Jay Cutler will be the best free agent quarterback on the market next year. Many, many teams are in need of a QB. One could argue a handful of teams – Arizona, St. Louis, the Jets, Cleveland, Houston and maybe Oakland – are a “QB away” from being a playoff team. One of the problems Cutler will run into is the NFL draft will provide a very good crop of quarterbacks. Even though Marcus Mariota is staying at Oregon, there’s still Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, Zach Mettenberger of LSU, AJ McCarron of Alabama and a handful of second-tier guys. It’s unclear if UCLA’s Brett Hundley will stay in school or make the leap.
But the biggest problem Cutler will face?
Last July, after Matt Ryan took the Atlanta Falcons to the NFC title game, he signed a 5-year, $103 million deal. If it sounded a bit unreasonable at the time, it looks like a terrible decision now given the Julio Jones injury and litany of holes on the Atlanta defense. The Falcons are 3-9.
The Ravens won the Super Bowl in February thanks to Joe Flacco’s unbelievable postseason, and then gave him $120 million. That deal robbed the Ravens of depth and talent – adios, Anquan Boldin – and they too, suffered a significant injury. Dennis Pitta, a valuable tight end during the Super Bowl run, was lost for the year. (Yes, they also had a defensive star retire, and another leave for Houston.) After a slow start, the Ravens are 6-6 and on the playoff periphery in the AFC.
What we’re seeing in the NFL right now, based on the last collective bargaining agreement: Cheap, young, talented QBs are the reason many teams are thriving in 2013. Of course you have to lock up your franchise QB to a big-money deal, but that also makes it very, very difficult to build a balanced team. The Giants inked Super Bowl winner Eli Manning to 6-year, $97 million deal in 2009. Since that massive contract, the Giants have had one playoff appearance (which was a good one, as they got hot and won the Super Bowl in 2011) in five seasons.
Look at the QBs of the best teams in 2013 (besides Denver and New England):
* Seattle, 11-1 behind a 3rd round pick, Russell Wilson
* Carolina 9-3 behind 3rd year QB Cam Newton (who will get paid this offfseason)
* Indianapolis 8-4 behind 2nd year QB Andrew Luck
* Cincinnati 8-4 behind 3rd year QB Andy Dalton (a 2nd round pick who they’ll have to make a decision on this offseason)
* Philadelphia 7-5 behind 2nd year QB Nick Foles (a 3rd round pick)
All of those teams are tied or leading their division right now.
So if you’re one of those teams a “QB away” from possibly being a playoff team, do you invest $12-15 million in Jay Cutler – no, he’s not worth that, but that’s what he’ll look for; Carson Palmer is older and has a weaker resume and got $8 million per – or do you give a rookie a shot, fortify the line, and surround him with weapons? Arizona will be picking somewhere in the middle of the first round. They couldn’t afford Cutler without making major sacrifices. Even if they went after Ben Roethlisberger, they’d have to lose a lot. So the Cardinals will have to hope they find a rookie QB who makes fewer errors than Carson Palmer.
What about Cleveland? They’ve gone through three quarterbacks already this season. A Cutler-Josh Gordon combo would be lethal. But could you save money on QB, go with a rookie, and fortify the offensive line and the running game? Houston is a mess, and probably bracing for a new GM and new head coach, so it’s anyone’s guess what they’ll do. The Jets could have a new head coach as well. Let’s assume Jacksonville takes Teddy Bridgewater, ok?
To me, that leaves two teams: Oakland and St. Louis. Few willingly want to play for the Raiders, so Oakland would overpay for Cutler to land him. St. Louis, in the dome, is intriguing. With two top 15 picks in the draft, they could get a receiver first, make a play for Cutler, and then seriously think about dethroning the 49ers or Seahawks in the NFC West next year.