Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery took questions Tuesday during a 90-minute chat on the team's official website. He weighed the pros and cons of using the franchise tag on quarterback Jay Cutler, in addition to admitting this offseason with the club will be his most challenging to date.
With Cutler's deal set to expire at the end of the season, the Bears need to decide whether to sign him to a long-term contract or use the franchise tag. In addition, the club must make decisions regarding the expiring contracts of 11 other starters as well as determine the fates of 10 key contributors -- such as backup quarterback Josh McCown -- with deals set to end.
"Each team is unique and each offseason definitely has a wide variety of challenges in putting together a team that has the opportunity to win championships," Emery wrote in response to a question. "This coming offseason will be the most challenging of the three due to the fact that we have a high number of Bears players with expiring contracts. It's a great opportunity to use all the resources the Bears have to put together a championship team."
Given the team's situation, however, it must allocate those assets selectively. That's part of the reason Emery continues to say the team won't address contracts until after the season, when it has expended enough time to thoroughly evaluate every player and how he might fit in the future in relation to potential targets in free agency and the draft.
So even though Cutler's body of work this season appears to be incomplete due to injuries, it's not exactly a slam dunk the Bears would use the franchise tag on the quarterback because of the ramifications it would have on the team's salary cap, which could hurt the team's effort to make additions at other positions.
"The franchise tag is a tool that's available if both parties can't reach an immediate agreement," Emery wrote. "It protects both the player and the team and allows you to continue to negotiate with the player knowing that you retain his rights for the upcoming season, and the player knows he will be paid within the average of the top five players at this position. The franchise tag for the quarterback position has unique challenges because the average comes out to be such a big portion of your cap and your total money available to spend on other players to acquire to help your team."
The franchise tag for quarterbacks in 2014 is projected to fall in the neighborhood of a little more than $16 million, which would be fully guaranteed with that entire amount hitting a team's books next season. So if the team decides Cutler is the team's franchise quarterback moving forward, it would rather work out a long-term deal with him than be forced to apply the tag.
If the team tagged Cutler, it would be on the hook in 2014 for the projected $16-plus million as well as the cap charge of $18.183 million tied to the contract of Julius Peppers if the defensive end's deal isn't renegotiated. The Bears would have to fit in those deals with potential new contracts for defensive tackles Henry Melton, Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins as well as cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, linebackers D.J. Williams and James Anderson, defensive end Corey Wootton and safety Major Wright provided the club decides it wants to bring them back.
"With the franchise tag being so high for the quarterback position, to use it and not sign the individual to a long-term deal hurts the team because you lose the ability to prorate the amount of guaranteed salary over the length of the contract," Emery wrote. "Proration lowers the salary cap number in relation to that player's contract. Obviously the lower the number in relation to the salary cap, the more players you can sign to help your team reach its goals."