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Accurately framing Jay Cutler’s contract

| March 4th, 2015

Jay Cutler is overpaid and underproducing.

That’s one of the main arguments against Cutler: he was the highest paid player in the NFL last year (even though his cap hit was 3rd highest among quarterbacks), and he stinks.  It’s the reason the Bears need to get rid of Cutler, and the reason nobody will trade for him.

Remember talk of the Bears having to give away a high draft pick to get somebody to take on Cutler’s contract back in December?  That was laughable, and here’s why: the truth of the matter is that Jay Cutler’s contract is right in line for who he is as an NFL quarterback, especially now that 2014 is out of the way on his front-loaded deal.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s take a closer look at how Cutler’s deal compares to the rest of the league’s quarterbacks over the next two years.

2015

Jay Cutler’s 2015 cap hit is $16.5 million, which is 11th in the NFL among quarterbacks.  This is definitely high, but consider that quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Ryan Tannehill are still operating on rookie deals that prevent them from being paid big money.

Even with that, there are 17 quarterbacks in the NFL with a cap hit of $14 million or more in 2015, and 3 with a cap hit greater than $20 million. Eli Manning ($19.8M), Matthew Stafford ($17.7M), and Sam Bradford ($16.6M) all have higher cap hits than Cutler despite being very similar to him statistically (or worse, in Bradford’s case).  The next two quarterbacks after him are Alex Smith ($15.6M) and Colin Kaepernick ($15.3M). Carson Palmer ($14.5M) also checks in within $2 million of Cutler, as does Joe Flacco ($14.6M), who has a low cap hit that will come back to bite Baltimore in the future, as we’ll see in a minute.

2016

Cutler is currently slated to be 9th among quarterbacks with a $17 million cap hit.  But that does not include Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, or Ryan Tannehill, who all have contracts that expire following the 2015 season.  Several of those players will end up leapfrogging Cutler, which should end up putting him in the 12-15 range.

If you assume all seven of the players I listed will have cap hits of $15 million or greater in 2016 (a reasonable assumption, though it’s possible a few may have backloaded deals that don’t have the cap hit that high in 2016), that makes 18 quarterbacks with cap hits of $15 million or more (5 above $20 million), with 2 more coming in at more than $13 million.  Cutler’s cap hit of $17 million will be behind Joe Flacco ($28.5M-have fun with that!), Matthew Stafford ($22.5M), and Alex Smith ($17.8M), and right ahead of Colin Kaepernick ($16.8M).

Cost of doing business

In other words, Cutler is getting paid right about what he should be based on the quarterback contract landscape around the NFL.  Quarterbacks are ridiculously important, and are therefore ridiculously expensive.  If you have a Jay Cutler (or Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Matthew Stafford, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer…), you’re paying him a bare minimum of $15 million a year to stick around.  Otherwise you get to try your luck with the Josh McCowns and Brian Hoyers of the world or try and strike lightning in the draft.  Welcome to the modern NFL.

An added bonus of Cutler’s contract is that it never has a balloon year that destroys the cap like Tony Romo ($27.8M in 2015), Drew Brees (average of $26.9M next 2 years), or Joe Flacco ($28.6M in 2016).  Those types of years give the player all the leverage for a favorable re-working of the deal that guarantees more money and moves it to the future, making it extremely cost prohibitive to move on from the player if their play declines (or forces you to swallow a lot of dead money after they retire).

The Bears (or any team they trade Cutler to) can decide to move on with only $2 million in dead money after 2016, which follows two years of very reasonable cap hits (as I have outlined above).  And his cap hits don’t balloon much after that either, as it doesn’t go above $17 million until 2019, at which point Cutler will be 36 and all the dead money in his deal will be gone.  It’s impossible to predict for sure right now with so many new deals to be signed, but it seems highly likely Cutler’s cap hit will not be in the top 10 among quarterbacks in any of the next 4 seasons.

Suffice it to say that Cutler’s contract is certainly not going to have much negative impact on his trade value, should the Bears decide to trade him.  Anybody looking to get an established quarterback like Cutler is going to pay him very close to that amount anyway.

Not great value

Please don’t take this to mean that I think the Bears must stick with Jay Cutler, or that he provides great value, or that he is a great quarterback.  I think Cutler is an average starting quarterback, but the important point is that he is paid like an average starting quarterback.  Whether or not giving an average quarterback that kind of money is a good idea remains to be seen (I have my doubts), but there is really no denying that his contract is pretty much in line with the current quarterback market.

This is not to say that Cutler’s contract is a bargain.  You can certainly make a statistic argument that Cutler has not produced even to the level of the 15th best quarterback in the NFL, which is roughly what I argue he will be paid like over the next few years.  I personally tend to think Cutler is in a group of quarterbacks who fall roughly in the 14-20 range, which makes his contract about right, but you could argue he’s still a little overpaid. Even if you believe that, understand he’s still not absurdly overpaid, and that there are similar quarterbacks to Cutler with similar contracts.

Of the current quarterbacks signed past their rookie deal, the only two I would classify as bargains are Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.  Brady’s cap hit averages only $15 million a year for the next three years, a bargain for one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Rodgers comes in at around $19 million a season for the next 3 years, but his consistently high level of play makes him well worth that.

Brady and Rodgers, however, are the exception, not the rule.  It’s not fair to compare Cutler’s contract to theirs while ignoring the majority of deals that set the quarterback market and show quite clearly that Cutler’s contract is not unreasonable.

What should Bears do?

Now that we have that cleared up, it is a fair question to ask if Chicago would be better off trading Cutler and trying to start over with a new quarterback in the draft.  That is an interesting debate with valid arguments to be made on both sides, but it is outside the scope of this article.

All I ask is that you please stop listening to the lazy media narrative, examine the facts, and stop incorrectly calling Jay Cutler the most overpaid player in the league.  He was overpaid in 2014, but the rest of his contract now looks surprisingly reasonable.

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