Coming into the 2013 season, arguably the biggest question facing the Chicago Bears was whether or not the team would retain the services of quarterback Jay Cutler.
Cutler, who will be a free agent at season’s end, has disappointed some in Chicago with his inconsistent play and occasional indiscipline when making throws, but for the most part he has been the best quarterback the Bears have had under center since at least the Eric Kramer era, if not earlier than that. He led the Bears to the 2010 NFC Championship game, and looked like he could potentially lead the Bears to another playoff berth this season before a groin injury knocked his season off stride.
Now, with Cutler missing his fourth consecutive game with an ankle injury he picked up against the Detroit Lions, questions over what the Bears plan to do with him have begun to dominate the conversation surrounding the team. GM Phil Emery has expressed reservations about using the team’s franchise tag on Cutler, which would only keep him in the fold for a single season but would eat up a huge chunk of the team’s salary cap space.
In addition to that, a long-term deal for Cutler could have similar consequences. The team has a slew of other free agents getting set to hit the market after the season, including Charles Tillman, Robbie Gould, and Henry Melton, and deciding which of those guys to keep and which to jettison will depend largely on what the Bears decide to do with Cutler.
If the team ends up deciding not to hold onto Cutler, there is at least one team that is reportedly interested in his services. According to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, the Tennessee Titans could be a potential landing spot for Cutler. The Titans are facing a quarterback decision of their own, as former first-round draft pick Jake Locker has a $13 million contract option for 2015 that the team must decide whether or not to pick up.
According to Rapoport and NFL columnist Michael Silver, the Titans aren’t likely to pick up that option, meaning that they will be in the market for a quarterback.
Here is how Kevin Petra phrased it:
“There are doubts the Bears will want to pay Cutler like a franchise quarterback and could part ways with the 30-year-old signal-caller. The former Vanderbilt Commodore still has a house in the Nashville area, and he is thought to be interested in a return to Tennessee, according to Rapoport….
“This is the reason franchise quarterbacks don’t often hit the open market. The bidding war between quarterback-needy teams (see: Texans as well) could get out of hand if the Bears don’t place the franchise tag on Cutler.”
There are several other teams that could potentially make a run at Cutler in the offseason in addition to the Texans and Titans. The Minnesota Vikings have been rotating quarterbacks like a fashionista changes clothes, and it doesn’t appear that Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, or Josh Freeman has the inside track to keep that job.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are another team that could be looking for a quarterback, if rumors about Ben Roethlisberger’s status with the team are to be believed. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Arizona Cardinals are also teams that aren’t exactly set at the quarterback position, so Cutler could find a potential home (and a good shot at the playoffs with the offensively-talented Cardinals) in one of those markets too.
Needless to say, the hope of some Bears fans that there won’t be much competition to retain Cutler, and therefore could potentially drive the price down on him, is a misguided notion. Of course not all of the teams listed would actually make a run at Cutler, but the fact that so many teams don’t have a concrete number one starter is a bit of a scary proposition for the Bears. It means that they can’t just go into negotiations with a bunch of leverage and whittle away Cutler’s demands, and they are likely going to have to overpay in some fashion if they are going to keep him in the fold.
Whether that means giving him a longer-term deal than they’re comfortable with, or giving him a much higher amount of guaranteed money than Emery wants to dedicate to one player, the Bears are going to have to decide what their ceiling is on a Cutler contract. If the money ends up going above that level, then the team is either going to have to franchise him or bid him adieu, and hope that they can get a quarterback in the second or third round of the draft that can step in in the near future.