Each Friday, Eight in the Box will highlight a list of eight players, teams or moments and their impact on the 2013 season and beyond ...
Inevitably, teams misfire on free-agent signings from time to time. So who are the players that could draw problematic deals if they hit the market this coming offseason?
Jay Cutler, Quarterback, Bears: At this point, that the 30-year-old Cuter will be paid more than his remaining value as an NFL quarterback is almost inevitable. Either the Bears will slap a franchise tag of between $16 million and $17 million on him, or he'll hit the open market and find a gaggle of teams willing to pony up dough for a proven No. 1 quarterback.
Under the latter scenario, Cutler might be able to push up and over that projected tag money, which could put him in rarefied air -- only six quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tony Romo) played through 2013 at $18 million or more.
Is Cutler worth that kind of cash? Is he worth $16 million or so under the tag? He's arguably been outplayed by Josh McCown this season and was only a fringe top-10 QB in things like QB rating and completion percentage ... despite being on pace for one of his best statistical seasons ever.
The 2014 season will be Cutler's ninth in the league and he'll turn 31 four months before it opens. Expecting him to be even better than he's been thus far is unrealistic based on his history; paying him upwards of $16-$17 million would be setting the bar too high.
Eric Decker, WR, Broncos: Decker continues to emerge as a star in this league -- he had 85 catches and 13 touchdowns last season, and he's sitting on 73 and eight in those categories, respectively, this season. At just 26, the 6-foot-3 receiver could make the case that he's a No. 1 WR this offseason.
And therein lies the problem for Decker and the Broncos. Decker and Mike Wallace are not the same receiver, but allow us to look at Wallace as an example. He caught just 58 passes last season, but flashed enough potential to garner a five-year deal at $12 million per this past offseason.
Decker's production has lapped that, and WR is one spot where production is often handsomely rewarded. So, for the Broncos to retain Decker, they'd either be looking at a franchise tag (projected around $10.5 million for WRs) or a lucrative, long-term deal. Can they afford to ink Decker for a contract in that Wallace neighborhood with both Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker up for new deals after 2014?
On the flip side, if Decker hits the market, is it possible that he'll match the production expected of a new contract? There's certainly an argument to be made that playing in the Denver system with Peyton Manning at quarterback has made him what he is. In 2011, with Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton tossing passes, Decker finished at 44 catches and just 612 yards.
Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Lions: The thought of finding an athletic, 6-5 tight end in his prime in free agency would have at least a few teams drooling. The performance has never really matched the potential.
Pettigrew's actually in the midst of his worst season since he was a rookie -- 39 catches for 393 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games, with undrafted Joseph Fauria stealing red-zone chances. And that's in Detroit's pass-heavy attack.
His five seasons in the Motor City have been filled with flashes of potential and dropped passes. Some team will gamble that he'll flip the switch permanently.
Anquan Boldin, WR, 49ers: This all comes down to one thing -- age. Boldin was irreplaceable in Baltimore's Super Bowl run last season and then again so far this season for San Francisco, which only now is starting to get healthy at wide receiver.
There are few more reliable offensive threats in the game, let alone guys who can bail out their quarterbacks as Boldin can. But he'll be 34 in October. He's already lasted longer than the mean stay for WRs in this league, and, naturally, a decline should follow.
If a club forks over a three- or four-year deal, it might be difficult to get full value in return.
Branden Albert, OT, Chiefs: Rumors flew around this past offseason that the Chiefs were trying to trade Albert after hitting him with the franchise tag. Now, they face the possibility of having to use that tag again, at a price of approximately $12 million.
Otherwise, Albert figures to walk -- and if there's one thing we've seen repeatedly in NFL free agency, it's that experienced left tackles will find massive contracts somewhere.
Michael Johnson, DE, Bengals: The Bengals apparently have made their choices along the D-line, spending money in places other than Johnson's contract. That means the soon-to-be 27-year-old edge-rusher will be free to play the market this offseason.
He has slumped in 2013, with just 3.0 sacks. He still should be able to persuade some team to sign him based off his 2012 production (11.0 sacks) and the possibility that he's only scratching the surface. Still, buyer beware: Johnson has been inconsistent throughout his career, and he won't have the benefit of playing alongside Geno Atkins if he bolts Cincinnati.
Shaun Phillips, DE/OLB, Broncos: Give credit to Denver for snatching up Phillips on a cheap, one-year deal this offseason with Von Miller facing suspension. And a pat on the back for Phillips as well -- he's at 10.0 sacks, on pace to challenge his career high of 11.5.
Phillips has gone above and beyond on his current prove-your-worth contract. He should be able to parlay his 2013 effort into one last score in free agency. The team that signs him, though, will be adding a player who will turn 33 before next season and who will likely not match his 2013 output.
Donte Whitner, S, 49ers: The magic of a contract year -- Whitner is playing probably the best football of his career in 2013, as he primes to hit free agency. The question is if he can maintain this current level of play beyond 2013, once he's loaded up with a new deal, or if he'll regress to the guy who struggled in last season's playoffs.
Whitner should have enough seasons left in the tank for a team to give him a multi-year deal comfortably. He's setting the bar rather high, however, with his play right now. COVER-TWO: Buy the 49ers' Super Bowl chances