Jay Cutler’s future with the Chicago Bears is harder to predict than it looks.
The Bears must draft a quarterback next year. The front office has to begin the process of replacing Cutler, and do so in earnest. But prematurely kicking Cutler out the door accomplishes nothing unless a better solution is found.
From a contractual perspective, Cuter is vulnerable after 2016, when the guaranteed portion of the seven-year extension he signed runs out. The Bears would take a $2 million cap hit if they trade or release Cutler, but the move would open up $13 million worth of space.
“I don’t know what to do,” ESPN NFL analyst Jon Gruden said on ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike. “It is a complex matter. He’s 33 years old. I think they need a fresh start, the Chicago Bears. And I also think Cutler needs a fresh start. At the end of this year, they’ll probably move in another direction, both parties.”
Herein lie the problems.
For starters, Cutler’s replacement is not in the building. Cutler’s right thumb sprain probably will force the Bears to start veteran Brian Hoyer at the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night. Although Hoyer is flush with experience, he is not considered a long-term solution at the position.
The only other healthy quarterback is practice squad member Matt Barkley, who made four career appearances for the Philadelphia Eagles from 2013 to 2014. Barkley is now on his third NFL team after the Arizona Cardinals waived him in September.
Under no circumstances can the Bears enter next year without a legitimate quarterback option. Coach John Fox will be 62 years old in February. There has to be a sense of urgency at Halas Hall, and moving on from Cutler without a suitable replacement does not help Fox win football games.
The projected list of 2017 free-agent quarterbacks includes Kirk Cousins, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Shaun Hill, EJ Manuel and Blaine Gabbert.
Of course, maybe the right scenario does materialize in the offseason.
In theory, the New England Patriots could offer Jimmy Garoppolo to Chicago for multiple draft picks. In that case, problem solved. But the Patriots may have other plans. Bill Belichick can just as easily wait until Garoppolo’s contract expires after 2017 to make any decisions.
Even if Bears general manager Ryan Pace is lucky enough to land Garoppolo, the quarterback will command a new deal, on top of the hefty compensation owed to New England. Expect Garoppolo to cost in the neighborhood of $18 million per year, the same amount Brock Osweiler signed for in Houston.
And Cutler’s contract, while void of guaranteed money going forward, pays him a maximum $15 million next year — Cutler’s base salary is $12.5 million with another $2.5 million in potential per-game roster bonuses.
That is a relative bargain at quarterback. The Cincinnati Bengals’ Andy Dalton is the NFL’s 23rd-highest paid quarterback this year at $16 million. The New York Jets’ Fitzpatrick is 24th at $12 million.
The theory that releasing Cutler amounts to addition by subtraction is debatable on multiple levels.
“I’ve been in that line of critics of Jay Cutler’s, but when you stand back and look at it, he doesn’t have much of a supporting cast,” Gruden added. “He’s had six offensive coordinators. He’s on his third head coach in four years. There is a lengthy list of things that Cutler has not had going for him. Most of all, I just don’t think this is a very good football team overall. I think they have a long way to go.
“He makes some bad decisions. He makes some risky decisions … because he has to. He’s under duress. They don’t have guys wide open. And there are times where their defense hasn’t played very well, either.”