NFC North: Drew Brees

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- No one in the media knows more about quarterback play than ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, a former NFL quarterback himself and a devout watcher of game film.

So it's always interesting to hear what he has to say about Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers
Rodgers
By now, everyone knows that Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

But what makes him such?

That’s where Jaws comes in.

On Monday, he released his latest quarterback rankings Insider.

It should come as no surprise that Rodgers is No. 3 on that list behind only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Considering Rodgers is six years younger than Brady and eight years younger than Manning, there's a good chance he might soon top Jaworski's list.

Here's what Jaworski had to say about Rodgers, 30, as he enters his 10th NFL season:
"Rodgers may get the ball out of his hands quicker than any quarterback in the league right now. He is probably the best off-platform thrower in the NFL and doesn't need functional space to make a downfield throw. Rodgers understands coverages and can torch defenses with his legs, both running the ball and eluding rushers in the pocket. He has elite arm strength and, like Brady, pinpoint accuracy. There really aren't any holes in his game right now."


Earlier this offseason, ESPN.com’s Mike Sando polled league insiders to rank all the starting quarterbacks Insider, and Rodgers tied for first with Manning, Brady and Drew Brees.
The main key for success for the Detroit Lions this season is remarkably simple and has been the main focus of the franchise since it fired coach Jim Schwartz following the 2013 season.

Stafford
Stafford
From hiring new head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter to signing Golden Tate, re-signing Brandon Pettigrew and drafting Eric Ebron, that focus has been giving quarterback Matthew Stafford everything he could possibly need to succeed.

Stafford has to use those tools to turn into the elite quarterback the team has been hoping for since they drafted him first overall in 2009. Statistically, Stafford has been one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, putting up massive numbers for the Lions during his first five seasons.

Yet for every fourth-quarter comeback he completed and remarkable play he made, he has also made a decision leaving those watching and wondering what he saw or thought on that play. That has been the conundrum of Stafford's career. The Lions believe any issues Stafford has are correctable and these are the guys to do it after working with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

If the Lions turn Stafford into the consistent quarterback that led them to the playoffs in 2011 full-time, then the entire shift in coaching staffs and upgrading the offensive roster will have been worth it. But it all falls to Stafford -- as it often does to quarterbacks around the league.

There's a reason many franchises believe they can go only as far as the quarterback plays. Thus far, Stafford has taken them from a club that didn't win a game in 2008 to one with realistic playoff expectations each season.

Detroit has set itself up for more than that now, though. The Lions have a roster with enough talent to at least make a run at the playoffs, if not succeed in the postseason. If they do, Stafford and his improvement will play a major role in making it that far.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Who do you trust to evaluate NFL players -- those paid to do so for a living or those who are paid to play the game?

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando polled 26 front-office executives and coaches Insider and found that Aaron Rodgers -- along with Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning -- belonged in the top-tier of quarterbacks. Even more telling was that the four tied for the top spot in the voting.

Rodgers
Rodgers
Yet when the NFL Network solicited the advice of current NFL players for its latest top 100 list, the Green Bay Packers quarterback came in as merely the 11th-best player in the league regardless of position.

How can that be?

The answer is simple. Like in many things NFL-related, players don't know what they're talking about. Every one of them is in the NFL for a reason -- whether it's blocking, tackling, catching the ball, running with it, throwing it or kicking it.

But that does not mean they are qualified to judge others who do so.

Maybe the players polled looked at last season, when Rodgers missed seven-plus games because of a broken collarbone, and forgot how good he is. But they should have been reminded of that when he returned for the regular-season finale and led the Packers to a Week 17 win against the Bears that gave the Packers their third straight NFC North title and their fifth straight playoff appearance -- all under Rodgers.

Listen to the players if you want, but Sando's 26 league insiders -- eight general managers, two former GMs, four pro personnel evaluators, seven coordinators, two head coaches, two position coaches and a top-level executive -- are far more qualified to judge talent.

In Sando's project, designed to rank all 32 starting quarterbacks and determine who among them are elite, here is what he wrote about Rodgers:
If Rodgers gives up anything to Brady and Manning before the snap -- which is debatable -- his athletic ability seems to make up for it.

"You can't fool him," a defensive coordinator said. "We watched some cutups on him and he was ridiculous. He sees everything. They'd have a blitz on and he'd throw it and he knows what the blitz is. I don't know how he knows it. He throws into this tight window that nobody would throw into. Brees is the same way."

A veteran cornerback I talked to this offseason put it this way: "He is very cerebral. I don't think he is quite like a Peyton Manning, but he can read defenses and all that stuff, and when stuff breaks down, he is mobile enough to get out of the pocket and run. That is what made him so good, especially a couple years ago. He is still playing well. He just got hurt last year."
Teddy Bridgewater and Cam NewtonDonald Traill/Invision for EA SPORTS/AP ImagesTeddy Bridgewater matched skills against Cam Newton at the EA Sports Madden Bowl XX in January.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Once the Minnesota Vikings' minicamp concluded last week, it meant rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater wouldn't have a team to practice with until the start of training camp on July 25. But Bridgewater still has a method for studying the Vikings' offense.

Bridgewater said last week he's imported the Vikings' playbook into his Madden NFL football game, which allows him to take "virtual reps" by practicing with the Vikings' offense against defenses he'd see in an actual game. He did the same thing in college, adding the Louisville Cardinals' playbook to a NCAA football video game for his Xbox, and he'll continue the practice in the NFL.

"It helps because you get one more rep than you had in practice, actual practice," he said. "Any chance you get to take an extra rep or go the extra step, extra mile, it's going to be very beneficial transferring it to the field."

EA Sports added a feature to its Madden video games several years ago that allows users to create their own playbooks, and the games have become realistic enough that it's not difficult to imagine players using them as a preparation tool. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said as much last fall, and Bridgewater wouldn't even be the first Minnesota athlete to make regular use of the practice; when he was pitching for the Minnesota Twins, Johan Santana used to study hitters' tendencies by playing as himself and facing them in a PlayStation game.

It's another case of life-imitates-art-imitates-life (or maybe life-imitates-leisure-imitates-life), but Bridgewater says it works for him.

"I try to take as many reps as I can, whether it's on a video game, playing EA Madden Football or in the playbook, just drawing it or just visualizing it in my head," Bridgewater said. "I try to just maximize every rep I can get and every opportunity that I can take."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It is not uncommon for NFL contracts to become outdated in a hurry.

Someone is always signing a new deal or an extension to become the highest-paid this or the highest-paid that.

Rodgers
Rodgers
So when Colin Kaepernick signed his contract extension with the San Francisco 49ers last week, the initial reports suggested his deal contained more guaranteed money than Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s highest-paid player.

On paper, Kaepernick signed a six-year, $114 million extension that contained $61 million in guaranteed money. But in this case, the definition of guarantee is a loose one.

As ESPN’s John Clayton pointed out in his weekend Mailbag column, Kaepernick's deal is much more of a pay-as-you-play contract than the five-year, $110 million extension Rodgers signed on April 26, 2013. Rodgers’ deal was loaded with real guarantees.

Rodgers' signing bonus of $35 million followed by a guaranteed roster bonus of $9.5 million that was paid this March and another one worth $9.5 million due next March brought his guaranteed money to $54 million in real dollars.

For those who were outraged that Kaepernick received more guaranteed money, a closer examination of the deal revealed that those were "soft" guarantees. Kaepernick's yearly guarantees don't become such until April 1 before each season, meaning the 49ers can get out from under the deal at any point without paying those so-called guarantees.

So for the time being, even though Kaepernick has the potential to collect more than Rodgers, it's not accurate to call him the higher paid at this point.

Perhaps the best measure when comparing contracts is a three-year window. Looking at it that way, here's a breakdown of the top quarterback contracts by average per year, according to ESPN Stats & Information salary data:
Three of the quarterbacks on the list -- Ryan, Cutler and Kaepernick -- signed their deals after Rodgers did his 14 months ago. In that time, Rodgers' contract has held up. He remains the highest-paid quarterback with a $22 million-per-year average over the life his deal.

Maybe Russell Wilson, the next quarterback likely to cash in, will surpass him. But Kaepernick's deal did not.
PITTSBURGH -- The New England Patriots apparently thought enough of Lance Moore to at least consider him as Plan B in case they lost 1,000-yard receiver Julian Edelman in free agency.

Moore visited the Patriots shortly after the New Orleans Saints released the veteran wide receiver and they told him they would wait and see what happened with Edelman before moving forward.

Edelman re-signed with the Patriots, leaving Moore wondering about his next stop.

Then the Pittsburgh Steelers entered the picture.

[+] EnlargeLance Moore
AP Photo/Matt RourkeThe Steelers are looking to Lance Moore to replace Jerricho Cotchery as the team's No. 3 receiver.
"I came up here and had a great time. I met all the coaches. It felt like it was right. Coming from a place where things are run the right way, ownership is great and you win a lot of games, obviously won a world championship, you want that feeling again," Moore said. "You want to be able to get somewhere where you have an opportunity to win. I've been in the game 10 years now. I am not here just to try to collect a check. I want to win another championship.

The Steelers signed Moore last month, moving quickly to fill the void left by Jerricho Cotchery's somewhat surprising departure to the Carolina Panthers.

Whether Moore, who won a Super Bowl in New Orleans, has a chance to win a championship in Pittsburgh is up for debate.

The Steelers are coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons and they are trying to re-establish themselves as a legitimate Super Bowl contender while also re-tooling their defense. The offense showed signs last season that it can cover for a defense that often did the same for its counterpart when the Steelers played in three Super Bowls and won two of them from 2005-10.

One thing that would help the offense build on its strong finish in 2013 is if Moore can do a reasonable Cotchery impersonation as the Steelers' No. 3 wide receiver.

The Steelers aren't going to get 10 touchdown receptions out of Moore as they did with Cotchery last season. But the 5-foot-9, 190-pounder has shown a knack for finding the end zone after making the NFL as an undrafted free agent.

Of Moore's 346 career receptions 38 of them have gone for touchdowns. For comparison sake Antonio Brown has 261 career receptions and 15 touchdown catches.

Moore caught 37 passes for 457 yards and two scores last season but he missed three games because of a broken hand and the injury had a lingering psychological effect on him.

"It was more of a confidence things and a mental thing, getting over a broken bone and that feeling on being able to just be consistent, catching the ball, blocking, getting tackled and stuff like that," Moore said. "It took a little longer than that three-to-four week period but it feels good now and I am ready to go."

Moore has been taking part in the Steelers' offseason program and getting used to catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger instead of Drew Brees.

And this is only part of the adjustment he is making after playing for the Saints for nine seasons.

"Last week I felt like I was the new kid at school," Moore said. "But I looked around and I think the first couple of days, Ben came in a little bit after, Heath Miller was rehabbing and doing what he was doing, and I was the oldest guy on offense that was here. I feel like there are a number of different things that I can do, as far as helping guys on the field, which, I am not going to go out of my way just to correct everybody and try to be another coach. But if somebody asked me, and I've always been the guy to be open and try to not necessarily tutor, but give guys some of my knowledge and some of the things I do on that field.

"That's all I wanted when I was a young player, to have somebody be able to help me out a little bit. If I felt like I could take a few things from each of the older guys' game and put it into my game, then hopefully one day I would be able to make a lot of plays. I've been lucky enough to do that."
MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps the sternest test of Mike Zimmer's ability to remake the Minnesota Vikings' defense will come in an 18-day stretch from Sept. 14 to Oct. 2, when the Vikings will play four consecutive games against Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, effectively staking their playoff hopes on their ability to stand up to some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

In many ways, the Vikings will have to fix two of their biggest problems from last season in the first month of the season if they're going to have any shot at relevance. They didn't win a road game last season (their victory in London was technically a "home" game), and they'll start the year against a St. Louis Rams team that went 5-3 at home last season before playing games at the Superdome and Lambeau Field in the next five weeks.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Dunlap
AP Photo/David KohlMike Zimmer's defense made things challenging for Aaron Rodgers last season.
But the Vikings' struggles against top quarterbacks, if left unchecked, will be an even more pervasive problem in the first part of the season. The Saints, Packers, Falcons and Patriots were the league's second-, sixth-, seventh- and 10th-best passing teams last season, and the Vikings come out of that stretch with an Oct. 12 game against the Detroit Lions, who threw for the third-most yards in the league. Essentially, the message of the Vikings' 2014 schedule is this: Fix your defense and fix it quickly.

Fortunately for the Vikings, Zimmer's had some success slowing down the quarterbacks the Vikings will face -- particularly Rodgers. The Packers quarterback faced the Cincinnati Bengals twice while Zimmer was their defensive coordinator, and lost both games. Last year, he hit 26 of 43 passes for 244 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions against the Bengals, and was sacked four times. And while he threw for 311 yards against the Bengals in 2009, he was sacked six times and fumbled twice (losing one) in a 31-24 loss.

Brady also faced the Bengals twice in that time, with unimpressive results. He went 1-1 in a pair of games against Cincinnati, completing 43 of his 73 passes for 455 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. After picking them apart in a 2010 win, he had arguably his worst game of the season against them last year, completing just 18 of his 38 passes for 197 yards and an interception in a 13-6 loss.

Brees and Ryan both fared well in their lone efforts against Zimmer's defense, each beating a 4-12 Bengals team in 2010. They were two of just four quarterbacks to surpass 290 yards against Cincinnati that season, posting 313 and 299, respectively.

Zimmer's defense employs plenty of man coverage, mixed with some zone principles, and counts more heavily on cornerbacks winning one-on-one matchups than the Vikings' old scheme did. That seems like a good fit for second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and Captain Munnerlyn should help the Vikings' defense, as well, but secondary depth is paramount to surviving matchups with teams that will put as many receivers on the field as the Vikings' early-season opponents will.

The other thing to watch is how effectively the Vikings can pressure the top quarterbacks they'll face, particularly with some of Zimmer's creative blitzes. The Bengals didn't bring extra pressure after Brady and Rodgers all that often last year -- on just 12 and 11 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- but what's worth noting is just how much they rattled those two quarterbacks. Brady had just a 2.2 QBR against the Bengals' blitzes last year, and Rodgers' QBR was only 8.0, as he was forced into checkdowns and didn't complete a pass of longer than 8 yards against the blitz. Considering how lethal those two quarterbacks have been against the blitz in their careers -- to the point where many teams don't try to send extra pressure -- Zimmer's ability to throw them off is impressive. He did it well against Matthew Stafford last season, too, holding the Lions quarterback to just 33 yards and a 5.0 QBR on 13 blitzes.

The key variable to all this, of course, is talent, and it remains to be seen if the Vikings' personnel is as effective in Zimmer's scheme as what the Bengals had last season. But the additions of Munnerlyn and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, the development of Rhodes and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and the health of safety Harrison Smith should help. If Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards can coax more out of players like defensive end Everson Griffen and figure out the Vikings' linebacker situation, they'll likely receive credit for it early, because the Vikings' progress will be graded against some of the toughest opponents they'll see all season.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The group of quarterbacks the Minnesota Vikings will assess during the lead-up to this year's NFL draft include Central Florida's Blake Bortles (6-foot-5), LSU's Zach Mettenberger (6-foot-4) and Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas (6-foot-6). It will also include Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (6-foot-2), Fresno State's Derek Carr (6-foot-2), San Jose State's David Fales (6-foot-1), South Carolina's Connor Shaw (6-foot-0) and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel (5-foot-11).

That there are so many shorter quarterbacks near the top of this year's draft class owes plenty to Seattle's Russell Wilson, who stands 5-foot-11 and led the Seahawks to a win over Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. It also owes something to New Orleans' Drew Brees, the record-setting quarterback and MVP of Super Bowl XLIV who stands just six feet tall. But it also is because of a changing game that's asking quarterbacks to move more and is setting them up to throw in places where being 6-foot-5 isn't as important as it used to be.

More teams are rolling their quarterbacks out and using moving pockets to neutralize pass rushes and keep defenses uncomfortable. Shotgun and pistol schemes have made it easier for short QBs to find throwing lanes. And players like Wilson have done enough to make general managers realize they might have discredited good QB prospects because of one trait.

"It was height, period," Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said. "But Ill tell you what: He's going to open the floodgates for people breaking through that stigma of, you need a really tall quarterback. You've got to pinpoint, are people batting down passes? He didn't have a lot of batted balls (in college) at Wisconsin. He's able to find those passing lanes that usually you'd think were solely based on height. But he's been effective."

Manziel's height was as big a topic at the NFL scouting combine as his off-field issues, but the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner said, "I feel like I play like I'm 10 feet tall," and turned heads with an unofficial time in the 40-yard dash of 4.56 seconds (his official time was 4.68). Manziel's hands are nearly 10 inches long, when measured from thumb to pinky, which should eliminate some of the concerns that would naturally come up with his size. The success of quarterbacks like Wilson and Colin Kaepernick should take care of others.

"For those guys, being able to evade a first wave of pass rush, really extend the play just a little bit, be able to move the pocket and do some things like that, it really opens the playbook up a little bit more," Manziel said. " The young guys who are doing that, the guys that I enjoy watching, I think they’re really doing a good job for some of the mobile quarterbacks in college right now."

Shaw, who officially ran a 4.66 40 on Sunday, said he met with the Vikings twice at the combine, and added the team told him "there would be good opportunities if I were to land at that place because they had a little quarterback battle going on." His arm strength has been a concern, and his scouting report on NFL.com says he "can be too jittery vs. pressure and quick to tuck and run" (remind you of anybody?)

But Shaw will be another quarterback who gets a look because of his speed. Thanks to QBs like Wilson, he won't immediately be discredited because of his size.

"There is not a specific mold you have to fit anymore to be an NFL quarterback," he said. "You see Russell Wilson and he’s kind of proved that. He’s got a shiny rock on his finger now and he’s 6-foot. I don’t think there is a prototypical quarterback size anymore."
At one point, Matthew Stafford seemed like a plausible answer to the NFL Nation survey question of who you would want to lead your team in the Super Bowl with two minutes left.

It didn’t have as much to do with Stafford’s inexperience in Super Bowl games -- almost every Detroit Lion has that problem -- but what he has been able to do in the past. The question initially came about midseason, right after Stafford had led the Lions to a come-from-behind win over Dallas where he made a fake spike call in the final seconds.

It was a play of moxie and one that showed he could lead a team and depending when certain players were asked, could have been seen as a possible choice for this answer.

Since then, of course, he kind of unraveled. Detroit lost lead after lead in the fourth quarter and the rallying Stafford had done earlier in the 2013 season had been washed away.

But in his five-year career, Stafford has led Detroit on 12 game-winning drives or come-from-behind wins in fourth quarters, including three this season. Of those games, only three of them came in the second half of seasons, though.

So while Stafford was a potential option here at one point -- and some Lions players showed confidence in Stafford for the poll -- by the end of the season he seemed like an unlikely choice.

Instead, the choices that make sense -- New England’s Tom Brady, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Denver’s Peyton Manning among them -- ended up being the most realistic options.

But Stafford has a chance to get there. He just has two of the guys who helped mold Manning and Brees as his quarterback mentors now. They just have to get him there.

The Detroit Lions are going with a familiar surname in an unfamiliar position as their offensive coordinator.

The team is hiring Joe Lombardi, the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi and the current New Orleans quarterbacks coach, as its offensive coordinator. The message here appears to be clear as well.

The Lions are going to get as much help as possible for Matthew Stafford.

[+] EnlargeJoe Lombardi
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertJoe Lombardi, right, has spent the past five seasons working with Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Lombardi, who has not been an offensive coordinator since a stint at Mercyhurst College from 2002 to 2005, has spent the past five seasons working with Drew Brees, one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Add to that the experience of his new boss, Detroit coach Jim Caldwell, as Peyton Manning's quarterbacks coach and the attention paid to Stafford's progress will be massive.

Brees has thrown for more than 5,000 yards in each of the past three seasons with Lombardi as his position coach, and has completed 63 percent of his passes or better in each of the five seasons Lombardi has worked with him -- including two seasons over 70 percent.

Stafford has completed more than 60 percent of his throws for a season only once in his five-year career.

Detroit made an investment in Stafford last offseason, signing him to a long-term extension and ensuring he would be the quarterback of the future. Then Stafford took a step back during this season, throwing for his lowest completion percentage and highest amount of interceptions since his rookie year.

So, Detroit seems fixated on fixing Stafford, bringing in the men who have worked with Manning and Brees to work with him.

What is in question is who will be calling plays for Detroit next season. Lombardi hasn’t been an offensive coordinator on the NFL level. Since his hiring a week ago, Caldwell has left open the possibility that he would be the team’s playcaller.

Considering how little experience Lombardi has calling plays and that his defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, is a first-time NFL coordinator, this might be a sign that Caldwell might be the man making the play decisions this fall. Or at least that it would be a collaborative effort. Here's a look at Caldwell's offenses, statistically.

In Lombardi's final two seasons as an offensive coordinator at Mercyhurst, his teams averaged 22.6 and 22 points a game, respectively, and averaged under 350 yards of total offense in both those seasons.

But his hire was met with praise from at least one of his former quarterbacks, Chase Daniel.
.

This hire also completes the bigger hires Detroit needed to make on its staff. Its top leadership will be Caldwell as head coach, Austin and Lombardi as coordinators, and Ron Prince as assistant head coach and tight ends coach. Prince, actually, has the most experience calling plays from his three seasons as Virginia’s offensive coordinator (2003 to 2005) and one season as the offensive coordinator at Rutgers.

Coaching staff:

Head coach -- Jim Caldwell
Assistant head coach -- Ron Prince
Offensive coordinator -- Joe Lombardi
Defensive coordinator -- Teryl Austin
Quarterbacks -- TBD
Running backs -- Curtis Modkins
Wide receivers -- TBD
Tight ends -- Ron Prince
Offensive line -- Jeremiah Washburn (asst. Bobby Johnson)
TBD -- Terry Heffernan
Defensive line -- Kris Kocurek (asst. Jim Washburn)
Linebackers -- Bill Sheridan
Secondary -- TBD
Special teams -- John Bonamego (asst. Evan Rothstein)
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings have seen for far too long, and know far too well, what it's like not to have a franchise quarterback. They've had a quarterback start all 16 games just three times in the past 10 seasons -- or as many times as they've used three starting quarterbacks in a season -- and they're looking at starting over once again after shuttling through two first-round picks (Daunte Culpepper and Christian Ponder), a second-round pick (Tarvaris Jackson) and an expensive free-agent acquisition (Brett Favre), among others, during that time.

But as the Vikings prepare for the possibility of looking for another franchise quarterback in the 2014 draft, they're undoubtedly aware of how expensive it can be to get caught in the middle with one who only looks the part some of the time.
The Chicago Bears proved that again on Thursday when they announced a seven-year, $126 million extension for Jay Cutler. According to ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter, the deal has more than $50 million in guaranteed money. The total amount of the deal is interesting, though, because while the salary structure is obviously different, it's known as the Contract of Death in baseball.

Why? That deal has typically gone to players (Vernon Wells, Barry Zito, Jayson Werth) who are good, but not good enough to get the megadeals averaging more than $20 million a year. Those players have tended to fall short of expectations on their contracts, either through injuries or ineffectiveness, and though they're not getting absolutely top-shelf money, they're getting enough that they're expected to perform like franchise players, rather than just very good ones.

Baseball, of course, guarantees every dollar, but as the average annual value of NFL contracts continues to climb, the deals are starting to look more like baseball contracts, and Cutler's AAV of $18 million matches what the Dallas Cowboys gave Tony Romo. His guaranteed money puts him in an elite group, as well -- only seven quarterbacks are currently playing on deals that include at least $50 million in guarantees. Four of those (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Joe Flacco) have Super Bowl rings, while two of the other three (Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford) were top draft picks before the NFL curtailed rookie spending.

Cutler, like Romo, has a history of wilting in big games, but his regular-season numbers have been even less impressive. He's only thrown for 4,000 yards once, has thrown at least 14 interceptions in a season five times and has never thrown more than 27 touchdown passes in a season. Flacco's put up plenty of pedestrian numbers, too, but he earned his deal after leading the Ravens to a championship last year. Cutler has only quarterbacked two postseason games, and before he got hurt in the 2011 NFC Championship Game at home against Green Bay, he had hit just 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards and an interception.

The deal the Bears gave him is an awful lot of money for a quarterback who remains an enigma at age 30, but after all the Bears gave up to get him, and all the time they'd invested in developing him, they might not have been able to risk starting over at the position. They're now essentially committed to Cutler for the rest of his prime, even if he has yet to reach an elite level, and he'll eat up a large chunk of their cap space during the deal. He'll have plenty of work to do to prove he's worth it.

On some level, the Vikings saw with Ponder what it's like to commit to a quarterback that's not providing commensurate returns, but their commitment to Ponder was a pittance compared to what the Bears have invested, and will continue to invest, in Cutler. They're spending premium dollars for a player who's yet to provide premium production, and they'll have spent a dozen years with Cutler by the time the deal runs out. If he only remains a quarterback who's just above average, the Bears will have wasted plenty of time.

The Cutler deal is an example of how high the stakes are at the quarterback position. The Vikings might not find a great QB in their next attempt, but if they make a Ponder-like mistake, their commitment is at least relatively short. It would be far worse for them to be where the Bears could find themselves at the end of Cutler's deal: having spent an astronomical amount of time and resources on a quarterback who never got past pretty good.

On what the Vikings need from a QB

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
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MINNEAPOLIS -- On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings played to a tie with a Green Bay Packers team that didn't look much different than theirs. The Packers were missing several key starters on defense, had a group of talented receivers who weren't able to do much without a quarterback to get them the ball, and relied primarily on a bruising running game that gained 196 yards despite running 19 times into a box that contained seven or more defenders.

It was just the second time in their previous nine trips to Lambeau Field that the Vikings had done anything other than lose to the Packers. The only other time was in 2009 -- not coincidentally, the only other time when the Vikings could make a convincing argument they entered the game with a quarterback playing as well as or better than his Green Bay counterpart. But Sunday's advantage was caused mostly by Aaron Rodgers' absence, which is a temporary problem for the Packers. And the stark difference in their rivals -- NFC North standard-bearer with Rodgers, middling team without him -- should crystallize why the Vikings will likely continue searching for a quarterback this offseason.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesWhat the Green Bay Packers are with -- and without -- Aaron Rodgers should make it clear why the Vikings need to upgrade at quarterback.
I've heard from a number of readers throughout the season who've pointed out that quarterback is far from the Vikings' biggest problem. And for the record, I agree with you. They've been done in more by declining or inexperienced players on defense than they have by anything else this season. But that argument doesn't really explain why the Vikings need to go hard after an elite quarterback. More than anything else, it's about how quickly that kind of a player can cover up the rest of their problems.

Look at the Packers. With Rodgers, they were 5-2, despite missing receiver Randall Cobb, linebacker Clay Matthews, tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Eddie Lacy, cornerback Sam Shields, cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Morgan Burnett for parts of the season. Without him, the Packers are 0-3-1, having lost to a team that started 0-6 (the Giants) and tied the team they'd dominated at home (the Vikings). They went 26-6 in the previous two regular seasons despite having a pass defense ranked 32nd and 22nd in yards allowed, and they won a Super Bowl with him despite putting 15 players on injured reserve and barely running for an average of 100 yards a game in 2010.

And it's not just the Packers who have used great quarterbacks to cover up flaws. The 2011 New England Patriots rebuilt their group of skill position players around Tom Brady, allowed the second-most yards in the league and still went to the Super Bowl. The team they lost to, the New York Giants, had the league's worst rushing offense, its eighth-worst scoring defense and Eli Manning. His older brother Peyton is currently quarterbacking a 9-2 Denver Broncos team that has allowed the seventh-most points and yards in the league, and made his two Super Bowl appearances in Indianapolis with teams that finished 18th and 31st in the league in rushing offense. His loss in the 2010 Super Bowl came to a New Orleans Saints team that had the league's seventh-worst rushing attack, its 13th-worst defense and rode Drew Brees past Brett Favre and Manning to a championship.

So while we can talk about incremental improvements from Christian Ponder and discuss the Vikings' myriad defensive problems -- both of which we've done here -- the scale of quarterbacking championship teams need is drastically different from what the Vikings have. Unless Ponder or Josh Freeman somehow turns into that kind of quarterback, the Vikings in all likelihood will head out on another search for one. I'm convinced their decision-makers know the hunt for a quarterback isn't over until they've unearthed one who can be elite.

The power of that kind of a player should have been obvious in all the years Vikings fans have watched Rodgers and Favre burn them in Green Bay. And it should have been even more clear by the absence of a great quarterback on Sunday.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Almost two weeks ago, after being called for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Chicago quarterback Josh McCown, Willie Young voiced his displeasure with the current rules on where you could hit players.

Young
Young
Fairley
Mostly, that something needed to change, because in the high speed world of the NFL, calls protecting quarterbacks and offensive players were starting to become an issue for where defensive players were able to hit.

At the time, Young said the players should meet after the season to discuss the issue. When Young was asked this week about the Ahmad Brooks' hit on Drew Brees, which led to the NFL Nation Says question of whether quarterbacks are being too protected by the league, Young was still passionate in his defense of the defense.

Brooks’ hit, which he was fined for, was unintentional and happened during a regular play. For instance, on Young’s play where he was fined, he said he was going for the ball as McCown released it.

“Every defensive player feels the same way when they see another defensive player get fined on something like that, in that case or scenario,” Young said. “Every defensive lineman feels the same way, like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You know what I’m saying, you’ve got to be for real.”

Young, who was fined for the hit on McCown, is still hoping the players are able to meet in the offseason to discuss the rules and what can change, but he said that it has changed a lot in the game.

And it isn’t just with quarterbacks. Young said with the way Detroit’s front four aggressively goes after the quarterback, it makes the rules somewhat difficult, and that when you hit a quarterback when you're trying to make a correct tackle, if a guy moves, it could become an issue.

“It’s all the kind of ways you can and can’t approach guys now,” Young said. “It just makes it so awkward.”

He isn’t the only Lions player who has noticed this.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who was also fined against the Bears, said the Detroit defensive linemen were discussing these topics recently. His opinion? The rules are making them play smarter.

“We were just like, 'they just making us play fundamental football,'” Fairley said. “We can’t just be out there all wild and everywhere. They are really making you just play fundamental football.”

The problem comes in games, when everything is going fast and the main goal is to reach the quarterback or running back and disrupt the play. Then, he said, is when problems occur.

“That’s when the fines come out,” Fairley said. “Sometimes you’ll be in the heat of the game, heat of the moment and you go out and make a boneheaded play, but that’s the part of being a professional.

“You’ve got to exit those plays out of the game.”

Aaron Rodgers deal: Rare win-win

April, 29, 2013
4/29/13
12:25
PM ET
I've reviewed the details of the Green Bay Packers' contract agreement with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and here's what we can say: Rodgers didn't take a hometown discount under the strict definition but the deal is quite manageable on a relative scale for elite NFL quarterbacks.

Rodgers
Rodgers
In other words, it was a rare win for both sides.

The Packers had a key advantage over other teams who have negotiated mega-million dollar quarterback contracts recently. Rodgers had two years remaining on his previous deal, a structure that allowed the Packers to spread out a record-setting five-year extension over a longer period. That helped lessen the Packers' annual salary-cap hit, as well as their cash outlay, over the full seven years they now have Rodgers under contract for.

An elite quarterback's contract has the potential to cripple an NFL team. Rodgers' most certainly does not.

As the chart at the bottom shows, Rodgers' cap number won't exceed $20 million until 2017 and won't elevate beyond $21.1 million at any point. Compare that structure to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, whose new deal will count $25.3 million in 2015. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's deal will count $28.55 million against the cap by 2016, and the New Orleans Saints are looking at a cap hit of $26.4 million for Drew Brees by '16.

Of this there can be no doubt: The Packers and Rodgers agreed on a deal that won't be as onerous as those for Flacco, Brees and even Romo. Rodgers, in fact, seems likely to play the next seven years without a significant renegotiation, giving the Packers a long-range planning advantage.

With that said, it's difficult for me to classify the deal as an obvious hometown discount when it set a number of NFL records, including the payout over the first three years ($65.2 million). Rodgers will also tie an NFL record for single-year payout by receiving $40 million in cash during the 2013 league year. (As we discussed earlier, Rodgers really had no incentive to take a true hometown discount because there is no reason to expect it would change how the Packers do business with other players.)

The best way to view those aspects of the deal is as a tradeoff for agreeing to spread the payout of a five-year extension over seven years. In the end, the Packers have Rodgers signed to a seven-year deal worth a total of $130.75 million.

The annual average of those figures, $18.7 million, is less than what Flacco, Brees and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning receive. That, along with the manageable cap structure, are the biggest wins for the Packers. In return, Rodgers is getting a record-setting amount of cash now and over the next three years rather than await a backloaded payout that might never come. A win-win all around, if you ask me.

Aaron RogersAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesDon't expect Green Bay to change its approach based on the terms of Aaron Rodgers' next contract.
Last week, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the Green Bay Packers were progressing toward a contract agreement that will make quarterback Aaron Rodgers the highest-paid player in NFL history. Based on current context, the deal would average more than $20.1 million per year.

There are several ways to view this process and that number.

OH MY GOD THAT'S AN INSANE AMOUNT OF MONEY FOR PLAYING A GAME isn't one of them. I think most of you understand that professional sports exist in a financial fantasy land.

Some of you, however, are voicing a more subtle objection that's worth exploring: C'MON! WHY CAN'T RODGERS TAKE A HOMETOWN DISCOUNT AND HELP THE PACKERS BUILD A GOOD TEAM AROUND HIM? Eric of Madison put it this way in a note to the mailbag:
Regarding the talk on the Rodgers extension, don't you think that there's significant drawback to paying one player $25 mil a year? Maybe as a Packer fan I'm romanticizing him, but Rodgers seems like the kind of guy who would be open to something under market value -- say $18 million a year, although I don't know how anyone can live on that -- to give the team more financial flexibility to keep more talent around him. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Assuming recent reports are accurate, Rodgers hasn't made that offer and -- importantly -- the Packers haven't asked him to. At the very least, a "hometown discount" would put Rodgers below the $20.1 million threshold set last month by Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. By definition, a record-setting deal can't be viewed as much of a discount.

But should Rodgers have stepped up and made that offer? After all, he has on several occasions lobbied publicly for the Packers to re-sign some of their free agents, from receiver James Jones to running back John Kuhn. NFL teams are operating under a relatively flat salary cap, and the chart shows how large the annual cap numbers have been in the most recent contract agreements for elite quarterbacks. It might be difficult for Rodgers to argue for future veterans if his cap number limits the Packers' flexibility.

To me, however, the answer is simple. The only value in taking a hometown discount is public relations. There is no reason to believe it would impact the Packers' future team-building.

Rodgers has acknowledged his role as the "face of the franchise" and the Packers undoubtedly love having one of the NFL's top quarterbacks on their roster. I know many of you think of him as the type of player who doesn't care about the difference between $15 million and $22 million. That might well be the case. But Rodgers would be naive to assume that the Packers or any NFL team would capitalize on the discount -- at least not in the desired fashion. There are no quid pro quos in the NFL, and if you don't believe me, look at what has transpired this offseason between the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady.

As NFC West blogger Mike Sando and I discussed on the Inside Slant podcast, Brady signed a contract extension that added $3 million in guarantees to his current deal but locked him in to below-market salaries for the 2015, '16 and '17 seasons. Although Brady never directly acknowledged it, the widely held assumption was that he had granted the Patriots extra financial flexibility to maintain an elite team. Weeks later, of course, the Patriots stood firm on an offer to free agent receiver Wes Welker -- one of Brady's favorite teammates -- and watched as he signed with the Denver Broncos.

And in case there was any confusion about the Patriots' operation after Brady's deal, owner Bob Kraft had this to say at the recent NFL owners meeting: "I don't answer to Tom Brady." Kraft went on to deny any hard feelings that might have arisen from Welker's departure and added:

"[Brady] never put a demand or expected anything when he did what he did. He never put quid pro quos, and to be honest, we wouldn't have accepted them had he done that. He did what he thought … and what he did was tremendous. It's given our team a real competitive advantage to be in a position to win. And now it's how well our personnel people make the decisions."

In other words, the Patriots continued doing business as usual after Brady's agreement. And there is every reason to think the Packers would do the same if Rodgers took a discount. Do you really think general manager Ted Thompson would, say, start signing free-agent running backs if Rodgers' average cap number is $17 million (almost twice what it is now) rather than $22 million?

In the end, the best thing Rodgers can do is cooperate on the timing and structure of the deal. As you look at the chart, you see that the Ravens pushed a disproportionate amount of Flacco's cap hit into 2016 and beyond. That means the sides almost certainly will have to renegotiate in three years or face a truly paralyzing cap problem. The same could be true for the New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees, whose cap figure jumps to $26.4 million in 2015.

The best model is what the Denver Broncos did with Peyton Manning, whose cap figure averages just under $20 million. Manning's cap numbers over the five-year deal range between $18 million and $20 million, a smart pay-as-you-go approach.

Rodgers surely wants the Packers to be competitive. But by now, he must know how the Packers operate. They will use their cap space to re-sign key players and fall back on their draft-and-develop approach to fill in around them. Nothing about the value of Rodgers' next contract will change that.

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