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Monday, July 16, 2012
Bears now focus on Urlacher, Cutler

By Michael C. Wright

Brian Urlacher and Jay Cutler
Brian Urlacher's contract expires after this season while Jay Cutler's goes through 2013.
The Chicago Bears agreed to terms Monday on a long-term extension for Matt Forte, and while the four-year, $32 million deal falls short of what he originally asked for, the signing indicates both sides gave a little in a compromise beneficial to all parties.

Forte receives $18 million in guarantees, $2 million less than the $20 million he was believed to be seeking. But in taking slightly less, Forte was given a four-year deal instead of the five-year contract worth approximately $15 million guaranteed the team originally offered last summer.

The latest deal appears to be a fair contract for both sides, and ensures the team will have arguably its greatest offensive weapon for the start of training camp. But Forte's contract also sets the stage for more difficult front-office decisions the next couple of years.

ESPN NFL senior writer John Clayton astutely pointed out that 17 of the club's projected 22 starters have contracts set to expire by 2014.
Most notable among them are quarterback Jay Cutler, whose contract expires after the 2013 season, and linebacker Brian Urlacher, who becomes a free agent after this season.

Interestingly, Urlacher, 34, said in June that "(team president) Ted Phillips said when they had the owners meeting they're gonna wait until the (2012) season is over (to address the contract situation)."

But given Urlacher's stature as the face of the franchise, and the fact he continues to produce at a high level (made 135 tackles in 2011), it's unlikely the team won't exhaust every effort to re-sign him. Going into his 13th season, Urlacher enters the final year of a five-year extension signed in 2008 that will pay a base salary of $7.5 million.

"The Bears know I want to be here. I've said it publicly, and that's not gonna change," said Urlacher, who also admitted to being intrigued by the prospect of free agency. "Whatever happens during the season or after the season, we'll address it then. They know I want to be here, and I think they want me here."

Cutler's contract situation, meanwhile, could prove more a little more difficult and costly for the Bears to address. Cutler's current deal runs through 2013. But in three seasons with Cutler at the helm, the Bears have produced only one winning season, with 2011 going down as somewhat of a mulligan because he missed six games with a thumb injury.

Cutler has thrown for 63 touchdowns and 49 interceptions in three seasons with the Bears. How the club handles a new deal for Cutler will be interesting to watch. Will the team look to extend Cutler sometime during the 2012 season (which would likely be less-expensive option for the Bears), or will it let the quarterback go into 2013 as a lame duck, or worse, make him play out the contract, which could lead to contentious negotiations?

Before the Forte signing, the Bears had approximately $13 million of cap room for 2013, and more than $50 million for 2014, which means financially, the club shouldn't have any trouble bringing back Cutler.

Still, Cutler -- despite all his potential and raw talent -- has to produce for the organization to justify a new contact worth potentially more than the five-year, $49.77 million contract he signed in 2009 with $20 million guaranteed, including base salaries of $7.7 million and $8.47 million over the next two seasons.

Decisions also loom on Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman and receiver Devin Hester, who become free agents after 2013, not to mention other key contributors such as offensive linemen Chris Spencer and Chris Williams, and defensive tackle Henry Melton, who are set to hit free agency after the 2012 season.

So while the Bears and new general manager Phil Emery brightened the outlook for 2012 by bringing back Forte in a deal that made sense for both sides, there still appears to be plenty of heavy lifting to do for the front office behind the scenes. Based on the latest development with Monday's deadline on Forte looming, the Bears certainly seem capable.