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Bears starting quarterback Jay Cutler is in the final year of the extension he signed in 2009 and has the team off to a 3-0 start. But there have been no contract talks so far in-season and the Bears have said they will table any negotiations until after the season. Agents for several of the team's potential free agents said they expected the team to wait until January to try to retain those players.
With Cutler thriving in the new system installed by rookie head coach Marc Trestman, many have wondered if that might expedite contract talks, after a summer in which nothing really materialized. Cutler would be open to negotiations in-season, according to league sources, but neither side is pressing the issue and seem content to let this ride out.
The Bears would apply the franchise tag if need be, should Cutler continue his early season form (based on a $127 million cap projection, the quarterback non-exclusive tag amount would be $16.2M, according to sources). No talks are scheduled and, if/when the sides do sit down, look for Dallas quarterback Tony Romo ($18 million a year on his recent extension) and Matt Stafford ($15.3M per year on his new deal) to be names who would come up in negotiations. Should the Bears have a playoff run similar to what Joe Flacco pulled off in the final year of his deal with Baltimore last year, then the number would obviously go higher.
Cutler, who is making just under $9 million this season, is not turned off by the lack of movement on a new deal, sources said. Like Flacco last year, Cutler seems content to play out his contract and see what the future will bring. The 2014 free-agent market for quarterbacks looks negligible at best, and Cutler would clearly be the best option available through that route, which provides leverage too. After Cutler was acquired from the Broncos, his deal was extended in-season, but that was under a prior regime.
New Bears GM Phil Emery is taking a wait-and-see approach to his group of core players whose deals are expiring, and several agents said they have been given an indication no calls would be coming regardless of how their clients perform. Of course, the Bears have gotten off to fast starts throughout Cutler's tenure there and then often faded down the stretch, making the playoffs just once.
In 2009 they started 3-1 and finished 7-9, in 2010 they started 4-1 and reached the playoffs at 11-5, in 2011 they started 2-2 and finished 8-8 and last year they started 7-1 and ended up 10-6.
In addition to Cutler, top corner Charles Tillman, defensive tackle Henry Melton (who was on the franchise tag and recently suffered a season-ending ACL injury), center Robert Garza, and emerging safety Major Wright are key players in the final year of their respective deals. And, in 2014, aging pass rusher Julius Peppers is set to make $14M and count $17.2M against the cap. The Bears could conceivably release him, taking a $6.4M cap hit (they traditionally have abundant cap space) and use that money to pay Cutler. In 2014 star receiver Brandon Marshall and Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs have expiring contracts.
The bottom line: If Cutler keeps playing this way, the Bears will make sure he stays with Trestman, though avoiding the franchise tag with a quarterback is particularly vital, given that players almost always exercise their right to stay away from all offseason activities when on the tag, which would include OTAs. And even if the Bears did strike a deal with Cutler sooner rather than later, given how budgets are set and how deep into the year we are, the bulk of any new money likely wouldn't appear until 2014 anyway.