Big Decision: Quarterback contracts

Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers all could have new contracts for the 2013 season. Getty Images

First in a series of important offseason issues facing NFC North teams:

Quarterbacks are the most important players in the game. They're also, on average, the highest paid. Those undeniable facts could make for a significant offseason of contract news in the NFC North.

As we discussed in the fall, and as the chart documents, three of our starting quarterbacks are nearing the expiration of their contracts. I would classify two of the situations as urgent, albeit for different reasons. The third is the most undervalued of the bunch.

Could Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford all sign new contracts before the start of the 2013 season? I wouldn't rule it out and, no matter how you look at it, all three must have new contract parameters -- even if it means a franchise tag -- over the next 26 months.

I've tried to minimize the focus on contract issues in recent years because, for the most part, teams have kept the players they wanted most. The cash matters only to the owners, players and agents. As third-party observers, financial specifics are relevant only if they present a unique challenge to the salary cap.

The sheer size of contracts for starting quarterbacks, combined with a projected flat cap during much of this collective bargaining agreement, makes these situations quite relevant. Stafford and Cutler are in urgent situations, requiring franchise-altering decisions to be made perhaps before they throw their next pass, while Rodgers' contract is so outdated that his annual average is about half of what the New Orleans Saints paid Drew Brees last summer.

We'll start with Stafford, who was drafted No. 1 overall in 2009 -- two years before the NFL dramatically lowered the ceiling on rookie contracts. The Detroit Lions have already renegotiated his original six-year, $72 million deal twice to delay the accompanying salary-cap headache, but it probably will come to a head this offseason.

Stafford is projected to count at least $20.32 million against the Lions' 2013 cap, close to the figure that forced the Lions to give receiver Calvin Johnson a record-breaking extension last spring to relieve the cap hit. Lions general manager Martin Mayhew is already on record saying he would like to get Stafford extended as well, and the question is how much of a premium the Lions will have to pay.

Stafford's rookie contract averaged $12 million annually and included $41.7 million in guarantees. Regardless of the CBA changes, agent Tom Condon will want to build on the original deal. Considering that Stafford will turn 25 next month, you wonder if he will finish his career with more on-field earnings than any player in NFL history. Even if he signs a six-year contract this offseason, he'll be only 31 when it expires. Brees was 33 when the Saints signed him to his five-year, $100 million deal.

Brees' deal will serve as the benchmark for Rodgers, who just turned 29. Rodgers' contract runs through the 2014 season, and he has expressed a desire to sign one more contract before he retires. His situation isn't exactly comparable to Brees, whom the Saints made their franchise player prior to the agreement, but a $20-million annual average isn't out of the question if the sides hold discussions this spring.

Rodgers is due to earn $9.75 million in 2013 and $11 million in 2014. From the Green Bay Packers' perspective, the only urgency is the assumption of a rising price tag over time. The longer they wait, the more expensive the deal probably will be.

The Bears, meanwhile, can't wait too much longer on Cutler. Usually a team doesn't want to enter the season with an established quarterback entering his final contract year, but Cutler's situation is complicated by the arrival of new coach Marc Trestman -- who will make Cutler better and more expensive if he is the quarterback guru the Bears believe he is.

In that sense, it might make sense for Cutler to be patient for a deal in hopes an improved 2013 season enhances his value. The Bears, in turn, might want to see how the Cutler-Trestman dynamic plays out before making a long-term decision.

At some point -- maybe in a few months, definitely with two years -- the futures of all three quarterbacks will be addressed decisively. We'll be waiting.