 2014. His annual value of $5.6 million and 52.7% fully guaranteed essentially upon signing blows away the second tier deals signed last season by Sean Smith ($5.5M per year, 45.2% guaranteed) and Kyle Arrington ($4M per year, 46.9% guaranteed). Perhaps this might indicate an expected upswing in salaries for cornerbacks in 2014.
Jennings will carry cap charges of $5.25 million per year for the next two seasons and then $5.75 and $6.1 million in the final two seasons. With minimal dead money in the contract this will work out to be a two year, $12 million deal.
Slauson will earn $3.2 million a year with $3.9 million essentially guaranteed upon signing. The additional $1 million guaranteed being reported is simply an injury guarantee and is does not vest on a given date. Slauson’s deal could wind up being a one year contract worth $4 million as the team would save $2.015 million in cap room in 2015 if they decided to release him.
Slauson’s cap chargers will be $2.75M, $3.27M, $3.37M, and $3.42M over the life of the contract. $3.2 million is a pretty big raise for Slauson who will now be paid as a lower level starter, a pretty fair price for what he brings to the table. There are also small escalators at the backend of his contract.
The Bears have significantly cut down on their cap space through the five extensions they have doled out in the last week. Between Jay Cutler, Slauson, Jennings, Robbie Gould, and Tony Fiammetta they have used up $33,827,500 in cap room for 2014. Cutler’s deal is certainly open to immediate restructure, but as things now stand the Bears salary for 2014 should be around $114 million giving them around $13 million in expected cap space to use on 20 players to bring the roster from 33 to 53 players.
If the intention is to leave Cutler’s deal alone that it should be a given that Julius Peppers will be released as soon as the NFL allows it, which would free up an additional $9.817 million in cap space. It may also indicate that Chicago is open to extending WR Brandon Marshall who has a cap charge of $9.3 million and is in the final year of his contract. Bringing his cap number down along with the release of Peppers would give the Bears some additional space to use this offseason.
The Chicago Bears were a busy team today re-signing starting QB Jay Cutler, G Matt Slauson, and CB Tim Jennings. With the exception of the Oakland Raiders the Bears had the smallest committed roster in the NFL in 2014 with 28 unrestricted free agents as of two weeks ago. The Bears have now reduced that number to 23 following the singings of these three players to follow up the extensions of K Robbie Gould and FB Tony Fiammetta towards the end of the season.
The reason I would assume that these three signings took place this week instead of last week was the lack of 2013 salary cap space that the Bears had. Prior to the Gould and Fiammetta signings, Chicago only had $1.7 million in cap room. Any contracts signed prior to the end of the regular season that contained signing bonuses would see the bonuses prorate in 2013, which the Bears would not have had room to use. While option bonuses could have been used for 2014 those do not give the team the same protection when it comes to forfeiture clauses.
The rapid extension of Cutler was a bit surprising. Most, myself included, assumed they would have franchised Cutler and potentially shopped him to the highest bidder. To me Cutler is a tough player to judge. He has a tremendous arm but that arm has not translated into wins or statistics, but he has been compromised by a poor performing offensive line and terrible receiving corps. until this season.
Terms of the deal are unknown but his teammate Brandon Marshall seemed to indicate it was 7 years for $18 million a season and it was also reported that he would earn $54 million in the first three years of the contract. Those numbers are essentially identical to the numbers of Tony Romo’s contract with Dallas which was a 6 year, $18 million a year extension with $54 million in the first three years.
That seems like an incredibly steep price for Cutler who has not played 16 games since 2009. He has failed to throw for more than 3300 yards since the 2009 season, though his 238 yards per game in 2013 was his highest total since 2008. By contrast Romo’s lowest total was 255 yards a game, which happened this season. There are better statistical measures to compare the two which can at least paint Cutler in a better light if he threw the ball more often, which I would guess is something that the Bears believe he can do with Marc Trestman as head coach. If you want a comparison of Cutler with Romo prior to this year you can do so by checking out this link to an earlier article I wrote.
I have to assume because of the injury history that a significant amount of money in this contract is tied to being active on gameday. Aaron Rodgers, the highest paid QB in the NFL, has such bonuses in his deal. The length of the deal is likely an indication of two things. One is that significant money is tied in the final two years of the contract and the second is that there will be possible bonuses paid out in year 2 and 3 of the contract that can be prorated for cap relief.
Like the Romo contract its probably best for the Bears, who were going to enter the year with about $36 million in cap space, to simply have base salary in those years and consider prorating it later on once they determine how much cap room is truly needed in 2015 and 2016. Provided that the salary is not fully guaranteed upon signing that can also provide some relief if Cutler does not develop as expected or is injured and you want to negotiate the price tag down. That also helps in trade talks in the event another QB emerges from nowhere to take a job when someone is injured.
Romo’s contract contains $54 million over the first three years but then just $14 million in year 4 to bring his 4 year total to $17 million season before the salaries rise again in the 5th and 6th seasons of the contract, two years that he will likely never see. I have to think the cash flows for Cutler would be very similar with a year 4 number that is very affordable and drags the 4 year annual value down to Romo’s level or below. Considering his is 7 years I would also think that the 5 year annual value could be $17 million or less as he should be earning less than Romo and perhaps that was the compromise the two sides reached.
Cutler’s contract also illustrates the lack of NFL talent at the QB position in the NFL and how the CBA has re-shuffled money so poorly to the QB that even questionable QB’s that have talent and a pedigree will be rewarded. This contract has to make Alex Smith, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Phillip Rivers very happy as they prepare for potential extensions in the next two years. Teams realize if they don’t have a high draft pick the odds of finding a championship caliber QB are almost nil so its best to stick with what you have if your QB has a pulse.
Free agency for the QB position is non-existent. With Cutler gone from the market the next best available player will likely be Matt Schaub who should be released by the Texans. Given the lack of options even coming off a terrible season it may help him get a modest salary. Beyond Schaub is Matt Cassel, who can void the remaining year of his contract in February, and the pure free agents of the always injured Mike Vick and Jaguars starter Chad Henne. Its an awful marketplace.
The re-signing of Slauson and Jennings is a solid move for the team. Slauson was an underrated guard of the Jets who fell out of favor with Rex Ryan and the front office for reasons unbeknownst to me. He is a tough player who helped solidify what had been a terrible line for Chicago. He played for about $820,000 in 2013 and had another $585,000 in available incentives but his goal was to play for a home and he has now found one. Slauson will just be 28 years old next season so Chicago should have him for the prime of his career.
Jennings is a quality veteran cornerback that has been productive in the Bears defense. He made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and is a player capable of creating interceptions which is always a trait teams pay for. There is always the possibility of a cornerback playing Safety on the backend of the contract making a four year contract a solid investment.
The next question for Chicago may be what to do with QB Josh McCown who excelled against an easy schedule in the offense this season. Given Cutler’s injury history it would seem smart to keep McCown who should be one of the more sought after backup QB’s on the market despite being 35 next season. The Bears can’t sign to a new contract worth more than the minimum until March due to his playing on a minimum salary benefit qualifying contract but they could agree in principle on a new contract and then wait until the start of the new League Year to execute the deal. He’ll likely be able to push for a Kyle Orton style contract worth in the $3 million a year range.
Chicago still has a number of free agents to decide on as well as a possible extension for WR Brandon Marshall, who is entering the final year of his contract. The Bears should also negotiate with DE Julius Peppers to see how open he is to a pay reduction. Peppers is slated to earn $14 million in 2014 with a cap figure of $18.183 million. Releasing Peppers frees up $9.8 million in cap room. If he were to agree to a salary of about $6 million the cap hit for Peppers should be about equal to what it would cost to release him and sign a replacement player worth $2 million to take his spot. Considering he could have upside that is a price that may be worth considering.
One of the hot debates in the NFL right now involves the Chicago Bears decision concerning Quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Josh McCown. The two QB’s are almost polar opposites. Cutler is a former first round draft selection with an arm that is among the strongest in the NFL. McCown is the definition of a journeyman, having played on five teams in twelve seasons and only starting a total of 28 games. Cutler will be a free agent in the offseason and a candidate for a franchise tag. McCown will be a free agent as well, and entering the season would have been lucky to receive a $65,000 bonus.
But McCown has captivated the Bears fanbase as well as the eyes of the media. He is the classic underdog that is outperforming the higher paid and better known player. Cutler should soon be returning from injury and Bears head coach Marc Trestman has stated that Cutler will regain the starting job, which is a decision already being criticized. The debate even rages to the offseason with some reasoning that the Bears are better off keeping McCown and letting Cutler walk in free agency.
One can not discount the success that McCown has had since getting his opportunity to QB the Bears. In terms of Yards Per Attempt McCown has surpassed Cutler on every type of throw this season.
In terms of incremental yards, a statistic I keep that measures how many yards a QB generates compared to the average NFL performance based on distance of throw, McCown has generated a positive 249.9 yards compared to a negative 24.6 yards for Cutler.
Interceptions only push the scales in favor of McCown further. McCown has thrown just 1 interception while being expected to throw 5.5. Cutler has thrown 8 picks on a set of throws that should have produced 7.3 interceptions.
That said sometimes these stats don’t tell the full story. Though the two players play on the same team, the strength of schedule has been incredibly different for the two players. Taking out Cutler’s game against the Redskins and McCown’s game against the Lions (since both were short cameos) the pass defenses that the two have faced have put up these numbers in games against other QB’s:
Overall Cutler has had a much more difficult schedule this season, with the only better areas being the 40 yard pass category and pass rush faced. Lets break down the actual percentage increase or decrease that Cutler and McCown post in each category based on their strength of schedule:
This paints a pretty different picture. McCown is producing slightly more yards per attempt but partially that is from working against such a bad defensive set. His completion percentage actually represents less of an increase than Cutler’s has this season. McCown clearly is producing less interceptions, but given his career history it would be amazing for that level to keep up. Cutler produces more touchdowns and is far and away the more productive big play passer, though both are below average. Cutler has also done a better job avoiding sacks this season, though both are good in that regard.
When looking at the numbers in this manner you can see how an argument can be made for Cutler beyond just having more name value. The difference is not great and Cutler has the higher upside to run a more explosive offense.
When it comes to 2014, however, the numbers are close enough to say that there is far more value in the 35 year old McCown at a few million for the year than tagging Jay Cutler for $16 million, But this conclusion is only valid if the Bears do not believe Cutler is a long term solution at the position. To expect McCown to blossom into a quality starter after all these years of being a journeyman is lunacy. Rich Gannon and Steve Beuerlein are the only two to probably have success this late in the career after never establishing themselves as a starter. Gannon would go to have multiple good seasons as QB of the Oakland Raiders while Beuerlein fizzled out.
Bears GM Phil Emery indicated a reluctance to using the franchise tag on Cutler because of the cost of the tag and impact it would have on the salary cap. Emery was willing to spend over $14 million on a relatively unproductive pass rusher in Julius Peppers this season so I think that debunks the fact that $16 million on a QB is unsustainable, especially in light of the Bears cap situation being very open next year compared to this season. In addition the $16 million cap figure in 2014 would rank around 10th in the NFL, nowhere near the top of the position.
The problem with tagging Cutler can be that it sets a baseline value in negotiations that the Bears do not value Cutler at. If you tag Cutler at $16 million and he signs the tender you will need to work that figure into the new contract. Even if he fails to sign it the argument is going to be that the Bears need to negotiate up from that price not down. Cutler is realistically closer to a $11.5 to $13 million per year performer, a number the Bears might not be able to get to if they tag him.
If the Bears new GM sees no reason to sign Cutler long term than there is no need to waste $16 million in cap room and be stuck with someone you do not want. That is exactly what happened with the Chiefs and LT Branden Albert this offseason. Though Albert worked out well for Kansas City and was one of the most effective Left Tackles in the game they only tagged him to trade him. When they were unable to work out a trade that were stuck with a player they did not want and they ended up with a much tighter salary cap situation than they wanted in the first place. That could be a situation Emery wants to avoid.
If the Bears allow Cutler to walk they will not receive compensation for him. They have so many holes to fill and so much cap room there is almost no way that they would not offset his loss in free agency to gain a 3rd round compensatory selection. The Bears gave away multiple first round picks for Cutler a few years back and tagging him gives them a chance to recoup some of that cost from a desperate QB team.
But I don’t think this is a situation where the Bears can simply view McCown as the better player or as a long term answer. This is a situation where the decision is going to be made based on what the Bears internally think of Jay Cutler and if they want to move forward with him. The Bears could be in full rebuild mode next season and when you do that you are better off working in either a young draft pick or a cheap veteran than paying $16 million on a one year rental if they plan on blowing the team up. But it’s not a decision based on McCown’s current performance changing the course of action for Chicago. Chicago was going to face the same decision making process if Matt Flynn was the backup QB. McCown just may make it easier to sell to the public.