Underrated Game-Breaker: Jay Cutler
The NFC North is nothing short of a fantasy gold mine, and the Bears offense is no exception. Many have soured on Cutler as a fantasy asset, as his interceptions have been a constant concern and his health has been unreliable, but the elite weapons around him resulted in some key statistical improvements last year and should do more of the same in 2014.
Last season, Cutler threw his most touchdowns on a per game basis in his Bears career. He also recorded his best QBR and completion percentage as a member of Chicago, a direct result of his career-best touchdown-to-interception ratio (minimum of 11 games played).
Has the light bulb finally been turned on? What changed to allow Cutler to thrive in this Chicago offense?
For the first time in his career, he has a set of teammates and a head coach that perfectly fit his skill set. Brandon Marshall has long been Cutler’s favorite weapon, but with the emergence of Alshon Jeffery, he now has an athletic playmaker on both sides of the field. The impact of these two cannot be overstated, and you don’t need to look any further than Cutler’s streak of 12 consecutive games (minimum of 10 pass attempts) with a completion of at least 30 yards.
In 2013, he had the greatest average depth of target (aDOT) of any quarterback that will be ranked inside the top 10 at the position in 2014, and has the highest cumulative aDOT in the entire NFL over the last two seasons. He’s often been criticized for being a “gunslinger,” a quality that Marc Trestman has decided to welcome instead of change.
In addition to his ability to complete passes down the field, the increased dependence on Matt Forte in the passing game is also allowing Cutler to maximize his fantasy value. On “quick” pass plays where the quarterback has 2.5 seconds or less to throw the ball, Cutler ranked fourth (ahead of the great Peyton Manning and the check-down master Alex Smith) by completing 71.9 percent of his passes.
The threat of an effective short passing game allows the deep game to flourish, and last season was a massive step forward in this area for Cutler: He ranked 19th (behind Christian Ponder and Ryan Fitzpatrick) by completing 63.5 percent of those passes in 2012.
Cutler continued his constant ascent up the PFF QB Rating chart, ranking as the sixth best quarterback (ahead of a top 5 fantasy quarterback last season in Andy Dalton, as well as players like Matthew Stafford/Tony Romo/Tom Brady who are consistently ranked ahead of him).
His ranks in this advanced metric as a member of the Bears, in seasons in which he played at least 11 games, are as follows: 22nd, 19th, 14th, and 6th. That’s consistent improvement that peaked in the first season with Trestman calling the shots and a trend I’m buying into given the elite nature of Chicago’s weapons and Cutler in the midst of his prime.
The Bears schedule is set up nicely for their quarterback to peak when it counts most for fantasy owners. They play only three road games following their Week 9 bye, all of which come against defense-optional NFC North opponents. Six of their final eight games come against defenses that ranked in the bottom 10 in the league in terms of passing yardage allowed last season, giving him top 5 upside down the stretch. The Saints are the best statistical defense they play during the second half of the season, but the Bears get them at Soldier Field and on 11 days rest. Cutler isn’t in the top tier of fantasy signal callers, but he could be the most valuable on draft day.
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