The next big QB contract debates

Jay Cutler knows that he needs to have a good season to earn a new contract. AP Photo/Andrew A. Nelles

Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady were going to get their money. Tony Romo, Joe Flacco and Matthew Stafford had leverage on their side. But the coming wave of NFL quarterback signings will not feel as automatic.

Josh Freeman in particular and Jay Cutler -- to a lesser extent -- are facing a wider range of potential outcomes entering their contract years. Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick and the other 2011 draft picks are nearing the point where labor rules allow them to renegotiate for the first time. And Sam Bradford, who cashed in under the old rookie salary system, will have reason to seek a new deal as his guarantees run out. Together, this foursome of signal-callers represents the most intriguing contract talk of the coming year. So as each of these four QBs starts to seek his big payday, what can we expect them to ask for, and how well must they perform to cash in?

The stakes keep getting higher as the serviceable starter with a midrange salary nears extinction. The number of quarterbacks earning between $6 million and $11 million per season -- think Carson Palmer this year -- has fallen from 14 to 12 to eight to five over the past four years. The number earning $12 million and up has stayed relatively flat (ranging from 11 to 14), even as the highest salaries have shot past $20 million per year.

The thinking is straightforward: Why pay $7 million a year for a declining veteran when the draft can now offer first-round talent at a fraction of the cost? The rookie wage scale reduces payouts to the highest draft choices and also veteran quarterbacks accustomed to earning borderline starter money.

"You're going to have guys on rookie contracts, you're going to have guys who are backups and marginal starters making $3-5 million and then you are going to have these $20 million contracts," an NFL salary cap manager said. "That is going to be it."

As the middle continues to shrink, we consulted with the cap manager for perspective on the bar quarterbacks will need to clear to get their money and what a productive (or destructive) season might mean for the next contracts of Freeman, Cutler, Bradford and Kaepernick.