If Health Is on His Side, Jay Cutler Is Going to Be a Top-5 Fantasy Football Quarterback

Jay Cutler takes a lot of heat, but is his perception clouding an honest judgment about his potential in 2014?

You may not really like Jay Cutler, and I can guarantee that Jay Cutler really doesn’t like you. Don’t take it personally – he doesn’t like anything.

Just please don’t ignore him in fantasy football this year.

I know why you don’t want Jay Cutler. He’s missed 12 games over the last three seasons, can be a little erratic with his decision-making, and has just one season with more than 4,000 yards passing. In a league where nine different passers hit the 4,000-yard mark a season ago, that’s not very inspiring.

But the optimism – his ceiling – is beyond intriguing.

Cutler’s Advanced Metrics

A snapshot of Cutler’s career doesn’t show you anything all that special. His best campaign came during his third year as a pro, where he threw for 122.38 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) for the Broncos in 2008. For reference, Net Expected Points is a measure we use here at numberFire that shows the number of points added or lost by a player over the course of a season. His 122.38 score was fourth-best in the NFL that season, and, in turn, he also finished as the fourth-best fantasy signal-caller.

But since moving to Chicago, Cutler’s been anything but a top-five quarterback option. Prior to last season, Smokin’ Jay had just one positive NEP year with the Bears. It happened in 2011, where, in 10 games, he threw for a total of 18.41 Passing Net Expected Points (16th best among relevant passers). Even on a per drop back basis, Cutler wasn’t a top-10 quarterback.

If we’re judging solely on what he’s done, we can’t be that excited. I mean, throughout his career, Cutler’s basically performed like anyone using Luigi has in Mario Kart 64: average. His 2008 was great, sure, but that’s the equivalent of winning the Mushroom Cup on 50cc. The man hasn’t really shown us anything.

(Bad analogy? Bad analogy.)

But using only his past performances to judge his outlook could get us in trouble. Winners in fantasy football are the ones who are able to accurately predict the future, finding late-round values who are bound to soar towards the top of their positions. Jay Cutler could do that – despite his history – in 2014.

Opportunity in Chicago

Prior to last season, I wrote a little something on Lord Marc Trestman, Chicago’s head coach who, at the time, was re-entering the league after a handful of years in the CFL. Trestman had coached on the NFL level before, most notably with the Rich Gannon-led Raiders back in 2002. That was the year Rich Gannon became a 37-year-old wonder.

As noted in the article, Trestman guided Rich Gannon to a 131.12 Passing NEP score, the highest he’d ever seen in his career. He also boosted the production from his wide receivers (Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Jerry Porter) and lone pass-catching back (Charlie Garner).

That forced me to wonder what he could do in Chicago, and we saw the results of his presence last year.

YearAdjusted Passing NEPTotal Offensive Rank

In just a single season – and yes, I’m aware personnel shifted as well – the Bears went from having an adjusted passing offense (adjusted for strength of schedule) that had lost over 17 points versus expectation to one that added nearly 84. The difference in points added through the passing game alone equated to over a touchdown per game when Trestman came on board. The overall offense went from being the 22nd-best one in the NFL to a top 10 unit.

Oh, and did I mention he did it with a quarterback who was playing for the Hartford Colonials in 2010?

Yes, Josh McCown, a quarterback written off by even his own mother (this hasn’t been completely confirmed), was successful in Trestman’s offense last year during Jay Cutler’s injury absence. On 224 attempts, McCown threw 13 touchdowns to just a single interception, tossing the rock for over 1,800 yards. From an advanced analytics perspective, McCown’s per drop back Passing NEP among 200-plus attempt quarterbacks ranked second in the league behind only Peyton Manning.

To stay in line with my horrible Mario Kart 64 references, Josh McCown a season ago was like winning a game in Battle Mode with Toad.

As a result, McCown finished with four top-12 quarterback performances (QB1 performances) in fantasy football a season ago, the same number as Joe Flacco. The difference is that Flacco, you know, played the entire season.

Because Cutler only played 11 games (less than that, to be fair), fantasy owners don’t necessarily realize what he did on a week to week basis. Instead, they see that he finished as the 23rd-best fake football quarterback, right ahead of Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Well, Cutler had five weekly top-12 performances at quarterback. Combine that with McCown, and you’ve got yourself nine in total. That would have tied Andrew Luck for the fourth-most in all of football last year.

Even if you’d rather look at things from a cumulative perspective, the number of points scored by McCown and Cutler in 2013 would have ranked third in the NFL. You can thank Marc Trestman for that.

Do you now see the upside, at least a bit? Well, there’s more.

Two Top 10 Wideouts

One of the most fascinating things about Jay Cutler in fantasy football is that he’s being drafted as roughly the 14th quarterback so far this year, but has two receivers who are being selected in the second round. Something’s not adding up.

This made me a bit curious – how have other quarterbacks with two top 10 receivers performed in the past? Does history show that quarterbacks with multiple top 10 receivers at season’s end perform at a high level?

Common sense says yes, but if common sense is driving average draft position data, why is Jay Cutler not perceived as a starting fantasy quarterback?

Since 2000, there have been 12 instances where a duo of receivers from the same team finished in the top 10 together. For purposes of this study and to get a larger sample size, I’ve actually included 13 duos, as 2006 saw Chad Johnson finish fourth, while teammate T.J. Houshmandzadeh finished 11th.

One of these duos includes last year’s pairing of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. And, as I said earlier, a combined Cutler-McCown season brought home a third place quarterback finish.

Rich Gannon, Tommy Maddox, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Carson Palmer and Matt Ryan are the other players to quarterback two top 10 fantasy receivers in a single season over the last 14 years. Manning has done it four times, and Palmer and Warner have done it twice.

Among these seasons, we have just two where the quarterback failed to finish as a top nine fantasy passer. One of those two occurred in 2005, where Kurt Warner played just 10 games (funny enough, Josh McCown was the other quarterback in Arizona). Warner finished 22nd as a fantasy quarterback due to missing time, but combined with McCown, the Cardinals' passers scored more fantasy points than any other signal-caller that year, leading the league in passing yards.

The other instance where a quarterback failed to reach relevant fantasy status was in 2002, where Tommy Maddox, too, ended the year ranked 22nd. Like Warner though, Maddox didn’t play the entire season – Kordell Stewart was under center as well. Combined, the two produced over 260 fantasy points, making them the sixth-best at the position in 2002.

In other words, history has shown that, if a team has two top 10 fantasy wide receivers, the quarterback position on that team – whether it be a platoon or not – will finish in the top 10 as well. Quite easily, too. If we assume the three quarterback platoon examples finished with a ranking of 6 (Maddox), 1 (Warner) and 3 (Cutler), the average finish for a fantasy quarterback with two top 10 receivers is 4.38. The median is 5.

It Comes Down to Health

Given all of this, it only seems reasonable to conclude that Jay Cutler has a crazy-high ceiling in 2014. Though his previous production isn’t phenomenal, he has Marc Trestman coaching him in a passer-friendly offense with the absolute best wide receiver duo in the league. And if history is any indication, that means he’ll be at least the ninth-best fantasy passer this year.

The main deterrent with Cutler, then, is his health. Can he play a full 16-game slate? Will he be able to last long enough to reap the benefits of playing football with two monstrous receivers, a pass-catching running back and a large-bodied tight end?

The reality is, it doesn’t matter. Cutler’s being drafted in double-digit rounds, which means his cost – the cost of a quarterback with obvious breakout potential – is next to nothing. I’ll take that all day long.