Initial reports of Jay Cutler's seven-year, $126 million contract extension struck fear in even the most loyal Chicago Bears fans, many of whom wondered about the wisdom of committing so much money to a soon-to-be 31-year-old quarterback with one Pro Bowl appearance, one playoff victory and 12 missed starts in his past three seasons.
Details of the deal, however, reveal the Bears did an exceptional job of paying Cutler a market rate while also maintaining substantial roster and salary-cap flexibility.
The bottom line, based on information available in ESPN's Roster Management System, is that the Bears have committed to Cutler for the next three seasons. He'll receive $54 million over that span, an average annual salary of $18 million that -- as high as it seems -- will rank behind five starters next season. For perspective, consider that his three-year average is identical to what Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's receives and is slightly higher than that of the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford.
Importantly, the Bears can cut ties with Cutler as early as 2017 without paying him anything more or having him count a cent on their salary cap. The four years from 2017-20 are in essence "pay as you go."
Key figures are in the chart. At last look, the Bears had the second-most salary-cap space available in 2014, so it made sense to front load Cutler's cap hits by giving him the highest number of the deal ($22.5 million) in the first year. His cap impact decreases significantly in 2015 and wouldn't jump again until 2019, if he makes it that far.
The Bears got a fair return in exchange for guaranteeing Cutler that $54 million. In order to earn a market-level salary in 2017 and 2018, he'll need to avoid injuries and participate in the Bears' offseason program.
Beginning in 2017, he'll receive $156,250 for every game he is on the active roster. (That accounts for the maximum of $2.5 million in rosters bonuses each year.) He'll also lose $500,000 (known as a "de-escalator") for every offseason he doesn't complete the team's workouts.
I find this arrangement about as fair as it could have been, for both sides, given the circumstances. The deal will at no point drive the Bears into salary-cap hell, nor will it impact their football decisions. Signing Cutler to anything other than the franchise tag would have required a minimum three-year commitment, and that's all the Bears have done.