While most scoffed at the baseline numbers of Jay Cutler's contract extension—set at seven years, $126.7 million—the structuring of the deal makes it clear that the Chicago Bears received rare options and flexibility when locking up their franchise quarterback.
According to Tom Pelissero of USA Today, Cutler's seven-year extension includes only three guaranteed years and no immediate signing bonus. The deal guarantees the base salaries—totaling $54 million—through 2016, but includes no prorated bonus or other guarantees in 2017 or beyond.
Essentially, Cutler signed a three-year extension worth $54 million, with four extra years of team options. This means that the Bears could flat-out release Cutler after the 2016 season and not suffer any penalty against their salary cap.
Both sides appear to have accomplished their intended goals.
Cutler is now receiving an enormous guaranteed payout in line with other top quarterback contracts handed out over the last 18 months. Drew Brees ($60 million guaranteed), Matt Ryan ($59 million), Tony Romo ($55 million), Aaron Rodgers ($54 million) and Joe Flacco ($52 million) set the table for guaranteed cash, and Cutler's $54 million certainly joined it.
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Also, the annual sum of $18 million paid to Cutler over the deal's first three years is right in line with the other mega quarterback deals. Only Rodgers, Ryan, Flacco, Brees and Peyton Manning will make more in average salary.
At $126.7 million over the life of the seven years, Cutler can easily claim to have one of the biggest overall contracts in NFL history.
Considering that some predicted he would reach free agency without a new deal, Cutler should be pleased with the money he eventually received. He has been rewarded plentifully despite not winning as often as Brees, Ryan, Rodgers or Flacco have.
However, the Bears must be equally thrilled with the structure and flexibility of the new contract.
With just three years of guaranteed commitment, the Bears have established a clear timeline for Cutler and the future of the franchise. Win big during those first 36 months or change at the game's most important position becomes a very real option.
If Cutler remains injury-prone or regresses between now and 2016, the Bears can send him packing without worrying about any money working against their cap in 2017 or beyond.
That's increasingly rare in this new era of quarterback deals where most are designed to give the player insurance in the back end of the contract.
The three years also give general manager Phil Emery time to invest draft picks and the remaining salary cap in fixing a defense that was mostly to blame for a disappointing 8-8 season in 2013. He can do so knowing his quarterback is in place for that three-year duration.
While a divorce after the three years is now a predictable option, so is keeping Cutler past 2016. If he takes a big step under Marc Trestman and delivers like the Bears believe he can, then the deal can keep Cutler under contract through 2020.
|Breaking Down Jay Cutler's Seven-Year Contract|
|Year||Base Salary||Roster Bonus||Cap Hit||Dead Money*|
|*If released. Source: Spotrac|
The early base salaries after the first three years are manageable too: Only $12.5 million in 2017 and $13.5 million in 2018.
In 2017, Cutler would only count for $15 million against the salary cap. In 2018, that number would jump to just $16 million. These are relatively low cap hits for the back end of a big deal such as this one and considerably lower than those of other quarterback deals.
For instance, Flacco will count for almost $29 million towards the Baltimore Ravens' cap in 2016, the fourth year of his deal. That figure balloons to over $31 million in 2017.
Ryan and Brees will each count for over $23 million against the cap in the fourth year of their deals. Rodgers and Romo each have cap hits of $20-plus million coming.
The Bears also have the option to convert a portion of Cutler's base salary into a signing bonus, thereby freeing up cap space early in the deal and prorating the bonus over the full seven years.
According to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, this "automatic conversion" clause was specifically included in the language of Cutler's deal to ensure that the Bears would have flexibility during the early stages of the contract.
For now, Cutler will enter 2014 with a cap hit of $22.5 million. That high number could certainly be restrictive in terms of adding free agents this offseason.
As Biggs mentions, however, if the Bears discover a player they like, Cutler can convert a part of his base salary in 2013 into a signing bonus that would lower his overall cap number. That would then provide Emery with the freedom to make a splash move this offseason, such as adding a big-name defensive player.
Chicago will have that as an option in any of the next three years.
Doing so would force the Bears to pay Cutler longer than the original three years of guaranteed money, but the option does provide flexibility that many big deals simply don't.
Cutler doesn't have to worry about losing any cash either. He'll be paid the same regardless of whether the original cap number is honored or the base salary is converted into a signing bonus.
This is a deal that looks like a win for both Cutler and the Bears.
The quarterback will be paid handsomely over the next three years and Chicago won't need to start over at the position.
But if one side got the better of this extension, it's likely the Bears, who found a way to ensure themselves the kind of options and flexibility that are becoming rare in mega quarterback deals.