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Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton illustrate QB dilemma facing teams today

NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

It isn't far-fetched to think Jay Cutler's departure from last Sunday's game against Detroit could lead to a larger-scale exodus from Chicago for the mercurial quarterback.

As it stands, he's had eight starts for new coach Marc Trestman, and a high ankle sprain has landed him in a walking boot. The coach said that Cutler is still the Bears' quarterback. For how much longer is the question.

Chicago isn't alone here.

The salary cap has stayed relatively flat the past three years, and while the middle class has been squeezed and the league has gotten younger across the board, the price tag on quarterbacks has continued to rise. That has turned up the pressure on teams to get it right at the game's most important position.

The decision of whether or not to double down on a passer, which has always been a high-stakes game, is now marked by the economic reality of one player eating up an average of $20 million per year while the cap hovers just above $120 million.

"Any player you sign, no matter how much it's for, you wanna be right. But for that much money, you really have to be," an AFC general manager said. "Say you run a 3-4. Well, now, that's harder, because you need more blue-chippers -- a lockdown corner, pass-rushers. A lot of 3-4s are complicated, so you might need veterans, and that costs more. That's where it starts to hurt, where you want to pay all those vets. And then on the flip side, you pay the quarterback all that money, it's not smart to not have weapons."

Three teams have major calls to make this offseason about their quarterbacks:

Chicago Bears

The player: Cutler
The situation:The contract extension he signed after being traded to Chicago expires in February.
The landscape: GM Phil Emery has been largely mum, but this is clearly a franchise-altering situation. Cutler turns 31 in April, and his potential has outweighed his production as a Bear. Going with a quarterback of his age and experience would signal that Chicago is approaching team-building one way. Starting over with a younger player, on the other hand, could guide larger-scale changes with the other older players on the roster. The franchise tag could be an option.

Cincinnati Bengals

The player:Andy Dalton
The situation: The Bengals have a handful of young players to pay. Dalton is eligible to be extended for the first time this offseason, with 2014 being a contract year.
The landscape: Early in the season, there was internal doubt about Dalton being the long-term answer. That dissipated in October when Dalton showed improvement, but he's struggled since. "At the end of the day, the issue is consistency," a Bengals source said. Not insignificant: Getting Dalton done early would help Cincinnati manage its financials, with a handful of young players due to get deals soon.

San Francisco 49ers

The player:Colin Kaepernick
The situation: Like Dalton, Kaepernick was a second-round draft pick in 2011, meaning he's a) eligible for a new deal this offseason and b) will be going into a contract year.
The landscape: There was no surer sign of the Niners' commitment to Kaepernick than their decision to trade away Alex Smith in the offseason, a move that came after the precocious quarterback's epic playoff run. Since then, Kaepernick has struggled to evolve away from an option-heavy offense. The Niners' plan remains to negotiate with him this offseason, but his play has affected his market value to some degree, and that could make talks tougher.

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Forthcoming decisions on these quarterbacks will help shape what's next for each team. The Bears, sans Cutler, could be in for retooling. The Bengals, if Dalton is allowed to go into his contract year, could take a flier on another QB in the draft.

Of course, if those teams go the other way and lock up their quarterbacks, budgetary considerations will need to be made.

The Indianapolis Colts of Peyton Manning's prime are a good example. Part of the benefit of hiring Tony Dungy and playing the relatively simple Tampa 2 defense (Manning's first mega-contract came after Dungy's second year) was making it easier organizationally to find defensive players who could play right away. Indianapolis poured draft picks and money into Manning's offensive weaponry while constructing a defense built to play with leads around smaller, quicker and mostly cheaper players. The Colts wound up capturing a championship and posting at least 12 wins in seven straight seasons.

Because Manning ate up a large chunk of the cap, Indianapolis could only afford to pay a smaller core of players at the top of the market, so drafting and developing around that core was a point of emphasis.

"The first part of it is that you can't win in this league without a franchise quarterback that the team completely believes in," one NFC GM said. "The second part (of paying him) is you have to have a staff that's willing to play with younger players, and develop young players, and commit to being good teams. When you have that quarterback, the days of signing the vets to come in because they know what they're doing, unless they take less, don't exist anymore."

Baltimore got younger in key spots this offseason, as did Atlanta, while Green Bay has always been draft-centric, so the difference isn't as stark there. In all three locales, big paydays for franchise quarterbacks coincided with the departures of veterans, and likely will force tough decisions down the road, as well.

Pulling the trigger on such a deal in the first place isn't easy. In so many ways, the entire building hitches itself to that player as a result. Taking into account the fallout in other areas of the roster, figuring out where to draw the line can often come down to how confident management is that the quarterback is capable of both winning and carrying the team.

"I just think, with a guy you're around every day, at practice, in the meeting rooms, in the offseason, you know," the AFC GM said. "You know if that has a chance, even if he hasn't made it there yet. So it comes down to your own evaluation. And then it becomes, 'As opposed to what?' If he's not there, you can always draft a guy, but that's easier said than done."

So on one hand, you sell out for the player. On the other, you risk winding up with a guy who makes you the equivalent of a perennial 50-win team in the NBA: just good enough to make you believe you're close while perhaps preventing you from making some of the more seismic changes needed to reach the ultimate goal.

"The way I see it, the guy's gotta be able to bring people along with him, carry guys and make them better," the NFC GM said. "He's gonna be the guy who's playing with that rookie receiver or the undrafted tight end. He knows that, making that money, he can't bitch about not having players. And you look for him to have strong, strong leadership skills."

Soon enough, we'll find out if the Bears, Bengals and Niners feel like their teams have that intangible quality. And as they know, it's one decision they have to get right.

Parsing the Panthers' turnaround

Here's a pretty impressive set of numbers: second in total defense, second in points allowed, fourth in yards allowed per play, second in rushing yards allowed per game, eighth in rushing yards allowed per attempt, fourth in passing yards allowed per game, sixth in yards allowed per pass play, first in interception percentage, fifth in sack percentage, first in first downs allowed per game, fifth in third-down defense and second in fourth-down defense.

That's where the Panthers stand going into Monday night's showdown with the Patriots, ranking in the top five in 10 of those 12 major categories and ranking in the top 10 in all of them.

And what's really scary, looking at the pieces, is that Carolina stands to get better over time.

"We've got a long way to go," said defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who's getting a second chance at being a play-caller after following Jim Johnson in Philly. "Having said that, I feel very positive about the future of the Panthers and the defense, being the side I know most. I look at the offensive side, and it's not any different -- a lot of youth and a lot of talent. But on defense, we're putting five rookies out there together sometimes, and that's not normal, especially for one of the better defenses in the league.

"The neat part is they're developing a sense of pride in wearing the silver helmets, developing traits and what it means to play here. Baltimore and Pittsburgh have a tradition. We're trying to get that established here."

There's no question it all begins with phenom Luke Kuechly, the second-year pro whose truck, as McDermott's explains it, can be found outside Bank of America Stadium at all hours.

But while Kuechly is the heartbeat, there's more to sort through when it comes to explaining the leap this defense has made in the past few months. There are the rush ends, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who have piled up a combined 13.5 sacks. There's the first-round pick, Star Lotulelei, who's become an anchor in the middle, and Colin Cole, who, finally healthy, has been a revelation. And then there are a number of veteran imports -- Chase Blackburn, Mike Mitchell, Quintin Mikell and Drayton Florence -- who have steadied the ship.

All the while, McDermott kept drilling it in their heads that he wanted a "playoff-caliber" defense.

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"People ask me, 'Why not Super Bowl caliber?' " he says. "That's the end goal. But we have to get in the dance first. If we get in, we got a chance, but we have to get in. So every meeting has to be a playoff-caliber meeting, every rep has to be a playoff-caliber rep, and we expect our defense to be a playoff-caliber defense. That's our benchmark."

As it stands right now, they're on pace to reach that benchmark, sitting in the NFC's first wild-card spot.

And yet, because the first four wins of their current five-game streak came against struggling teams, there might still be some doubts about the Panthers' ability to consistently compete with the elite -- doubts they could do plenty to erase by beating Tom Brady and Co. on Monday.

"I know players in this league look at 'Monday Night Football' as the game where you're the only show on earth," McDermott said. "But I really wouldn't say our guys see it like that, as much as they see it as the next challenge. And it's a huge challenge, don't get me wrong -- Brady with (Rob Gronkowski) and (Shane) Vereen back. It's just that, for us, it's the next challenge. Come Monday, I think they'll be ready."

We should all get a better idea of where Carolina stands going forward -- particularly with a pair of showdowns against the high-octane NFC South-leading Saints (one in Week 14, one in Week 16) on the horizon.

Falcons trying to figure things out

It wasn't supposed to be this way; the Falcons, not the Panthers, were supposed to be the team in a dogfight with the Saints for divisional supremacy.

No one saw Atlanta sitting five games back 10 weeks in -- and that goes most for coach Mike Smith.

"No one's happy about it," Smith said on Thursday night. "We're more discouraged about it than anyone. Everyone's disappointed with the way we've played: coaches, players, everyone. And the one thing I've learned is that everyone has to take ownership. When we do things well, we all do well, we all get credit. Now is the time when we have to take ownership. We're not doing anything well consistently. The only thing we've been consistent with is being inconsistent."

In other ways, the Falcons' first-half flop has confirmed most of Smith's deepest beliefs about playing winning football.

It starts with what he calls the "No. 1 marker" for successful teams: turnover margin. In that category, the Falcons (-8) have been outperformed by all but four teams in the NFL (the Texans, Jets, Steelers and Giants). The trouble continues on third down, where, while ranking a respectable 10th in the NFL on offense, Atlanta is a dreadful 31st on defense. And it wraps up with the team's penalty problems, which are at least in part attributable to the roster getting a bit younger (a development explained at the top of this column).

You'd also mention injuries and luck -- one particular play, where the Falcons just missed a pick and fumble recovery on a ball that simply bounced into the hands of Carolina's Brandon LaFell, stuck out -- but Smith just wishes his group navigated the circumstances a little better.

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"It's not a bad team," Smith said. "The dynamics of a football team changes through the season, and the dynamics have changed for our team, (in terms of) who's available every week. But everyone goes through that. And it's all fixable, and in the near term, we can get it fixed this week. It's such a fine line in this league. It shows in the first five, six games for us; it reinforces that fine line. It's an exacting game. It's a precise game. And most of them come down to two or three plays. It should, when you don't play precise."

The good news? That need to take ownership that Smith cited is being met.

Smith has asked his players to be transparent about their failures, and they have been. It might not be easy to come to grips with the reality of losing players like Julio Jones or Steven Jackson for long periods of time, but his hope is that, down the stretch, the adversity will steel his group. And believe it or not, he hasn't given up quite yet.

"First, I wanna say that we're not out of contention yet," he said. "There are still seven games left to be played, and there are plenty of years where 9-7 has been a playoff team. You can't approach it any different until you're mathematically out of the race for one of those 12 spots. That's where we're at. We have a real strong group of guys that have showed a lot of resiliency."

One thing's for sure: They'll need all of that to dig out of this hole.

Four downs

1) Rams' draft-day thinking finally comes clear. No player made a bigger impact on a game this past Sunday than Tavon Austin. And in doing so, he perfectly illustrated the conundrum his game presents. On one hand, his special breakaway traits -- blinding speed combined with the vision and feel to exploit it in the open field -- were on display. On the other, so too was the fact that, in certain ways, you have to create for him. Prior to his eye-popping showing at Indianapolis, the eighth overall pick in last April's draft had just 207 yards on 31 catches for an anemic 6.7-yard average. The difference on Sunday? Creativity. On Austin's 57-yard touchdown reception, the Rams got him isolated on the outside with Colts CB Vontae Davis, and Austin just ran right by him on a go route. On Austin's 81-yarder one quarter later, St. Louis motioned him in and ran him across the field underneath a natural pick, which created space for the open-field nightmare to work with. The key in those instances was, as one Rams source put it, "keeping him on the move and finding him mismatches." In other words, it takes commitment to unlock Austin's potential.

2) Nick Foles grasps Chip Kelly's offense. Foles' gaudy 16:0 TD-INT ratio hasn't come without some luck -- last week, Packers DBs Tramon Williams and Morgan Burnett collided on a jump ball, knocking it right into the hands of DeSean Jackson for a touchdown -- but, at least by the sound of it, the second-year pro is bringing a lot more than numbers to the table. Foles told me last week that any initial doubt about his fit in the offense (and he personally had his own doubts) was quickly allayed in the spring. And now, seven months removed from the start of Philly's offseason program, he's at the point where he can feel his way through the action and just play, rather than think. His teammates see this enhanced comfort, too. Veteran receiver Jason Avant explained it: "Nick, he sees the field, and on some of the routes you normally don't get the ball on, guys are getting the ball on those. So it's different, from a preparation standpoint, from a mentality standpoint. You're always alive and that's what you want." The easy translation: Foles is going deeper into his reads than Michael Vick had been, which is an awfully good sign of progress for such a young signal-caller.

3) Dolphin players aren't the only ones rallying to Richie Incognito's defense. The next phase of the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin story will come with NFL investigators interviewing team officials and trying to get to the bottom of what the coaches and staff knew about the dynamic between the two star-crossed players. And I'd expect those guys to largely back up what Incognito has said. An interesting point was raised to me recently. When head coach Joe Philbin arrived last year, he made building the right locker room mix a priority, which sounds strange now but was the absolute truth then. That's why Miami traded Brandon Marshall. That's why Vontae Davis is gone. If the coaches thought Incognito was a cancer, it stands to reason he'd have been jettisoned, too. And while it's hard to capture everyone's individual emotions on such a complex issue, it remains clear that most inside the building have Incognito's back, and many still believe the Bryant McKinnie trade, not the cafeteria incident, was the real trigger. Now, Martin is the only person who knows the full truth on that, and you could argue that the Dolphins' assessment of Incognito represents a failure in reading a player, but how people feel is how people feel. "The players here (were always) a lot more upset and mad at Martin than Richie," one Dolphins staffer said. "They're pissed Richie's gone. And they blame Martin for it."

4) Keep an eye on Peyton Manning's mobility. It's fair to look at Manning's spotty attendance record over the past couple weeks as a red flag, knowing the stock he puts in practice reps. The MRI he had on Monday showed no additional damage, but that doesn't mean he's out of the woods yet. The key in the immediate future isn't whether No. 18 can stay on the field -- it'll obviously be cataclysmic for Denver if he's sidelined -- it's about how he functions out there. The Chargers were encouraged internally by how effective they were in getting to Manning last Sunday, sending him to the ground about 10 times (though the official count was five hits and two sacks). And San Diego's belief is that this wasn't simply a byproduct of Denver missing Pro Bowl LT Ryan Clady. Chris Clark isn't Clady, but he played OK on the blind side. The greater factor was Manning's inability to get out of the way, exacerbated by his ankle issues. Over the years, Manning always has been fantastic at protecting himself, be it through a quick trigger or subtle pocket movement. If he's less effective in doing that, particularly facing the active Kansas City (twice) and New England fronts over the next three weeks, it could be a serious problem for the Broncos.

Three checkdowns

1) Art Briles' 10-year contract extension at Baylor will have coaching-carousel fallout. His name has been hot, even among NFL clubs, and now it'll cost around $5 million to buy him out. One reason pro teams like him: The success of the skill players he has developed, including quarterback Robert Griffin III and wide receivers Terrance Williams, Josh Gordon and Kendall Wright.

2) The Seattle Seahawks expect Percy Harvin to play a role on Sunday -- the plan is to monitor him, and limit snaps to certain packages to start -- and that will be huge for the team. But the looming return of offensive tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini might be even more important.

3) Credit where it's due to Jimmy Graham, who's been fighting through a bad foot injury in a contract year and has continued to produce for the New Orleans Saints. He's not the most physical tight end on the planet, but he's done plenty to prove his toughness of late.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) USC WR Marqise Lee (vs. Stanford, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): Lee has dealt with a knee injury the past few weeks and has been in and out of the lineup for a month. On top of that, his production (38 catches, 521 yards, 2 TDs) is way down from last season (118 catches, 1,721 yards, 14 TDs). So this game, with the spotlight shining and a pro-style defense opposite Lee, is one scouts will hone in on. One NFC executive called Lee a "stud," but added that he doesn't come without strings: "He can fly and make every play a touchdown, but he's not strong and durability is a question." An AFC college scouting director compared Lee physically to Santonio Holmes, and said, "He has the skills to dominate, so he needs to show big-play potential in every game, and also make the routine plays. ... Stanford won't let Lee beat them." Before the season, Lee and Clemson's Sammy Watkins topped the receiver charts of NFL evaluators. Three months later, Lee has some catching up to do, as Watkins eclipsed 1,000 yards Thursday night.

2) Georgia QB Aaron Murray (at Auburn, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): The fifth-year senior has been remarkably consistent, is off the charts from an intangibles standpoint and has more games on tape than just about any other quarterback in the country. So would you believe that, come spring, he'll actually be polarizing? "Half the league will see him as a starter," said one area scout, working the SEC. "The other half will see him as a backup." The problem for Murray comes with his physical skill set. He doesn't have a rifle, nor is he particularly big or tall. Some coaches likely will see his warts as manageable, while others will see limitations that are tough to overcome. Asked about a comparison to Andy Dalton, the above AFC college director said he thought Matt Flynn was a better match: "Backup quarterback in the league. Short, average arm and a good college quarterback. He can start in stretches, but would be better as a backup." The ceiling for Murray in next May's draft is probably the second round. He has impressed evaluators by hanging in through a plague of Georgia injuries. Whether or not he's good enough to build around will be the question.

Extra point

The Dwayne Bowe incident last weekend once again shines a light on the NFL's drug policies.

In all likelihood, that one will go through the courts before the league levies any sort of penalty, which appears to be the case with Aldon Smith, as well. And that means, in both of these circumstances, there's a decent chance the hammer doesn't come down until 2014. By then, it's possible there will be changes in the works.

The drug policies have been part of the negotiations on testing for human growth hormone, and the expectation in some corners has been that other aspects of the rules will be revised once the elephant on the couch is taken care of.

Look for this to start with the DUI policy. The league says it has put several proposals for increased discipline in front of the NFL Players Association over the past three seasons, and has been rebuffed. But the players' union has been open to discussing this as part of larger drug-policy negotiations.

Each offseason, the league and union take part in an annual review of the two drug programs (recreational and performance-enhancing), a process that exists to identify and address problems.

It'll be interesting to see if the high-profile nature of the above run-ins ratchet up the urgency when the parties get to that meeting -- or if a potential HGH agreement could ring in more widespread change.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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