- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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At the conclusion of the season, quarterback Jay Cutler seemed the most logical candidate for the franchise tag, but the Bears quashed that notion in January by signing him to a seven-year deal. In the weeks leading up to the new Cutler contract, Bears general manager Phil Emery talked about wanting to avoid placing the franchise tag on the quarterback. Had Chicago applied the tag, it would have been on the hook for what was expected to be more than a $16 million cap hit for 2014.
Instead, the Bears now are responsible for Cutler’s $22.5 million base salary for 2014, which obviously will consume a significant portion of the club’s salary-cap space.
How could that be? It’s fairly simple.
One component of Cutler’s new deal is that the team at any time can convert a portion of the quarterback’s base salary into a signing bonus that it can prorate over the life of the deal, which would lower his cap hit and free up money to sign other players. After 2014, Cutler counts for $15.5 million and $16 million against Chicago’s cap, figures more manageable than the $22.5 million hit for 2014.
So it’s logical the team would convert some of that base salary into a signing bonus sometime this offseason, especially considering the team currently is just approximately $796,000 below the cap.
In essence, the Bears paid a premium to secure Cutler for at least the next three years before going into a pay-as-you-go type of agreement over the next four years of the deal. Obviously, guaranteed-money commitments are the most significant handcuffs to teams in terms of the cap. But the Bears seemingly avoided that scenario in the future by the way they structured Cutler’s deal.
No other player on the roster is a legitimate candidate to receive the franchise tag or the rarely used transition tag. The Bears used the franchise tag last season to the tune of $8.45 million on defensive tackle Henry Melton, but he suffered a torn ACL on Sept. 22 at Pittsburgh. In 2012, the team applied the tag to running back Matt Forte before pulling it when the sides agreed to a long-term deal that July.
Outside of Cutler, a 2012 version of Melton would be the most logical candidate for the franchise tag. But there’s no way the Bears, even if there weren’t cap concerns, would commit close to $9 million in cap space to a player coming off a torn ACL. On the surface, several veterans on the roster would seem to be candidates for the tag. But the Bears wouldn't make such significant financial commitments to players at the end of their careers such as cornerback Charles Tillman and center Roberto Garza.