One of the subplots surrounding Marc Trestman's first season at the helm in Chicago concerns Jay Cutler's future. The 30-year-old Cutler is in the final year of his contract, and the Bears, despite having ample money to spend for 2014, have taken a wait-and-see approach to the situation.
So, could that impending drama have been in the back of Cutler's mind when he came back early from a groin injury to play Sunday?
"I don't think Cutler rushing back from an injury hurts him as it once and for all answered the [somewhat ridiculous] question about his toughness," NFL writer and salary cap expert Brian McIntyre said. "Stats will be a factor, though. Everyone knows that since the arrival of GM Phil Emery, the Bears have embraced advanced analytics, and this offseason they hired Mitch Tanney [a former college & pro quarterback who worked at Stats LLC] to head up their analytics department."
Cutler's mostly been golden in that respect this season. McIntyre went on to point out that Cutler has raised his value in DYAR ("Defense-adjusted yards above replacement, a stat favored by Football Outsiders) and QBR (ESPN's quarterback rating scale). He is -- or, at least, was until hurting his ankle against the Lions -- on pace to finish with his highest completion percentage since 2007, more yards than in any of his previous three seasons with Chicago and an improved TD-to-INT differential.
Taking four or five weeks to get back on the field after injuring his groin, though, would have thrown those positive numbers way out of whack. Worse yet for Cutler, with backup Josh McCown playing well at Washington and winning in Green Bay came the possibility that Cutler could lose his starting job altogether. That would be the nightmare scenario for a QB on the verge of free agency.
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"With Aaron Rodgers going down I could see him thinking that this is the perfect storm -- he comes back and leads the team to a win against the Lions to grab sole possession of first place, giving them an inside track to the playoffs," said Jason Fitzgerald, founder of OvertheCap.com, a site that tracks NFL contracts and salary cap situations. "Just look at some of the reactions to that game [now]: 'McCown was playing well and gave them a better chance to win'; 'McCown should have started because he's smarter and a better fit for the offense.'
"Staring free agency in the face, you don't want to hear that, and the longer you go the worse it gets. The last thing Cutler can deal with is becoming Alex Smith, where you get replaced by someone else who runs the offense more effectively."
Cutler's standing is difficult enough to figure out on its own. Can Trestman build around him for the next several seasons? Is he an "elite" QB despite having one career playoff win? How much would he command on the open market?
Back in August, an NFL salary cap manager told ESPN.com that Cutler would "eventually get $20 million [per season] no matter how much he deserves it." That's a massive number reserved currently for only Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Drew Brees. The 2013 QB franchise tag number came in just shy of $15 million; it's expected to rise to upwards of $16 million in 2014.
The questions are: What is Cutler worth to Chicago? And did he feel that value slipping at all while he was sidelined in Week 9?
"If the Bears decide to stick with Cutler moving forward, I could see his contract ranging anywhere from Matt Schaub [$15.5 million per year] to Tony Romo [$18 million]," McIntyre said. "If I had to guess, that number would be closer to Schaub's $15.5 million as Romo's camp had all the leverage over the Cowboys in those contract negotiations. Since the Bears will have the option to franchise tag Cutler, they have some leverage over the Cutler camp."
Fitzgerald concurred: "I would think that the franchise tag is a real option for the Bears with Cutler, primarily because it gives them the ability to control his rights in the event they want to trade him to another QB-needy team [Bucs, Browns, Cardinals?]. I can't picture Cutler being worth anywhere near $20 million, nor the Bears signing him to that kind of deal."
No question Cutler had more than his own personal gain in mind Sunday, with the Bears facing a huge game against a division rival. But he also cannot be oblivious to his own personal situation.
This season is one for Cutler to prove his worth to Trestman and the Bears' brass. It's tough to do that from the bench.
Cutler is not the only big name on the cusp of free agency. Let's take a look at how the stocks of some potential free agents are trending right now:
• Maurice Jones-Drew: Falling. Tough to blame all of MJD's struggles on him alone -- the Jaguars are one of the league's worst teams, after all. Still, he has just 432 yards rushing this season on 143 attempts, a dismal 3.0 yards-per-carry average. That number dropped Sunday, as he needed 21 rush attempts to get to 41 yards vs. Tennessee. Jones-Drew is just two years removed from 1,600 yards rushing and his third straight Pro Bowl berth ... but it feels far longer than that. He may be headed toward a one-year, prove-your-worth contract.
• Hakeem Nicks: Holding steady. Barring injury, Nicks' value should not plummet much more than it may have in the early weeks of the season. Though he has yet to find the end zone, he could approach 1,000 yards and he has turned in a couple of nice games for the Giants. Some team should roll the dice that he can continue to be a No. 1 or No. 2 WR.
• Ben Tate: Rising. It will be, at least, if it's not already. Tate is the unquestioned No. 1 back in Houston with Arian Foster shelved for the season, meaning his stats ought to perk up significantly down the stretch. He had 56 yards on 15 carries Sunday at Arizona, but really played better than those numbers indicate.
• Jared Allen: Holding steady. Allen is on pace to finish with his lowest sack total since 2006 -- he had 7.5 that year and is at five this year. Still, he's playing hard each week on a terrible team and still shows the ability to get to the quarterback. Be it in Minnesota or elsewhere, he has displayed enough remaining life to bring home a multi-year deal.
• Daryl Smith: Rising. Considering how valuable Smith has been on the Ravens defense this season, it stands to reason that Baltimore will try to re-sign him this offseason. Working on a cheap, one-year deal, Smith has played more snaps than all but one other Baltimore defender (James Ihedigbo) and he leads the team with 46 tackles.
• Darren McFadden: Falling. If there is anything that scares teams searching the market more than an injury-prone player, it's an injury-prone running back. McFadden continues to be unable to stay on the field -- he has never played more than 13 games in a season -- and so he'll be hard-pressed to find any suitors desperate to pony up big bucks.
• Lance Briggs: Falling ... sort of. Falling in the way discussed with regard to Cutler above -- an injury (shoulder, in Briggs' case) will cost him several weeks of action, and thus several weeks worth of stats on his 2013 resume. However, the Bears definitely miss him when he's not around, so they probably will be up for bargaining with him this offseason.
• Jairus Byrd: Rising again. Byrd signed his franchise-tag tender, then sat out Buffalo's first five games with a foot injury. And it's hard to blame him, really: An injury in a tag year can be a killer for NFL players. Back in the lineup over Buffalo's past five games, Byrd has been plenty solid. If he gets to free agency, he could be one of the most highly coveted guys out there, given the ever-growing need NFL teams have for versatile safeties.
• Jeremy Maclin: Falling. That's a retroactive "falling" designation for Maclin, who tore his ACL in late July. He should be healthy for the 2014 season, but he'll also waltz into free agency with nothing to show for '13. His best bet might be to stick in Philadelphia, if Chip Kelly's team can use him. The offense remains a nice fit for him, and he could regain his footing in a familiar setting.
• Justin Tuck: Holding steady. The sacks haven't been there (Tuck has just 1.5 this season), but it's not for lack of effort. Tuck has a team-leading 27 QB hurries and has been the Giants' top run defender per Pro Football Focus' metrics. Even though he'll turn 31 before next season, Tuck appears to have a couple years minimum left in the tank. If the Giants cannot use him in 2014 and beyond, another franchise will step up.
• Josh Freeman: Falling. Of course, use of the word "falling" implies that there's any room left between Freeman and rock bottom. After an unceremonious departure from Tampa Bay, Freeman latched on with Minnesota, only to flop in one start and be shoved to the bench. He badly needs a team to offer him the chance to compete for a gig -- at least as a true backup -- in 2014. • DeAngelo Hall: Rising. The Redskins released Hall after the 2012 season, then brought him back once he struck out in free agency. Hall may be past his prime, but his recent play ought to be enough to drum up more interest this time around (if the Redskins let him walk again).