Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler could be done for the season after reportedly suffering a partially torn labrum in his throwing shoulder last week against the New York Giants. With his future with the Bears uncertain, this latest injury — he missed five games in September and October with a sprained thumb — could end Cutler’s tenure in Chicago.
Financially speaking, the team can walk away from Cutler without any salary-cap ramifications. Under his current contract, Cutler has no guaranteed money left on the seven-year, $126-million contract he signed in 2014, allowing the Bears to cut him if needed.
But that also means the Bears would head into next season with no clear-cut option at quarterback. So like it or not, Cutler might be Chicago’s best hope under center.
According to Football Outsiders, the Bears have a one-in-four chance of ending the season with a top-three pick in the 2017 draft, perhaps giving them a chance at North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky. However, some mock drafts have Trubisky being selected by the Browns with the No. 1 overall pick, leaving doubt there would be a better option at quarterback for Chicago to draft. And even if the Bears get a passer early in the draft, there is no certainty he will perform better than Cutler could under similar circumstances.
Cutler completed 59.1 percent of his passes for 1,059 passing yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions in five games this season. Last year, despite playing without wideout Alshon Jeffery for half the season, Cutler posted a career high 92.3 passer rating. He also ranked No. 10 in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating that year. With Cutler turning 34 years old in April, it is unreasonable to project he will have close to a career year in 2017, but an average season from him — 85.7 passer rating, 5.9 adjusted net yards per pass — is well within reach. Since 2009, Cutler’s first season with Chicago, just two of the nine passers selected in the top five of their draft have met or exceeded those marks as a rookie: Robert Griffin III and Marcus Mariota, who started just 12 games in his rookie season for the 3-13 Tennessee Titans.
If the Bears decide to cut Cutler and go with a veteran, the free agent market is less certain — especially if Kirk Cousins is re-signed by the Washington Redskins in the offseason. That would leave Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum as the best options at the position, which isn’t saying much. Those three rank No. 16, No. 31, No. 33 (last), respectively, in QBR this season. Gabbert’s QBR could be inflated: He played just five games for the 49ers this season before getting benched in favor of Colin Kaepernick. Nevertheless, over the past three seasons, Cutler has a higher passer rating than all three. The Bears current backup, Brian Hoyer, is also a free agent at the end of the season, so there is no guarantee he could take over permanently in Cutler’s absence, either.
The Bears may also want to keep Cutler because he is cost effective. His base salary is just $12.5 million in 2017 with another $2.5 million in roster bonuses, putting him No. 12 at the position for total cash owed next season. Ahead of him in 2017 earnings is Brock Osweiler (No. 27 in QBR), Sam Bradford (No. 23 in QBR) and Ryan Tannehill (No. 26 in QBR). Being able to save some money at what is considered the league’s most important position has its benefits, like being able to allocate money elsewhere to fix some of the team’s other issues, such as the offensive line.
Chicago’s offensive front has allowed their running backs to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage 22 percent of the time, higher than league average (19 percent) and enough to cause some of the team’s issues moving the chains. As of Week 11, the Bears go three-and-out 23.6 percent of the time, No. 24 lowest in the NFL this season.
Are Cutler and the Bears a match made in heaven? Hardly, but considering what is available, and the risks associated with installing someone new under center, it makes sense that these two kindred spirits stick it out for at least one more year.