Thursday, December 18, 2014

Oh Where, Oh Where, Will Our Little Jay Cutler Go?

It was just a few years ago that people were wondering why the Denver Broncos would want to trade a franchise quarterback.

Fast forward to today, and that franchise quarterback has been benched for Jimmy Clausen and may be on the move again.

The decision to replace Chicago Bears starting quarterback with Clausen would appear to signal the end of Cutler's tenure with the Bears. Cutler's story has been that of a quarterback who has plenty of talent, but has never been able to reach his potential.

Still, this was a player whom the Bears rewarded with a contract that gave him $38 million in fully guaranteed money for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. If he remains with the Bears by the third day of the 2015 league year, he gets an additional $10 million in full guarantees for 2016. It remains a head-scratching deal for a quarterback who has been inconsistent throughout his career and, while he and the Bears did reach the NFC championship game in the 2010 season, he has no other playoff trips.

One might argue, at the time Cutler signed his new contract, that there weren't any better options available. Still, the Bears could have protected themselves with a contract that fully guaranteed his 2014 salary, then made his 2015 and 2016 salaries guaranteed for injury only.

But that aside, given that the Bears would take too great a cap hit by releasing Cutler after this season, and would still have to pay him $15.5 million, it means that their only option is to trade him. A trade would likely mean the Bears would have to agree to pay a portion of his 2015 salary. The Bears would also have to accept that they would, at the most, get a 2015 second-round pick and a quarterback in return, and might get a conditional pick in 2016 (said pick would be on the condition that the team who acquires Cutler makes the playoffs in 2015).

But who would be the suitors? There are a few teams who could be in the market for a quarterback next season, so let's go over them, from least likely to most likely.

Miami: There is some talk that the Dolphins might want to upgrade at quarterback in hopes of making that final push to the playoffs. And Ryan Tannehill would certainly be an attractive option for the Bears. However, the Dolphins are projected to be slightly over the cap next season (about $2.6 million) and would have to make a lot of moves to fit Cutler's deal under the cap. Since that would mean cutting some players who could help the Dolphins with a playoff push, trading for Cutler would be counterproductive. I think you can safely scratch the Dolphins from the list of suitors.

Philadelphia: The Eagles are a playoff contender that has some question marks at the quarterback position. Nick Foles regressed from last season, prior to his injury, and Mark Sanchez continues to be inconsistent. Philly would be an attractive landing spot for Cutler, as he would join a playoff contender with some good talent in place. And if the Bears get Foles, they would have a solid, young QB. The issue for the Eagles is their cap space is tight, projected at slightly less than $4 million. Philly might be able to free up some space by restructuring contracts, but failing that, they'd have to release some players. The question is whether or not Philly would feel comfortable doing that, and if they truly believe that Chip Kelly can correct Cutler's issues at quarterback enough to compensate for any players they part ways with. Call the Eagles a remote possibility.

St. Louis: The Rams make sense on the surface, given that Jeff Fisher supposedly liked Cutler in the 2006 NFL draft, before being pushed toward Vince Young. There is also a good amount of talent on the Rams, and they most certainly need a better QB, unless they really believe Sam Bradford should get one more season to prove himself. Again, though, the Rams are tight on projected cap space (about $5.3 million), although parting ways with Bradford would free up a lot of space -- but maybe not enough for them to accommodate Cutler's contract and still allow space for draft picks and low-cost free agents. The Rams may be more likely to pursue lower-cost options at QB. As with the Eagles, the Rams are a remote possibility.

Houston: The Texans certainly have the talent in place and a good quarterback could boost their chances of reaching the playoffs next year. Houston is projected to have $10 million in cap space, but could get some wiggle room by either cutting Ryan Fitzpatrick or including him in a trade with the Bears (Fitzpatrick would at least give Chicago a short-term solution). It's possible Andre Johnson could agree to restructure his deal if he believes Cutler could get the Texans back into the playoffs, and Houston could also cut underachieving cornerback Jonathan Joseph. Questions to answer, though, may be whether or not Bill O'Brien believes he can get the most out of Cutler, and if the Bears would be OK with Fitzpatrick in 2015. Call it a 50-50 chance.

Buffalo: The Bills have a lot of pieces in place except for one: A quarterback who can put them over the top. The irony of such a trade is that Kyle Orton would enter the picture again... if you recall, the Broncos acquired Orton as part of their Cutler trade. That doesn't mean Orton would be sent to Chicago, although it's not out of the question. It might also be the chance for the Bills to unload EJ Manuel and allow the former first-round pick a fresh start. The Bills, though, would have to do some maneuvering with the cap (they are projected to be $16 million under), and they might prefer to use that cap space to re-signing pending free agents, most notably defensive end Jerry Hughes. As with the Texans, it looks like a 50-50 chance that Cutler goes to Buffalo.

Washington: We have all heard the stories about Dan Snyder and his love for making splashy moves. And as we all remember, Washington was close to acquiring Cutler back in 2008, when the Bears entered the picture and things unfolded differently. Washington's cap space is projected at $16 million, but Snyder has never been too worried about fitting name players under the cap. As for the Bears, they could get Robert Griffin III as part of the deal and choose not to pick up his 2016 option, while finding out if RG3 can resurrect his career. The only question, though, is whether or not Washington's past flirtations with Cutler were rooted in the idea that Mike Shanahan would coach the team, and we all know that's not happening again. A good, but not great, chance that Cutler ends up in Washington.

Cleveland: It's pretty clear that Brian Hoyer isn't the answer at quarterback, and now some doubts are creeping in about whether or not Johnny Manziel is the long-term solution, even though Manziel has just one NFL start under his belt. Some in Cleveland might think that acquiring Cutler would push the Browns into the playoff hunt, especially because the Browns will have two first-round picks in 2015 to address immediate  needs. Combine that with some players who will return from injury (most notable, center Alex Mack), and an offensive coordinator who might know what to do with Cutler (Kyle Shanahan, Mike's son), and it would appear to be a good fit. The wild card in this situation is obviously Manziel, who would likely become part of the trade package. But would the Browns be that quick to declare the Manziel experiment is already over? And would the Bears be welcoming of Johnny Football into their environment? Another good, but not great, chance of this happening. 

Tennessee: We have heard stories about how Ken Whisenhunt is good at working with quarterbacks, although he hasn't gotten much out of the passers he has in Tennessee. For all of Cutler's faults, he's certainly a better quarterback than any of the passers the Titans currently have. Tennessee is in position to finish with the second overall pick in the draft, meaning they may be forced to decide whichever QB that doesn't go first overall (whether that's Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston) is worth selecting. That could make them consider trading for Cutler, and they will have the cap space to accommodate his deal. With Tennessee, though, there really isn't a QB that would be worth it for Chicago to acquire in a trade, so the Titans might have to throw in a late-round pick in 2015. That alone shouldn't keep the Titans from being one of the more likely landing spots for Cutler, though.

Tampa Bay: Cutler played under head coach Lovie Smith for several years -- and, hey, the Bears could bring back Josh McCown! Seriously, the Buccaneers are definitely in the  market for a quarterback, and if they do get the No. 1 overall pick, who knows if they would be sold on Mariota or Winston. If the Bucs finish with the No. 1 overall pick, and were to acquire Cutler, they could then offer the top pick to the highest bidder. The Bucs do have the cap space to acquire Cutler, and while it's not a given that they would send McCown to the Bears, they could offer Mike Glennon, a very low-cost option. On top of that, the NFC South was a weak division this year and acquiring the right quarterback could thrust Tampa Bay to the top. Finally, Tampa Bay did inquire about Cutler back in 2008. The only question is whether the Bucs will prefer to build around a younger QB. But the chances of Cutler going to Tampa Bay are very good.

New York Jets: And here we go... we all know about how Woody Johnson wants the Jets to be the center of attention and to get back to the playoffs again. And look at all that cap space the Jets have. And consider that their chances of finishing with one of the top two picks are slim, and a couple of teams who may finish ahead of them in the 2015 draft, happen to need quarterbacks. What better way for Woody Johnson to make headlines and fill a pressing need than to acquire Jay Cutler? Of course, you have to remember that John Izdik is the general manager and would probably not want to bite the bullet on such a trade. But if Izdik is fired, Johnson could instead choose to bring in a GM who wants to spend that cap space. The Jets could offer Geno Smith in return as part of the deal, with the idea that Smith could benefit from a fresh start in Chicago. Even if Izdik sticks around, he could be under pressure to make a bold move, and acquiring Cutler would be just that. It's not a lock that Cutler would go to the Jets this offseason, but given the circumstances surrounding this team, the Jets would be the least surprising team to acquire him.

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