It seems an annual thing in the NFL to ask if a quarterback is "elite" and worth a lucrative new deal. Jay Cutler is next in line for this debate, and like most things involving the Chicago Bears starter, the issue is contentious.
Cutler is a polarizing figure and has been for most of his seven pro seasons. Physically, he's as gifted as any top quarterback in the league.
However, it is the mental side of the game that often raises more questions than answers regarding Cutler. Whether it's believing his arm can beat any coverage, or a questionable attitude as a leader, Cutler is rarely seen as a trustworthy quarterback.
That's not a pleasant reality for the player or his agent, heading into a contract year. There's also the not-so-small matter of Cutler's existing contract.
According to Spotrac.com, Cutler will make $8,470,000 in base salary this season. Overall, he will count for $10,370,000 against the Bears' cap.
Those are hefty numbers even if they don't put Cutler on a par with the elite at his position. That's no problem, Cutler's critics would argue. He is not elite and therefore doesn't deserve to paid as if he is.
The problem is one man in Baltimore: current Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco. That's Flacco of the $120.6 million contract.
Yes, that's a lot, but Flacco did just win a Super Bowl. Yet, while he performed ably, even lifting the Lombardi Trophy hasn't cemented Flacco's status alongside Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
If a quarterback few outside Baltimore would likely consider elite can become the highest-paid ever, there is surely hope for Cutler. If that's true, what would prompt the Bears to pay mega money to a quarterback with Cutler's question marks?
Perhaps it would be the one thing nobody can dispute about Cutler: his awesome arm strength. A play from Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys is a perfect example of how Cutler's arm changes a game.
Cutler will aim to expose the Cowboys secondary with a play-action fake, followed by a deep pass to Devin Hester.
Once he receives the snap, Cutler is put under immediate pressure. He is rushed through the middle and from the edge.
So Cutler is unable to step up in the pocket and into the long throw. Yet, despite not setting his feet, Cutler's arm alone is strong enough to launch the vertical strike to the end zone.
Look at the position of his feet. He is throwing off his back foot. However, Cutler still produces the velocity to find his receiver deep.
In fact, the pass is so strong, the ultra-fast Hester has to dive to complete the catch.
Few quarterbacks can match this level of arm strength. Cutler's talent for launching the deep ball is a major threat to a defense at any time.
It opens things up for the run and the underneath passing game. It also makes play-action a deadly weapon in a Cutler-led attack.
However, as much as it is his greatest asset, arm strength can also be Cutler's most frequent undoing. That's because the brazen passer will often sacrifice the simple for the spectacular.
That nasty habit has led to a century of career interceptions, including 63 since he moved to Chicago in 2009. Four of those came in a Week 2 loss against the Green Bay Packers.
Cutler will attempt to go deep on the outside to his favorite target Brandon Marshall.
However, even before the snap, the Packers are setting up double coverage. They will have the cornerback underneath and safety Charles Woodson over the top.
After the ball is snapped, the bracket around Marshall becomes obvious.
Despite this, Cutler still feels compelled to try to force a throw to Marshall. Worse still, he will attempt it with pressure about to close in.
Throwing while being hit and forcing the ball into double coverage is an obvious recipe for disaster. So it proved, as Tramon Williams snatched his second and Green Bay's fourth interception of the game.
This play shows everything bad about Cutler. There is no subtlety to his decision-making. He simply believes that his arm can make any throw and beat any coverage.
Unlike the play against the Cowboys, Cutler wasn't throwing against single coverage. Yet, that didn't matter against his confidence in his arm. It's almost as if Cutler believes he is the only way the Bears can win. That's despite playing on a team with a strong defense and Matt Forte in the backfield.
Every quarterback makes mistakes. However, making consistently smart decisions is what separates the great quarterbacks from the rest.
Until he rectifies the rash impulses in his game, Cutler won't warrant major money in any new deal.
Of course, Cutler's supporters would say that many of his interceptions are due to the relentless pressure he faces. There's something to this view.
After all, Cutler has been sacked 146 times in four seasons with the Bears. The Packers game from Week 2 saw Cutler sacked seven times.
The Bears have waited too long to significantly upgrade their offensive line. However, at least they finally snared Cutler a more competent left tackle in free agency.
Signing Jermon Bushrod, the man who protected Brees for years, could have a huge impact on Cutler's value. If he isn't spending so much time trying to escape pressure, Cutler will be able to improve his overall mechanics and decision-making.
If he is given the time to allow his physical skills to take over, Cutler could play up to a higher contract. There's also the potential positive influence of new head coach Marc Trestman and his offensive schemes.
Trestman runs a West Coast system, and that will suit Cutler best. He operated a version of the scheme for Mike Shanahan and the Denver Broncos during his first three seasons in the league. Those years were arguably Cutler's best as a pro. He posted a passer rating of 86 or higher in all three seasons.
In 2008, Cutler exceeded 4,000 yards passing, something he's yet to manage in the Windy City. A West Coast offense generally calls for more precise, high-percentage throws.
Receivers are the ones required to make the big plays, but usually after the catch. So there should be less pressure on Cutler to stretch the field whenever the Bears are in trouble.
Trestman is also a quarterback-friendly coach. As offensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders in 2002, he helped Rich Gannon produce the best year of his career and get to a Super Bowl.
Trestman should be able to get Cutler to be more efficient, yet remain just as dynamic. That means the chances of his value increasing come contract time are certainly reasonable.
Perhaps the best way Cutler could improve his stock is to take the Bears to the playoffs. It would be only the second time he has managed it since joining the team. Cutler's overall playoff record is woeful. He has only been to the playoffs once and boasts just a single postseason victory.
Those numbers are never going to encourage a team to draw up a top-tier deal. After all, a winning, playoff-caliber quarterback is what the Bears thought they were getting when they gave up two first-round picks for Cutler.
Winning in the playoffs is what ultimately landed Flacco a deal that will guarantee him $52 million Cutler won't be in that bracket any time soon, unless he matches Flacco's Super Bowl heroics.
Cutler's best hope of a bumper new deal is to rectify the flaws in his decision-making. He should become more efficient under Trestman and could thrive in an offense better suited to his skills.
Yet, any improvements in mechanics and numbers have to be matched by wins and a playoff appearance. If Cutler misses the postseason for the fourth time in five years, then he is worth no more than he is now and should be free to test the market.
However, if he emerges as a more refined passer and takes his team deep into the Super Bowl race, Cutler should command $5-10 million more than his existing salary.
All screenshots courtesy of ESPN, NFL Network and NFL.com Gamepass.