NFC North: Jay Cutler

A handful of free-agent signings, headlined by outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, wide receiver Eddie Royal and safety Antrel Rolle, leaves the Chicago Bears with $15,226,038 worth of salary-cap space, according to the most recent figures released by the NFLPA.

The Bears’ figure will decrease slightly when the league officially processes the one-year contract signed by veteran long-snapper Thomas Gafford on Wednesday, but as of Thursday morning, Chicago ranked No. 12 in available cap space.

The average amount of salary-cap space per team is $14,179,008, per the NFLPA.

Gafford’s addition still gives the Bears an NFL-low 58 players under contract.

McPhee’s 2015 salary-cap charge of $6.675 million is the sixth-highest on the roster, behind Jay Cutler ($16.5 million), Jared Allen ($12.5 million), Matt Forte ($9.2 million), Jermon Bushrod ($8.050 million) and Lamarr Houston ($6.999 million).

The club’s two other free-agent splashes, Royal and Rolle, will count $5.5 million and $5 million against the cap in the upcoming season.

Guard Vladimir Ducasse is scheduled to eat up a modest $665,000 worth of cap space.

NFL teams are often forced to carry a substantial amount of dead salary-cap money because of the rampant release of veteran players or high-priced free agent busts, but the only noteworthy dead money currently on the Bears’ books is courtesy of former wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Even though the Bears successfully dealt Marshall and a seventh-round draft choice to the New York Jets in exchange for a fifth-round pick, the Bears are still required to carry $5.625 million worth of dead money, the remaining balance of the $7.5 million signing bonus Marshall received in conjunction with the new contract he received on May 22, 2014.

Former Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall still considers quarterback Jay Cutler a brother, but was uncertain whether their often-strained relationship facilitated his recent trade to the New York Jets.

"It depends," Marshall said Friday during a conference call with the New York media. "The new coach was brought on, and our new general manager. They don’t know us. All they can go on is what they hear, what they see, what they saw from afar. I’ve always described our relationship this way -- and it hasn’t changed -- that we’re brothers. We’re the brothers that we love each other, but also get into it. And it’s always been that way and it will never change. I love him, his family. I love his sons. And I wish him the best."

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall, Jay Cutler
Matt Marton/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Marshall says he will always be close with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, right.
Marshall and Cutler shared a hot-and-cold relationship during their time together in Chicago, with each never shying away from sharing their opinions about one another in private. Publicly, the duo for the most part remained supportive of one another.

But on Dec. 8, Marshall was asked about a report on NFL Network's "NFL GameDay Morning" in which Chicago was described as grappling with buyer’s remorse regarding Cutler. Marshall mentioned all the club's issues weren’t the quarterback's fault, but also said he understands the situation and "would have buyer’s remorse, too"

In three seasons with the Bears, Marshall racked up 100-plus yards receiving in a game 15 times. Since entering the league in 2006, Marshall ranks third in receptions (773), fifth in receiving touchdowns (65), and sixth in receiving yardage (9,771).

Marshall had 279 catches for 3,524 yards and 31 touchdowns during his Chicago tenure.

Bears general manager Ryan Pace said the decision to trade Marshall came after a thorough evaluation of the club's roster.

"It’s kind of analyzing the whole roster and just looking at what’s best for the Chicago Bears and what’s best for Brandon Marshall," he said. "That was our decision going forward. He was understanding [of the move], but I like to keep a lot of those conversations internal. I think we both feel good about where we’re at right now."

Prior to finishing the season with 721 yards on 61 receptions in 2014, Marshall had put together seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Marshall fought through nagging leg injuries most of last season, and finished on Injured Reserve because of fractured ribs and a punctured lung.

On top of the production dipping, Marshall participated in a couple of instances that were construed as distractions; most notably, a postgame locker room rant after a loss to the Miami Dolphins. He also challenged a Detroit Lions fan to a boxing match on Twitter, and also spent time during the work week performing as an analyst on Showtime’s "Inside the NFL."

Marshall turns 31 on March 23, and was asked whether he could maintain the production he’s churned out in recent years.

"No, I don’t feel like I’m the same guy. Absoluetly not," Marshall said. "If you’re staying the same, you’re getting worse. Every year I set the bar really high. I have high standards. I’ve heard those rumblings. What people don’t understand is a couple of years ago, I had to make a decision within myself. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve always been 'the guy.' I’ve always been the guy getting thrown 170, 180 balls. When we bring Alshon [Jeffery] down [to Florida to train] and help him take his game to the next level and he has a breakout year, now we have another 'guy.' Then you bring in Martellus Bennett. That’s another 'guy.' We had the workhorse, Matt Forte in the backfield. We had four guys who could really carry a team or an offense. We all had to make that decision to be selfless. Those targets were going to come down from 180, 190 to 150. It was going to go from 118 catches to about 90 catches."
The Chicago Bears hit free agency Tuesday fully expecting to go into the 2015 season with Jay Cutler at quarterback, according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, citing team sources with knowledge of Chicago’s plans.

Surely coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace are acutely aware of the two head coaches left in Cutler’s wake, as well as the two GMs and countless assistants dating back to 2009. But with few options available on the market and in the upcoming draft and an albatross of a contract to unload, Fox and Pace now need to focus their attention on making the best of the situation.

That means surrounding the enigmatic quarterback with even more support Tuesday, via playmakers on offense and defense, once the bell tolls to kick off free agency at 4 p.m. ET.

One free agent, whose representatives spoke with Chicago during the early negotiation period, said his two biggest concerns about joining the Bears were the quarterback and the team’s locker room.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsThere's plenty of incentive for Jay Cutler to perform well in 2015 for the Bears.
The Bears partially solved the quarterback quandary by leaking there’s “absolutely zero truth," according to Mortensen’s report, that Cutler is being actively shopped for a trade. The team hopes it got an early start on handling potential locker room chemistry issues on Friday by trading fiery receiver Brandon Marshall to the New York Jets for a fifth-round pick.

But there’s still plenty left for Fox and Pace to do to avoid the fates of their predecessors.

Knowing all along the organization could very well be stuck with Cutler through 2016, Pace and Fox put together a coaching staff that should be able to coax production from the quarterback. Cutler respects new quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains and offensive coordinator Adam Gase and has long wanted to work with both.

The current situation seems reminiscent of the past, when the organization bent over backward to coddle the quarterback.

The difference this time is Pace and Fox may not hesitate to go another route quickly if Cutler fizzles.

Cutler is scheduled to earn $15.5 million in 2015, a contract that is already fully guaranteed. If Cutler remains on the roster Thursday at 4 p.m. ET, another $10 million of the quarterback’s 2016 salary becomes guaranteed for injury. Cutler could earn another $6 million guaranteed if he is on the roster next March at the start of the 2016 new league year. The team doesn’t owe Cutler any guaranteed money after 2016.

So for Cutler, there’s plenty of incentive to perform in 2015, which would help him avoid a repeat of the current offseason, in which the two most powerful decision-makers on the football operations side have remained noncommittal publicly regarding the quarterback.

Behind the scenes, though, the staff is working diligently to put together a playbook they believe will accentuate Cutler’s strengths.

Soon, it’s expected that Fox and Pace will come out and publicly endorse the quarterback, or at least announce a plan for the position moving forward.

Prior to all that, though, it’s likely the coach and GM sat down with Cutler and discussed expectations for 2015, his attitude, and how he should operate within the confines of the scheme to reduce turnovers and bad decisions, with the sides coming away from the meetings or series of meetings having struck some type of accord all could live with.

Ultimately, Cutler’s contract wasn’t immovable, but it was pretty close. The contract combined with circumstance (weak free-agent market of quarterbacks, lack of strong trade offers and the uncertainly of finding a suitable replacement in the draft) to conjure up the current climate.

Now it’s time for the brass and the quarterback to make the best of it.
Jay CutlerAP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltBears quarterback Jay Cutler signed a seven-year $126.7 million extension last January.

At least 10 former Chicago Bears staffers from the Lovie Smith and Marc Trestman regimes said recently they believe the team can't consistently compete for championships as long as it fields a lineup with Jay Cutler under center.

That sentiment might explain why head coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace remain uncommitted to Cutler as the team's starting quarterback for 2015. Deciding whether to commit to Cutler has a time element. If Cutler is on the Bears' roster on March 12, $10 million of his 2016 salary is guaranteed.

Cutler declined comment through a team spokesman. His agent, Bus Cook, said questions about whether the Bears feel they can win with Cutler should be directed to the team.

Two teammates, who also asked to remain anonymous for this story, characterized Cutler as a divisive figure with whom they'd rather not continue to play.

In six years with the Bears, Cutler has gone through four offensive coordinators, two head coaches and a pair of general managers. Yet Cutler remains very much in play as the team's potential long-term solution at the position, in part, because of the seven-year, $126.7 million extension the quarterback signed in January 2014.

One more former staffer said the Bears could win with Cutler as long as the coaches handcuff him to the system.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports"I don't think there's any question that there's ability and talent there," new Bears coach John Fox said recently of Cutler. "[But] there's a lot more that goes into it, and we're evaluating that as we speak."
But that's precisely what the staff did when Mike Martz served as offensive coordinator during the 2010 and '11 seasons, according to another former coach, and Cutler and Martz were often at odds.

Although Smith let Martz go after the 2011 season, there's no denying Cutler played some of his best football as a Bear during a six-game span that year in which he completed 60.7 percent of his throws for 1,359 yards and eight touchdowns with three interceptions for a passer rating of 91.3. Cutler led the Bears to a 5-1 record during that stretch before breaking his right thumb in a Nov. 20 win over the San Diego Chargers.

“We're going to take our time on this,” Pace said recently. “We really have until mid-March. We're going to maximize that time and make thorough decisions through this whole process.”

But video evaluation of Cutler may not prove as beneficial as speaking with teammates and perhaps his former coaches. Remember, Pace worked with former Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer in New Orleans, and it would come as a surprise if the new GM didn't pick Kromer's brain about Cutler. Kromer is the same coach who apologized during a team meeting for admitting he was an anonymous source in a story that characterized the Bears as harboring buyer's remorse for signing Cutler to the long-term contract. When the Bears cleaned house in December before Pace came on board, Kromer's contract was the only one terminated of all the assistants remaining on the staff.

“I don't think there's any question that there's ability and talent there,” Fox said recently of Cutler. “[But] there's a lot more that goes into it, and we're evaluating that as we speak.”

Despite Pace's and Fox's refusal to commit to Cutler publicly as the starter, it appears -- based on the staff they've set up -- the Bears are prepared to give the quarterback one last shot. The Bears hired two pro-Cutler coaches in offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains.

According to multiple sources, Cutler started to grow close to Gase after spending time with the former Broncos offensive coordinator at the wedding of former Bears quarterbacks coach Shane Day, a disciple of Martz. Cutler has wanted to work with Gase for a while, the sources said. Martz tried to hire Gase in 2010 as Chicago's quarterbacks coach, but Denver wouldn't allow him out of his contract, which led to the hiring of Day.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJay Cutler completed 66 percent of his passes last season and threw for 3,812 with 28 touchdowns and 18 interceptions on a Bears' team that finished 5-11.
Back in 2012, Cutler wanted Smith to hire Loggains, but he wasn't allowed out of his contract with the Tennessee Titans. Cutler and Loggains have a close personal relationship, according to a sources, and both the quarterback and coach have wanted to work with one another for quite some time.

It's unknown how Cutler and the new staff will get along if he's still on the roster in 2015, and one former coach said he believes it's time the organization stops catering to the quarterback until he delivers a return on the club's investment.

One staffer said that while Cutler was injured and Josh McCown was flourishing as the replacement in 2013, there was a significant faction in the locker room that believed the latter should've remained the starter. Another coach said that fairly early in the 2014 season, it was apparent the team had made two mistakes: (1) not re-signing McCown, and (2) continuing to stand behind Cutler after it was clear he was not going to consistently operate within the confines of Trestman's offense.

That same coach said he believed McCown gave the Bears a better chance to win than Cutler because he simply executed the scheme the way he was asked, without freelancing.

Pace and Fox met with McCown during the NFL combine, but there will be no reunion as McCown signed with the Cleveland Browns.

Some may view the disparaging remarks from Cutler's former coaches as sour grapes on the part of scorned staffers. Nobody on the current staff has told Cutler he's on the way out or that his tenure in Chicago is in jeopardy.

But every one of the former staffers interviewed from the Smith and Trestman regimes pointed out similar flaws in the quarterback. Two “R” words -- “renegade” and “rogue” -- were often used by the former staffers when asked about Cutler's ability to play within the confines of an offensive system.

They all also questioned Cutler's leadership abilities. One former staffer said McCown was the offense's leader in the locker room during his final season in Chicago, adding that for Cutler “it's just not him” to embrace such a role. The staffer said that Cutler doesn't have to be a leader for the team to succeed.

But it's difficult to ignore that the most successful teams in the NFL have strong leadership at the quarterback position.

"There's a lot of things outside of the building that I think are maybe a little misunderstood. When you get to know somebody, things are different when you get to talk face to face. So yeah, that's going on,” Pace said. “I know he's a very talented player, and again it's just getting to know him as a person and kind of how he ticks.”
Thanks to everyone participating in this week's Twitter mailbag.

Let's get started.

@mikecwright: I'm not sure about "fits" as you say, but the Bears are definitely interested in David Harris of the New York Jets, and Tampa Bay's Mason Foster as potential fits at inside linebacker. I think linebackers such as Jonathan Casillas and O'Brien Schofield are also players to keep an eye on as free agency approaches. I think San Francisco has some interesting things going on at linebacker as well. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman appear to be close to returning to full health, which means that last year's starters Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite could be relegated to backup roles. So perhaps new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, given his familiarity with all four players, could talk Ryan Pace into trying to trade for one of his former 49ers pupils.

@mikecwright: I could definitely see that happening. The names to look out for would be linebacker Nate Irving, safety Rahim Moore and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, aka "Pot Roast," as all three are free agents. Knighton is reportedly looking to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $7.5 million per year, which seems a tad steep. Knighton played in Jacksonville and Denver for new Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio. So there's a good chance Del Rio could be looking to add Knighton as well. Irving is coming off a torn ACL, which means he probably won't have much leverage in terms of landing a big-money deal. But Irving became a full-time starter in 2014, and seems to be an ascending player. Moore, meanwhile, will be one of the better safeties on the market along with New England's Devin McCourty. So there's a good chance Moore could be looking for more than the Bears would be willing to pay. In the past, the Bears didn't value the safety position in terms of handing out big-money deals. Perhaps that's changed with Pace as the GM.

@mikecwright: I think you got it right. But I go back and forth between where to put Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. In fact, I'd say Marshall probably has a better chance of returning to Chicago than Cutler.

@mikecwright: I'm sure that 5.64 time in the 40-yard dash hurt him in the eyes of some scouts, but I don't believe that will affect his draft position. What you've got to realize is that Danny Shelton has rare power and strength, and he did put up a 30.5-inch vertical leap, which means he's got the explosion that personnel evaluators covet. He's also got the strength and power to command double-teams, which in turn would keep offensive linemen off the linebackers to allow them to run around and make plays. Shelton met with several teams at the combine, including Chicago, Indianapolis, Arizona, Green Bay, the New York Giants and New Orleans, and I don't think any of those teams' interest has waned after that time in the 40. Ultimately, what the player put on tape in games is what Shelton will be judged on; not a 40-yard dash time.

@mikecwright: I like him. Personal side note: Petty's coach at Baylor, Art Briles, was head coach of the Stephenville [Texas] Yellow Jackets back when they defeated us (Wichita Falls, Texas -- Hirschi High School) 49-40 in the first round of the playoffs my sophomore year. Anyway, as much as I like Petty, I don't think he's quite ready. I think he'll need a few years to learn the nuances of an NFL system before he's ready to be a starter. So if the Bears were to draft Petty, they'd have to let him sit and learn a few years before thrusting him into any real action.

Even Petty admitted that it's difficult at this point to project how he'll fare in an NFL system because of his background in a spread offense, but said he's more of a pocket passer than most spread quarterbacks.

"We were in the spread, but at the same time, I feel like I am a pocket passer," Petty said at the NFL combine. "I want to extend plays, extend plays within the pocket. That might be a little bit different than most spread quarterbacks who want to run it out of the pocket. For me, I feel like my game can translate easier in that, and the fact that I want to play within the pocket, and I want to extend plays within the pocket and beat you doing that."

As Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox evaluate Jay Cutler to determine whether to bring him back for the 2015 season, ESPN NFL analyst Jon Gruden thinks it’s time the club gives another signal-caller an opportunity.

Asked on ESPN "Mike & Mike" on Thursday what would go into the final decision regarding Cutler, Gruden said, “I think John Fox is going to look at the body of work. They’re going to see that he didn’t get it done really with Lovie Smith or Marc Trestman, and now I’m the next head coach. I think you need to give some other people an opportunity to play. I think some of these quarterbacks get too many chances. There are good enough players out there that deserve a chance to be the quarterback of the Chicago Bears.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJay Cutler got a $126.7 million extension from the Bears in January 2014, but the team is still exploring its options at quarterback.
In six seasons with the Bears, Cutler produced a regular-season record of 44-38 and has thrown 129 touchdown passes to go with 93 interceptions for a passer rating of 84.3.

The new regime’s intense evaluation of Cutler stems from his seven-year, $126.7 million extension signed last January. Cutler’s $15.5 million base salary for 2015 is already fully guaranteed, but if the quarterback remains on the roster on the third day of the new league year (March 12), he’s guaranteed another $10 million of his 2016 salary.

“I know he has talent,” Gruden said. “But I don’t think he warrants that salary for sure. I think Chicago needs to look at getting a different leader under center.”

It’s clear the new regime has at least explored that possibility. The club met recently at the NFL combine in Indianapolis with former backup Josh McCown for breakfast in a restaurant inside the team’s hotel.

"[The] meeting went really well. [I] enjoyed spending time with them," McCown told ESPN.

McCown played for Fox in Carolina (2008-09) and spent three seasons with the Bears (2011-13) before signing a two-year deal to join former coach Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers released McCown on Feb. 11.

McCown played a significant role in Chicago, helping the club to implement a new offense under Trestman and former offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, and was often described by former Bears general manager Phil Emery as "a glue guy" in the locker room.

McCown played eight games during his last season in Chicago (2013), winning three games in five starts while filling in for an injured Cutler. McCown performed well enough to stir debate about whether he should be the full-time starter over Cutler.

“Two years ago, the Bears were on the brink of going to the playoffs because of Josh McCown’s play,” Gruden said. “Josh McCown played great for Marc Trestman. He fit that system. He understood it. He looked like he was in rhythm. He won a lot of games just two years ago for the Bears. He’s available. You can bring Josh McCown back. Jake Locker, possibly. There are some quarterbacks out there that need a new place to go. We were in Super Bowl XXXVII with Brad Johnson, I think he was on his third team. Rich Gannon was on his fifth team. Steve Young never started until he was 30 years old. We live in a day where everything has to happen right now, or let’s get him out of here. Some of these guys are going to prove to you that they can play. They just need a new setting.”

Perhaps that also includes Cutler.

Three things we learned at combine: Bears

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
INDIANAPOLIS -- Chicago Bears coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace met Wednesday with the media at the NFL combine, and several other interview sessions commenced Thursday involving general managers and head coaches around the league. Here’s what we’ve learned about the Chicago Bears:

Revisiting Bruce Arians: In explaining that quarterback Carson Palmer was nearly a month ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation, Arians knocked on the lectern here at Lucas Oil Stadium and said, “Don’t jinx me, baby.”

Engaging, detailed and surprisingly open about Arizona’s needs in free agency and the draft, Arians wowed the crowd in Indianapolis more than any other coach or general manager conducting sessions with the media, which begs the question: How did former general manager Phil Emery spend several hours with him in an interview setting and come away thinking he needed to hire Marc Trestman?

We can’t say with any real certainty that Arians would have been more successful than Trestman. But Emery’s decision to go with the latter over the former after firing Lovie Smith coming off a 10-6 season will always register as one of moves that ultimately doomed him in Chicago.

Some teams would love Chicago’s QB problem: Seeing most of the league’s 32 teams represented at the combine in interviews with general managers and head coaches helps to put Chicago’s issues with Jay Cutler into proper perspective.

At Tampa Bay, Lovie Smith recently released Josh McCown and the Buccaneers currently have only one quarterback on the roster in Mike Glennon as they eye the possibility of adding Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota with the No. 1 pick. “If you have to be in the position [holding the No. 1 pick], you’re always looking for a franchise quarterback,” Smith said. New Buffalo coach Rex Ryan, meanwhile, praised EJ Manuel despite the Bills bringing in McCown for a visit. “This league’s proven when you’ve got a great quarterback, it’s rare that you don’t go to the playoffs,” Ryan said.

Quarterback issues in Cleveland led up to Browns general manager Ray Farmer on Thursday apologizing for his involvement in the texting scandal that could lead to a suspension and the team possibly losing a draft pick as well as receiving a fine.

So if you’re thinking the Bears have it bad at the quarterback position, think again. Most of the teams referenced above would love to have Cutler.

Willie Young, Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston will be LBs: At least, that’s where the Bears plan to play the defensive ends initially in the new 3-4 scheme. Bears coach John Fox was asked specifically whether Young and Allen were now linebackers.

“We’ll line them both up there. What they become is up to them,” Fox said. “In Willie’s case, he’s coming off an Achilles surgery. You know, same thing with Lamarr Houston coming off an ACL. You know, I had two guys a year ago, Chris Harris and Von Miller coming off ACLs, and they both had Pro Bowl seasons. So that’s all part of the process, you know, getting guys healthy medically and getting them ready to play. We’re working on that as we speak daily.”

Young, Allen and Houston combined in 2014 for 16.5 sacks. Young led the way with a team-high 10 sacks.

Marcus Mariota to Bears not impossible

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
INDIANAPOLIS -- A day after Chicago Bears coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace danced around any commitment to Jay Cutler, the quarterback's potential replacement addressed the media assembled for the combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Oregon's Marcus Mariota seems a long shot for the Bears, which own the No. 7 overall pick in the draft. But the club's brass left open that possibility Wednesday when asked about the quarterback position. The team also brought in former backup Josh McCown for a Wednesday morning breakfast in the restaurant of the team's hotel.

"We're gonna look at all avenues, whether it's free agency, whether it's evaluating and aligning our roster correctly," Fox said when asked about potentially drafting a quarterback. "Obviously [in] the draft because that's where you get young players you can build in your system that can be core guys. All those avenues are going to be things you look at to get better."

But are Fox and Pace being realistic, considering they've got an experienced and talented, yet inconsistent quarterback in Cutler already in the fold? If Mariota tumbled to No. 7 overall, would the Bears seriously ponder making him the team's selection?

That's unclear at this point, but the Bears appear to be leaving open all options.

"That's the hardest position to find, and I recognize that," Pace said. "But that's what we do. That's my challenge and we'll evaluate that.

Having spent considerable time working in New Orleans with Drew Brees, one of the NFL's elite signal callers, Pace admitted to being spoiled by strong quarterback play. Pace was asked whether he preferred to draft and develop a quarterback over bringing in an experienced veteran such as McCown.

"I think it can come either way; just getting the best guys at that position," Pace said. "I know [Hall of Fame former Packers GM] Ron Wolf used to draft a quarterback every year. It's such a critical, critical position, that that's something we're always going to look at. And we want competition throughout the entire team. So competition at that position is just as good as competition anywhere. There's different ways. All these quarterbacks, if we went through them all, they all have different personalities; just like we do. I don't think you have to be just like [Brees], and I think it would be wrong for me to be that focused in on that that's the guy it has to be."

That potentially bodes well for Mariota, should he fall out of the top five and into Chicago's range at No. 7. But as the evaluation process intensifies at the combine for Fox and Pace, surely the club's personnel staff is focusing in on finding answers to many of the questions concerning Mariota's potential as a pro.

Mariota excelled in Oregon's high-octane no-huddle attack, and it's logical to ponder whether the quarterback's big numbers in college were manufactured mostly by the system. There are also concerns about Mariota's arm strength.

Mariota admitted to experiencing some awkwardness getting accustomed to huddling again, and he's also working on many of the minor details of a traditional pro-style offense such as three-, five-, and seven-step drops from under center.

Mariota confirmed Thursday he'll throw during Saturday's workouts, and also revealed he's been working closely through the pre-draft process with quarterback specialist Kevin O'Connell, a former third round pick by the New England Patriots, who was hired by the Cleveland Browns. Mariota has also been working with San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who told the former Oregon star "to be myself and enjoy this process as much as you can."

"It's nice, but it's all about control," said Mariota when asked about all the speculation concerning where he might be drafted. "People will always talk, there will always be rumors. But for the most part right now in this process for me, I'm trying to be the best player I can be in order to make an impact on whatever team I go to."
Cornerback Charles Tillman spent time Thursday talking with the “SVP & Russillo” show on ESPN radio, and discussed his desire to return for a 13th season with the Chicago Bears, whether he thinks quarterback Jay Cutler can finally shed his enigmatic persona, and more.

You can hear the entire interview here.

Would you like to return to the Chicago Bears for the 2015 season?

Tillman: Oh yeah, most definitely. I would love to be back in Chicago. But that’s not up to me. That’s up to the new GM. His name is Ryan Pace. So that’s up to him and coach [John] Fox.

What happened last season?

Tillman: We were a not-so-good team. We fell apart on all levels. We just weren’t a good team. I think the talent was there. But we just didn’t show up on the field.

The organization brought in coaches to fix Cutler. Does that mean it’s impossible to keep any consistency on the defensive side when you go so far the other way?

Tillman: I don’t think it was impossible. I think one of the things with our defense was we didn’t make the plays that we were supposed to make. We missed a lot of layups. There were some things that we changed that just didn’t work out. All the blame doesn’t go on the coaches. It takes coaches and players to make things right when you have it good, and it takes both to make it wrong when it doesn’t go the right way. We weren’t hitting on all cylinders.

Why the change from Marc Trestman to Fox?

Tillman: Someone told me a stat the other day. I think since 1956, this was the first previous head coach that we had. I think the organization is headed in the right direction. I like the hire. I met Coach Fox and I’ve talked to other players that he’s coached. They said that he’s a player’s coach. He’s an unbelievable person, great head coach. He’s a guy that you want to play for. I’m excited.

Can Cutler be a success for the Chicago Bears?

Tillman: I think he can be a success for the Chicago Bears, but I think ultimately that’s up to him and what he wants to do.

Meaning what?

Tillman: Can he take it to the next level? You want to make a name for yourself as a player, and I think he can do that. I think there are a lot of negative stereotypes when people talk about Jay Cutler. I think he can. I think that’s up to him though.

Cutler has underachieved his entire career.

Tillman: You’ve got your theory. Like I said, I think Jay Cutler can be that guy if he chooses to. That’s up to him, whether it’s mentally just taking it to that next level, mentally getting in the zone to where he’s hitting on all cylinders with receivers, players, coaches, leading. I think that’s a choice he has to make.

Do you think Fox will want to go with Cutler as the quarterback?

Tillman: I don’t know. We will see. I don’t know Coach Fox’s mindset. I don’t know what he’s thinking, if he wants to start over. I could not tell you.
Veteran NFL kicker Jay Feely thinks “Jay Cutler can win on the field,” but questioned the quarterback’s ability to assume a true leadership role for the Chicago Bears.

Feely signed with the Bears back in December as a replacement for starter Robbie Gould, who suffered a season-ending right quadriceps injury. Feely was asked during Mad Dog Sports Radio on Wednesday whether he believes Cutler is capable of developing into the club’s answer at the position.

“Not as a leader, no,” Feely said. “That’s not who he is. You’re going to have a vacuum there. So you have to know that as a general manager or a head coach, ‘Hey, we’re not going to have that leadership from this position, so we’ve really got to have other guys that are going to step up and are going to be our verbal leaders.”

Cutler didn’t serve in such a capacity during the 2014 season, according to Feely, who mentioned the quarterback and former head coach Marc Trestman lacked leadership. Cutler set the franchise’s single-season record for completions (370), and hit career highs in completion percentage (66) and passing touchdowns (28) last season. However, Cutler also tied Philip Rivers for throwing the most interceptions in the NFL with 18. Cutler also lost six fumbles to lead the league in turnovers.

Trestman benched Cutler for a Dec. 21 loss to the Detroit Lions in favor of Jimmy Clausen.

“I think with Marc Trestman, he was a little awkward when he spoke,” Feely said. “So, he really didn’t connect with guys. You can have that as a coach if you have a strong locker room. If you don’t have leaders in the locker room, [and] you don’t have a coach who really inspires, then you end up having a losing season.”

The same could be said for lacking leadership at the quarterback position, according to Feely. Cutler passed for 3,212 yards in 2014, which ranked as the most in his six years with the Bears and second best of his career. But the Bears need more than solid statistics at the position.

“Here’s my thing with quarterbacks in general,” Feely said. You are the person that every guy in that locker room looks to. When there’s a problem, they look to the quarterback. They want the quarterback to lead. When you have a quarterback who doesn’t like to lead, it leaves a hole in the team. When a quarterback is not a leader, there’s always going to be a vacuum there. Jay Cutler can win on the field, but he would be so much better and the team would be so much better if you’re a leader off the field as well. And I never saw him lead verbally. If he doesn’t want to do that, he doesn’t want to be that person, it’s not in his DNA, then you’re always going to have a vacuum there that somebody else needs to step into and fill.”
Chicago’s hiring of new head coach John Fox on Friday naturally leads to speculation about what is to become of quarterback Jay Cutler.

Signed to a seven-year contract worth $126.7 million last offseason, Cutler figures to become a hot topic of conversation among Fox and the brass at Halas Hall in the coming days. But new general manager Ryan Pace, who had been director of player personnel for the Saints, recently said the team won’t make any decisions until he gets a chance to get to know Cutler.

Pace can do that now that he’s hired a head coach.

“The quarterback obviously is a critical, critical position to achieve sustained success. But it’s not the only position. For us to have a lot of success, all 53 guys are going to be accounted for,” Pace said. “So, yeah, I witnessed things with Drew Brees that I have in my mind that I know why he was successful and those are ingrained in me. But I want to get to know Jay. I want to get to know him further before I come to these conclusions.”

Team chairman George McCaskey will leave Cutler’s fate solely up to Pace and Fox. But regardless of the conclusion Pace and Fox reach, options regarding Cutler seem limited.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhNew GM Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox will decide about Jay Cutler's future in Chicago.
Whether or not Cutler remains on the roster in 2015, the Bears are still responsible for $15.5 million in fully guaranteed salary and would owe the quarterback another $10 million in fully guaranteed money for 2016 if he’s still on the roster on March 12, three days into the new league year.

Cutler’s contract does include offset language for guaranteed money. So if Chicago were to release Cutler, whatever salary he receives from his next team would be subtracted from the $15.5 million owed by the Bears, with cap savings deferred.

With multiple teams around the NFL appearing to need quarterbacks -- such as Buffalo, the New York Jets, Houston, Tennessee and possibly Cleveland -- trading Cutler would seem a logical move, too. But the Bears would need a contingency plan in place before trying to make such a deal.

It’s worth noting that the upcoming free-agent class of quarterbacks doesn’t present many viable options for Chicago, and we all know no sure things exist in the NFL draft.

The problem with trading Cutler is receiving fair compensation, as teams interested in acquiring the quarterback know the Bears would be desperate to dump his large contract. So if the Bears decide to move Cutler, they’d have to do so knowing they’re not likely to receive fair value. But the money freed up could allow Chicago to build in other areas, namely the defense.

This might irritate some Bears fans, but perhaps the best course of action for the club is to keep Cutler. The Dallas Cowboys proved in 2014 it’s possible to mitigate the effects of a mistake-prone quarterback by building around him and changing the offensive philosophy, which is something Fox demonstrated an ability to do during his tenure in Carolina.

If Pace and Fox rebuild the defense and the coach shifts to more of a run-first philosophy that would allow Cutler to operate more efficiently off play-action, Chicago could win games similarly to the way the Seattle Seahawks get it done.

Statistically, Cutler produced one of his best seasons in 2014, completing a career-best 66 percent of his throws for a career-high 28 touchdowns. Cutler’s 3,812 passing yards ranked as second best of his career, and he finished the season with a passer rating of 88.6, which registers as his second-best rating in nine NFL seasons.

Obviously, turnovers (24) and questionable decision-making significantly diminished Cutler’s 2014 campaign, as opponents scored a total of 95 points off the team’s 29 giveaways.

But that’s not to say Fox can’t win with Cutler, because he can.

“I’m a big fan of Jay personally, and I’m a fan of Jay professionally,” McCaskey said. “But all of the personnel decisions are going to be up to the new general manager and the new head coach.”

For Pace and Fox, the Cutler clock is now ticking.
CHICAGO -- Chicago Bears chairman George McCaskey and team president Ted Phillips took a critical look at the club’s disastrous 2014 season and reached the conclusion that keeping "the status quo was not an option."

The hiring of soon-to-be 60-year old John Fox represents a genuine break from the status quo.

Fox arrives in Chicago with a wealth of head coaching experience after spending nine seasons in Carolina (2002-10) and four in Denver (2011-14), reaching the playoffs a combined seven times, and finishing as the runner-up in two Super Bowls.

This breaks the franchise’s tradition of hiring first-time head coaches.

Though new general manager Ryan Pace had what several sources described as a "tight" relationship with former Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone, whom the Bears interviewed on Tuesday along with Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Fox became a no-brainer the moment he "mutually parted company" with John Elway and the Broncos.

The Bears, coming off a 5-11 train wreck, could ill afford to pass on Fox, especially after the Bruce Arians debacle from two years ago, when former general manager Phil Emery bypassed Arians (21-11 in Arizona) in favor of Marc Trestman (13-19).

Can you imagine Pace choosing Marrone over Fox, and two or three years later firing Marrone after he failed to pan out in Chicago?

It would be disastrous for the organization.

Even if Fox falls short of turning the Bears into a perennial playoff participant, at least the young GM would be able to mount an honest defense: He hired the best man available at the time.

However, strong evidence suggests Fox can change the Bears’ culture.

Fox comes from a defensive background, serving as the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Raiders and New York Giants before landing his first head coaching gig in Carolina, where he went 78-74 overall (three playoff berths, one NFC championship).

Fox’s four-year stint in Denver produced 49 total wins, four consecutive division titles and a Super Bowl appearance last season.

For comparison's sake -- Marrone went 15-17 in Buffalo.

One former Fox player predicted: "[Coach Fox] will bring stability to the Bears. Coach Fox is definitely a players’ coach, but he also preaches discipline, and he’ll lay down the law if he has to. He will immediately improve the defense, while also putting a higher priority on running the football. Honestly, he is a great fit for the Bears. Chicago is lucky he left Denver."

What about Jay Cutler? Can Fox co-exist with Cutler if the quarterback remains on the Bears’ 2015 roster?

"I don’t know what the plans are with Jay, but if he stays, Coach Fox won’t have a problem with him," the player said. "Jay will respect John. How can he not? Coach Fox is a tough guy. He won’t tolerate anything less from Jay."

Respect, authority, stability and credibility -- four words rarely uttered at Halas Hall since Lovie Smith left town.

Even close to 60 years old, Fox provides a breath of fresh air the Bears badly craved.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. – New Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace said Friday that he plans to schedule a future meeting with Jay Cutler, but he declined to evaluate the quarterback’s on-field performance, a resume that includes a league-high 24 turnovers in 2014.

“I just found my office this morning,” Pace said. “I have a list. I’m going to meet with him soon. But right now, seriously, I’m really narrowed in on this head coach search right now. I’ll have time to talk to Jay. But I don’t have a set date.”

I don’t want to comment on specific things about him right now. Evaluating the quarterback is more than just what I see on tape. There are a lot of other things that go into the position. For me to fully that question [about Cutler], I need to get to know him as a person.”

Pace is no stranger to the football DNA of great NFL quarterbacks.

The 37-year old talent evaluator spent the last two years (2013-14) in New Orleans as director of player personnel, but he held the title of pro scout in 2006 when the Saints acquired free-agent quarterback Drew Brees, who suffered a torn labrum in his right throwing shoulder in the final game of the 2005 season while a member of the San Diego Chargers.

Brees went on to rewrite the record books in New Orleans, leading the Saints to the 2009 Super Bowl title.

“The quarterback obviously is a critical, critical position to achieve sustained success, but it’s not the only position,” Pace said. “For us to have a lot of success all 53 guys are going to be accounted for. I witnessed things with Drew Brees that I have in my mind that I know why he was successful, and those are ingrained in me. I want to get to know Jay. I want to get to know him further before I come to these conclusions.”

Pace fondly recalled the Saints' push to land Brees in free agency, and their original trepidation over the quarterback’s injured shoulder.

“That seriously was a group effort,” Pace said. “I’m not saying that as a generic answer. It really was [a group effort]. We talked about Drew Brees at the time. Obviously, there were some concerns with this shoulder. We had a plan in place to possibly draft a quarterback, and acquire a veteran free agent, if we didn’t get Drew Brees. That was our backup plan. We were fortunate to get Drew.

“Once you get to know him, once you interviewed him, you realized that he was coming off a shoulder [injury], but he was going to persevere through that. I remember we joke about our first training camp practice, because Drew didn’t throw the entire minicamps or OTAs. So [we’re at training camp], and here’s Drew’s first throw, right? He drops back for a little 5-yard out and he skips [the pass] off the ground. We all look at each other like, ‘Oh, man.’ But that guy’s work ethic, he progressed right through that, and hey, led us to a championship.”
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston plans to declare for the NFL draft, but that won’t mean much for the Chicago Bears, who own the No. 7 overall pick.

First off, the Bears aren’t exactly what can be described as a quarterback-needy team, considering they’ve already got a $126.7 million signal-caller on the payroll in Jay Cutler.

So before the Bears can devise a plan of attack to thoroughly vet Winston’s background as a potential pick, they’ve got to figure out what they want to do with Cutler, who is certainly talented enough to lead the club in 2015, provided the organization puts him in a position to succeed with the proper support system (general manager, coaches, players).

ESPN’s Todd McShay believes Winston is a better prospect than Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, but there’s a chance neither would be available when the Bears make their selection.

“They both have a chance to be great,” McShay said Tuesday during a conference call. “But they both come with red flags. Winston’s red flags are off the field.”

That brings us to another point. How could the next GM of the Chicago Bears sell Winston to ownership and the club’s fan base?

Football players don’t have to be choirboys, and from this vantage point football character trumps off-the-field character, provided the latter isn’t significant. But the new GM would have a difficult time convincing a conservative ownership group that Winston is worthy of being selected with the team’s first-round pick.

If the Bears did draft Winston, the staff would have to fight the temptation -- not to mention the outside noise from fans and media -- to play him immediately in the harsh spotlight of one of the NFL’s largest media markets.

Since the start of the 2013 season, Winston ranks fourth in touchdown passes (65), fourth in passing yards (7,964) and second in passes for gains of 20 yards or more (124).

But ultimately, it boils down to whether Winston would be best option in 2015 for the Bears at the quarterback position.

Even without knowing what the Bears' plan is for Cutler, the answer to that question would still be a resounding no.
Healthy all season for the first time since 2009, Jay Cutler completed a career-high 66 percent of his passes in 2014 and set a career record for touchdown passes (28) in addition to racking up the second-most passing yards (3,812) in his nine NFL seasons.

Yet from 2013 to 2014, the quarterback experienced the steepest decline of his Bears tenure in Total QBR (from 66.4 to 54.0).

So while the raw numbers indicate Cutler produced a strong campaign in 2014, the Total QBR tells a different tale as his 54.0 QBR in 2014 ranked as 21st in the NFL, down 14 places from 2013, when the quarterback ranked No. 7 in the league in that statistic.

Total QBR was developed to measure the level at which a quarterback contributes to putting points on the board, and obviously victories.

Yet what’s interesting about Total QBR as it relates to Cutler, however, is there’s really no correlation between how well the quarterback performs in that statistic and the team’s overall success.

For instance, Cutler ranked No. 16 or worse in the NFL in Total QBR in all but one of his six seasons in Chicago (2013). Yet Cutler’s worst performance as a Chicago Bear in Total QBR (44.7 in 2010) came during a season in which he was sacked 52 times(the most during his tenure with the team), yet the Bears were 11-5 and advanced to the NFC Championship Game.

So that’s ammunition for the Cutler defenders. But more than anything, that oddity speaks more to the importance of playing complementary football, an element sorely lacking in Chicago during the past two seasons because of the decline of the defense and special teams.

It’s certainly something worth considering for the team’s new general manager and head coach, once they come aboard.

Of the last eight Super Bowl champions, just three times (2006, 2009, 1010), their starting quarterbacks were among in the top 10 in Total QBR, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Over that same span, the defenses of those Super Bowl winners ranked in the top 10 six times in Total QBR.

Again, complementary football.

In 2014, the team with the higher Total QBR won 85.7 percent of its regular-season games, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and that registers as higher than the comparable mark for teams finishing games with the edge in total yardage, turnover differential and NFL passer rating.

So while Cutler continues to gain plenty of detractors -- including one here -- it’s difficult based on the numbers to definitively prove he isn’t the answer in Chicago.