- Jeff Dickerson, ESPN Staff Writer
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. – The franchise tag is not off the table for Jay Cutler.
Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery intimated in a recent chat on the Bears’ official website that he would be reluctant to use the tag on Cutler, but Emery clarified on Friday the organization has not ruled out applying the tag to Cutler, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, although the club’s preference is to negotiate long-term deals with key players.
The projected non-exclusive 2014 franchise tag figure for quarterbacks is $16.2 million. Cutler is earning $8.970 million in the final year of his current deal.
“I didn’t say that I would rule it out,” Emery told ESPN 1000’s “Waddle and Silvy Show”. “I said it’s not the first thing we would think about in signing players that we like. If you put a franchise tag on a player, that’s a player that you like. We like Jay. If you like a player, you want to move forward in a multi-contract year basis, not a short term.”
Emery has used the franchise tag on running back Matt Forte and defensive tackle Henry Melton since 2012. In the case of Forte, the sides eventually settled on a four-year, $30.4 million contract, but the Bears were unable to reach an agreement with Melton, who counted $8,454.725 against the Bears’ 2014 salary cap despite going on injured reserve in September.
There has been much public debate concerning what course of action the Bears will take with Cutler. Although the Bears have kept their plans hidden from the public, Emery has gone to great lengths to endorse Cutler. While Cutler’s play and attitude can best be described as uneven since he arrived in Chicago via a trade with the Denver Broncos in 2009, under the guidance of first-year Bears head coach Marc Trestman, the starting quarterback has posted a passer-rating above 90.8 in six of his nine appearances.
“I’ve said it before: I’m convinced that Jay is a franchise quarterback,” Emery said. “The rest of that as far as where we are going in the future, we’ll work out that in the offseason. Certainly I’m pleased with Jay. I think he’s grown in certain areas. When he’s been healthy and been on the field this year, he’s been playing at his highest level ever during the course of his career.
"I think he’s improved in the leadership area. I think his demeanor has improved. I think the time off made him appreciate the great coaches that we have. He’s told me that our coaches are on fire with their game-planning, execution and getting guys ready to play. The last three games that he played when healthy from start to finish, he’s been over 100.0 in passer-rating. So we see a lot of good things out of Jay.”
Cutler went 22-of-31 for 265 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions in the Bears’ 38-31 Week 15 victory against the Cleveland Browns, his first game back from a high-ankle sprain that sidelined him for four consecutive weeks. Cutler also missed one start this season because of a torn groin muscle.
However, Emery downplayed the notion that he would view Cutler’s durability as a negative when the sides enter contract negotiations after the season. Injuries sidelined the eight-year NFL veteran for a combined 12 games dating to 2010. Cutler was also knocked out of the second half of the 2010 NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers with an MCL sprain.
“I think (injuries are) a concern with any player,” Emery said. “I’ve looked at other quarterbacks down through their careers, and everybody has had a season -- there have only been a couple exceptions of the top end quarterbacks -- that have had a year where they were down (injured). I think Eli Manning is one of them able to stay healthy throughout his career. They had the situation in Green Bay, so it happens.
"I don’t think it’s habitual, and I don’t think he’s injury-prone in any way. We’ve all seen those types of players that just can’t seem to stay healthy; I don’t see Jay as that. So I’m not more concerned with Jay in terms of his durability than I am with any player.”
Emery also spoke highly of veteran backup quarterback Josh McCown, who completed 147-of-220 passes for 1,809 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception (109.8 quarterback rating) in relief of Cutler. McCown delivered a 3-2 starting record. The Bears are expected to try to resign McCown in the offseason. The 11-year veteran signed a one-year deal with the Bears last April.