With a dozen starters and key players approaching free agency next winter, the Chicago Bears had several conceivable options:
They could pre-emptively negotiate contract extensions with the players they know they want back.
They could make lowball offers and see if anyone was willing to take a bite.
Or they could do nothing -- which in itself is a significant gesture.
Bears general manager Phil Emery has chosen the third option, a defensible position but one that carries risks.
In telling reporters Wednesday that any contract extensions "will happen in 2014 and not during the 2013 season," Emery has guaranteed himself a team of highly-motivated players and also given new coach Marc Trestman maximum flexibility to evaluate the roster. At the same time, however, Emery has risked the traditional side effects of a team consumed by individual contract status. He has also handed his highest achievers more negotiating leverage.
This policy most notably impacts quarterback Jay Cutler, but a host of other prominent players now know they will be playing out the year under their current terms. The full list is in the chart, but it includes 75 percent of the Bears' starting secondary as well as Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton.
It's possible some players will feel shunned by such a blanket policy. Those who are getting up in age -- i.e. cornerback Charles Tillman -- might wonder if Emery has privately decided to move on after the season. There is, of course, an objective counter to reaction. Generally speaking, a good season should merit a good contract offer next winter. But it doesn't always work that way, and Emery's claim that the Bears are in a tight spot with the salary cap could further feed the assumptions of some players.
Cutler is the real guinea pig here and the one whose value could be impacted most dramatically by his performance. Think of it this way: A year ago at this time, did you think that Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco deserved to be anywhere close to the highest-paid quarterback in the game?
Me neither. But Flacco entered last season in the final year of his contract, just as Cutler will. The Ravens won the Super Bowl, giving Flacco the leverage to demand a six-year, $120.6 million deal.
That's an extreme example, and I'm sure Emery would happily pay up if Cutler wins the Super Bowl for the Bears. But deciding to move on from Cutler after the season is also an extreme and unlikely outcome. Chances are Cutler would agree to a cheaper deal now than after the season.
In the end, it appears that Emery is playing no favorites. There is no question is he is facing a roster transition, and he's decided against any early strikes in favor of giving himself full flexibility to cherry-pick after another season of evaluation.
There are no perfect responses to this type of quandary. You can get in just as much trouble for the contracts you do complete than the ones you delay or pass on. Emery has picked his path, and we'll soon know whether it works.