With so much focus being placed on the first round of the NFL Draft and who the Cleveland Browns may target as their next “franchise” quarterback, an interesting blurb from Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery has seemingly slipped through the Cleveland media cracks. While participating in an on-line question and answer session on Chicagobears.com, Emery explained the problems with using the franchise tag on the quarterback position and emphasized the negative impact that it will have on the teams salary cap:
“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.”
“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. 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.”
Under normal circumstances, there is not a single thing that Phil Emery said that could be argued. The franchise tag is a very expensive alternative for a team who can ill afford to lose a player to free agency. The Bears are going to be entering year two of the Emery/Trestman regime, and will be looking to “trim the fat” off the old regime’s roster and rebuild it more in their image. The only factor in this scenario which makes it news worthy is the ending contract of quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler has been the Bears starting quarterback since former general manager Jerry Angelo traded two first round picks and journeyman quarterback Kyle Orton to the Denver Broncos to acquire Cutler’s services prior to the 2009 season.
Cutlers time in Chicago has been a mixed bag of results, but mostly falling short of expectations due to untimely injuries on both sides of the ball. While routinely getting off to a fast start behind Cutler’s leadership, the Bears have continually suffered a mid/late season collapse which resulted in only one playoff birth(2010) during his tenure. Having missed 12 games due to injury in his 5 years in Chicago does not sound that bad, but having only played in all 16 games once could be discouraging for Emery and Trestman moving forward. Though when considering the fact that 2013 was the first year that the Bears have been able to field an above average offensive line and receiving corps, it would be unfair to place all of the blame at the quarterbacks feet.
Two factors besides the aforementioned contract status that could punch Cutler’s ticket out of the windy the city would be head coach and “QB guru” Marc Trestman and the apparent coming out party for journeyman quarterback Josh McCown. Trestman has been coaching on the NFL level since 1985, with the majority of his success as a quarterbacks coach for 7 different NFL teams. His most notable accomplishments would be getting career seasons out of Scott Mitchell of the Lions in 1997, Jake Plummer of the Cardinals in 1998, and Rich Gannon of the Raiders in 2002. Trestman has a quarterback friendly system which does not necessarily require elite talent at the position, and given the 3 names listed previously and their success under Trestman, it should come as no surprise that the former CFL Coach of the Year has coaxed a breakout season out of 10 year NFL journeyman Josh McCown. McCown has excelled in Trestman’s system since taking over for an injured Jay Cutler, leading the Bears to a 3-2 record in 5 starts and throwing for 13 touchdowns to only 1 interception. McCown could simply be a “flash in the pan” who will fail to sustain his success or he could be the next in a long line of Trestman reclamation projects that find success on the NFL level. The emergence of Josh McCown could allow the Bears to move on from Cutler while drafting and developing a young quarterback of their own to eventually take McCown’s place. McCown is a free agent after the 2013 season, just like Cutler, but at 34 years old he will have a hard time commanding serious money on the open market and his best fit will most likely be back in Chicago on a moderate 2-3 year deal.
Cleveland being interested in Jay Cutler is the obvious part of the equation. In fact, every NFL team that is looking to upgrade its starting quarterback will have an interest in Cutler. Cutler has the arm talent and athleticism to thrive in the offensive system employed by Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner, and he has proven in his time in Denver and Chicago that he can play well in adverse weather conditions, a must in the AFC North according to many. Perhaps most importantly, Jay Cutler has a huge fan in Browns general manager Mike Lombardi, who in 2011 claimed that Jay Cutler was a top 10 NFL quarterback and strong MVP candidate. There will be a demand for his services and Cutler and his representation are well aware of that fact and will most certainly hold out for the best possible situation. But for the first time in a long time, Cleveland may offer that “best possible situation”.
The Browns have fallen to a disappointing 4-9 on the season, but this Browns team has serious young talent on both sides of the ball. The defense, despite being in their first year under Ray Horton’s aggressive 3-4 and getting little offensive help for much of the year is on the brink of becoming a top 5 unit in the NFL. Already among the league leaders in rush defense, quarterback sacks, and yards per play, it is a playoff caliber defense and only stands to improve as it’s young stars gain more comfort within the system and it’s rookies a better feel for the NFL game. The defense has playmakers at every level and boasts multiple Pro Bowl candidates like defensive backs Joe Haden and T.J. Ward, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, and nose tackle Phil Taylor.
The offense is not that far off either. Though an influx of talent is needed all over the offensive side of the football, the cupboard is far from bare. All-Pro Joe Thomas is one of the games best and would be the best offensive tackle Jay Cutler has ever played with. Jordan Cameron has emerged as a playmaking force at tight end and at 6-5, 255 lbs. the sky is the limit for the 3rd year pro. The jewel of the Browns offense though, is 22 year old 2nd year wide receiver Josh Gordon. Who, despite missing the first two games and having 3 more on the schedule, has already destroyed the Browns single season receiving yardage record and leads the NFL on a yards per game basis. What’s even more impressive about Gordon’s breakout season is that he has done it while facing constant double teams, getting nearly zero support from the running game, and catching passes from a combination of Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer, and Jason Campbell. Jay Cutler, Josh Gordon, and Jordan Cameron would likely be the most impressive passing game trio in the AFC, outside of the Denver Broncos of course.
On top of being a young team on the brink of contention, the Browns are also set up to improve their roster as much as any other team in the NFL. The Browns will be among the league leaders in salary cap space, roughly estimated at over $24 million. They will also be in prime position to add some big time talent on draft day. Cleveland acquired additional 3rd and 4th round selections during the 2013 NFL Draft, and also added the Indianapolis Colts 2014 first round pick in a trade for 2nd year running back Trent Richardson. A move which was heavily scrutinized, but has turned out to be a steal as Richardson continues to plod his way towards mediocrity and the bench in Indianapolis.
Adding a veteran signal caller like Cutler in free agency would enable the Browns to use their draft picks to bring in playmakers and instant contributors on both sides of the ball. Without having to use a pick or pick(s) to secure a starting or future franchise quarterback, the Browns could add a wide receiver like Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans to compliment Gordon. Another weapon at tight end like Austin Seferian-Jenkins or Eric Ebron. Offensive line help like Antonio Richardson, Gabe Jackson, or Cedric Ogbuehi. An explosive running back like Lache Seastrunk, Bishop Sankey, or maybe a power back like Carlos Hyde. Either way, the Browns are in an excellent position to add at least 7 relatively cheap contributors across both sides of the ball in the top 120 picks on draft day.
There is no way to know how the off-season will turn out. And quite frankly there will be no shortage of ridiculous rumors and outlandish scenarios from now until the start of the new league year. But the writing is on the wall for Jay Cutler to hit the open market, and once that happens teams will undoubtedly fight amongst themselves for his services. And while in the past the Cleveland Browns were not considered major players for the NFL’s top free agent talent, there is a new era on the horizon in Cleveland. Believe or not, the Cleveland Browns may very well be the best possible destination and front runner for quarterback Jay Cutler.