Fantasy: Bearing Gifts – Why Jay Cutler Will Be a Top-10 Quarterback in 2012

| June 5, 2012

Elite fantasy quarterbacks are few and far between, and I use that term selectively. I am referring to those who are worthy of a first- or second-round pick — the $40-plus quarterbacks, the 2012 Aaron Rodgers or 2008 Tom Brady. (Fantasy owners still curse Bernard Pollard’s name for taking Brady out in Week 1 that year.)
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Jay Cutler is not one of these guys by any stretch of the imagination.
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There are guys who are just a notch below elite — those who will put up fantastic fantasy numbers, but who are not worth drafting terribly early. Eli Manning and Cam Newton come to mind this season — yes, Newton, who will not be rushing 14 touchdowns again.
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Cutler does not quite fit in there either. Not yet.
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Where he does reside right now is in what I like to call “stud sleeper” territory. This is where I had Matthew Stafford early last year, a land full of promise and skepticism, of great talent with past failures or injury woe. Cutler has traversed the fantasy realm and has made camp in this zone for the 2012 draft season.
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The Talent
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Whereas Stafford had some historical comparisons, an undeniable talent, and the best receiver in the league going into last season, Cutler is no slouch when it comes to talent, but he has some poor history on his side that is dogging his fantasy value. Is it merited? -

Cutler has not endeared himself to football fans off the field, or even on it when you consider some of his awful performances or when he infamously pulled himself out of a playoff game for what seemed like a minor injury. These are major contributors to a great misconception about him, as Greg Cosell points out in his Cutler column:

You may recall one issue raised in the evaluation process was Cutler’s tendency to force throws into coverage. Those who said that were wrong. Cutler was throwing to wide receivers matched one-on-one on the outside. Here’s the way it works in the passing game: The best you can get is man coverage. When that happens, the quarterback expects his receivers to get open. If your receivers do not win, it’s not the quarterback’s fault. At Vanderbilt, Cutler threw a lot of passes to receivers that could not win against more talented SEC corners. That was viewed erroneously as a troubling indication of poor judgment and decision making.

Cosell goes on to gush about Cutler’s elite arm which helps him overcome his lack of anticipation. He also mentions that the Bears were 7-3 last season before Cutler went down for the count.
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Whether you agree with his premise that Cutler is a top quarterback or not, there is an important fantasy implication tied to this evaluation: the quality of Cutler’s receivers.
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The Supporting Cast
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“Do you think about me now and then? ‘Cause I’m coming home again.” - Homecoming by Kanye West (contrary to popular belief, not a poem by Brandon Marshall to Jay Cutler)n

It is no secret that Cutler has lacked quality receivers to target during his tenure in Chicago. Here is a snapshot of his weapons over the past three seasons:
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Name Year Rating (Rk) TA Rec. % Ct Yds Yds / Rec. YAC YAC / Rec. TD Drops
 Devin Hester 2009 -0.9 (64) 89 57 64 757 13.3 295 5.2 3 4
 Earl Bennett 1.4 (49) 85 54 63.5 717 13.3 329 6.1 2 3
 Devin Aromashodu 5.3 (28) 40 24 60 298 12.4 76 3.2 4 2
 Johnny Knox -1.7 (67) 75 45 60 527 11.7 152 3.4 5 4
 Devin Hester 2010 -7.5 (97) 71 40 56.3 482 12.1 235 5.9 4 6
 Johnny Knox -0.6 (51) 97 51 52.6 964 18.9 241 4.7 5 6
 Earl Bennett 6.3 (18) 66 46 69.7 561 12.2 210 4.6 3 0
 Johnny Knox 2011 2.0 (40) 64 37 57.8 729 19.7 161 4.4 2 4
 Devin Hester -11.9 (52) 53 26 49.1 369 14.2 165 6.3 1 4
 Roy E. Williams -1.2 (56) 60 37 61.7 507 13.7 112 3 2 7

Consider why the Bears traded two third-round picks for troubled Brandon Marshall: Chicago’s receivers stunk. They also drafted red-flagged Alshon Jeffery in the second round this year despite concerns about his work ethic. Incidentally, though the Bears envision Hester starting over Jeffery in the short-term, I think the big receiver out of South Carolina can beat the veteran, who is better off focusing on kick and punt returns than starting at receiver. These two represent a massive upgrade in Cutler’s arsenal.

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Return to the focus of this article, however, where we find Cutler smiling and fantasy owners everywhere hopeful. You should be. The last time Cutler and Brandon Marshall hooked up in 2009, this happened:
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Player Rating (Rk) Att. Comp. Comp. % Yards Yds / Att. TD In Drops NFL Rtg Points
Jay Cutler 22.7 (2) 616 384 62.3 4,526 7.3 25 18 48 86.0 372.3
Targets Rec. % Ct Yards Yds / Rec. YAC YAC / Rec. TD Drops PPR
 Brandon Marshall 7.4 (14) 177 104 58.8 1,265 12.2 441 4.2 6 16 260.5

Is your jaw opened or did you remember? That was just their third season in the league to boot. Unfortunately the union was short-lived as the wheels fell off for Cutler in Denver and Marshall was sent to quarterback purgatory in Miami. After each serving time with one fantasy arm tied behind their backs, however, they have been reunited for a run at fantasy glory.
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The Value-

The best part about all of this is that you can have Jay Cutler with relatively little risk. Here is a table of his current average draft position (ADP) at this stage on different sites:
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Site QB ADP Overall ADP Earliest Latest
Mock Draft Central 14 101 87 110
My Fantasy League 16 110.5 16 238
Fantasy Football Calculator 14 99.7 71 119
Yahoo!* 11 88.4 N/A N/A
ESPN N/A N/A N/A N/A

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*Limited sample size

Indeed, the risk is there — Cutler is prone to throwing up the occasional goose-egg (figuratively speaking, though some of his more vociferous detractors might have you think literally as well), his offensive line is still a question mark, and he is coming off a season-ending injury — but his value is being overly-depressed by years of underachievement.
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The fact that Cutler is not even being considered a starter based on these ADP results means he is a huge bargain, though I expect his ADP to rise as his bandwagon fills up over the next few months. If you choose to forego drafting a quarterback early — a tactic I advocate, especially considering that quality fantasy running backs are slowly approaching endangered — making Cutler part of a quarterback-by-committee (QBBC) is a fantastic approach.
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Cosell goes out on a limb by calling Cutler a top-10 quarterback, and I will do the same from a fantasy perspective. 
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