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.