|04-19-2006, 10:20 AM||#1|
Join Date: Sep 2003
Location: Saratoga, NY
Cutler aims to be a cut above the rest
By Tom Weir, USA TODAY
NASHVILLE — "Big" is the adjective that makes Jay Cutler the quarterback with the fastest-rising stock in the NFL Draft.
Big as in 6-3, 226 pounds. A big arm that was unaffected by brutal weather at his pro day workout for NFL scouts on March 17. A big, competitive heart that didn't waver in four seasons as a starter for a Vanderbilt team that often was physically outmatched in the Southeastern Conference.
But for teams that aren't drafting high enough to land either of the most touted quarterbacks in this draft — Southern California's Matt Leinart and Texas' Vince Young— there's a subtler appeal about Cutler.
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"I call him the happy medium," says Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese. "He has Matt's brains, arms and accuracy, and he has Young's mobility and size."
That blend of talents made Cutler the SEC's offensive player of the year during a 5-6 season that saw him throw for 3,073 yards and 21 touchdowns. It also has made him a top 10 pick in numerous mock drafts, even though Cutler never took Vanderbilt to a bowl game.
"How good would he have been if he had played at Southern California or Texas?" asks Reese, whose club has the third pick and has met several times with Cutler.
"And," adds Reese, "what would Matt Leinart or Vince Young look like at Vanderbilt?"
St. Louis head coach Scott Linehan says the quarterback threesome makes this one of the most compelling drafts he has seen. Linehan says Young is "the phenom" and that Leinart's appeal is bolstered by his ability to run a pro-style system "to perfection" at USC.
As for Cutler, Linehan says, he was "really off the map before he started his career, and all of a sudden he's the best quarterback in maybe the best conference in college football."
That accolade was hardly foreseeable for Cutler, who says he began his college career "with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder," because Vanderbilt was the only major-conference school to genuinely offer a scholarship. Illinois' fleeting offer was rescinded after a coaching change.
With the Commodores managing only an 11-35 record during his four seasons, Cutler says his burst of attention from the NFL was slow in arriving, "because we're kind of under the radar here."
But Cutler, who grew up in the Christmas-obsessed town of Santa Claus, Ind., sees winding up at Vanderbilt as a gift.
"I got it done without a lot of guys around me," says Cutler, whose father, Jack, is an Indiana state trooper. "Nothing against those guys, I love them to death, but I didn't have All-Americans scattered across the field and I had to adjust, I had to deal with pressure."
Stock rises as teams size him up
Vanderbilt strength coach John Sisk says Cutler steeled himself for SEC beatings by spending as much time in the weight room as any of the linemen.
Cutler can bench press 405 pounds, and at the NFL Scouting Combine he put together a string of 23 bench repetitions of 225 pounds. In his four seasons, Vanderbilt coaches say, he missed only one practice, and he has bulked up by about 40 pounds since his freshman season.
"I think NFL veterans will give him recognition, because he's not a guy who's going to run out and play golf after practice," says Sisk. "He's a weight room guy."
Besides Tennessee, Cutler has had recent showcase workouts with Minnesota and St. Louis. He finished an audition Monday with the New York Jets that included dinner with owner Woody Johnson and a five-hour quizzing at the chalkboard. Thursday, Cutler is expected to be similarly scrutinized in Detroit.
"I'm still enjoying it, but it's been a long four months," Cutler says of the evaluation process. "It gets kind of like a circus. I've had fun with it, but I'm ready to see where I go."
Among the many Internet mock draft sites, Scott Wright's draftcountdown.com has one of the brightest outlooks for Cutler, saying he could go as high as No. 4 overall.
"Every year we see a player who makes a major surge up the draft boards after the season ends, and there is no question that Cutler is that guy this time around," says draftcountdown.com.
"Teams and scouts have fallen in love with Cutler's size, arm, mobility and intangibles."
ESPN's Chris Mortensen has Cutler rated as his No. 1 quarterback, as does NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.
One criticism of Cutler has been that he makes too many passes off his back foot. Ask him about that, and he smiles, welcoming the chance to discuss what he sees as an asset, especially given the three freshmen who started as offensive linemen during his career.
"I'd like to see the other guys come in here and not throw off their back foot," Cutler says of some of the desperation passes he made while under pressure from SEC defenses. "Back in my early days, you just didn't have a lot of time to throw the ball. You're just trying to make plays out there."
On Cutler's pro day workout at Vanderbilt, "It was just an awful day, cold, rainy and windy," says Reese. "And it didn't affect him in the slightest."
Reese says Cutler does need to improve his footwork, but says it likely can be fixed with a few practices.
"He knows that," says Reese. "He's a bright kid. He's very bright."
Reese says Cutler made an excellent impression during chalkboard sessions, when he had to stand up and draw plays and explain coverages.
"That's not a problem, I've done it so many times," says Cutler, adding he enjoys the intellectual testing side of the draft process. "It's a job interview. You've got to show them you know what you're talking about. You can't be mumbling and making stuff up. You've got to be sharp."
Used to handling the pressure
The first indication Cutler was headed for a big season came when he led a comeback 28-24 victory against Arkansas last Sept. 10. The Commodores had trailed by 11 points entering the fourth quarter.
With Southern Cal also playing Arkansas, Leinart watched film of Vanderbilt's game and says, "I was like, 'Man, this guy can throw.' Big, strong kid. A great player."
Cutler was named a team captain the past three seasons. Among the many career records he set for Vanderbilt were 9,953 yards in offense, 59 passing touchdowns and 167 consecutive passes without an interception.
He finished his senior season with four consecutive 300-yard passing games against SEC opponents, and the final pass was for the touchdown that gave Vanderbilt its first victory against Tennessee in 23 years.
"From a physical skill set, I think Cutler has the biggest arm in the draft. I think he has a quicker release than either of the other two," says the NFL Network's Mayock. "He's tough. I think he played behind a very poor offensive line without a whole lot of help. ... When I look at that kid and what he did on tape, he can make throws that I don't think the other two kids can make."
Vanderbilt is the SEC's only private institution and has the conference's most stringent admission requirements, which leads Commodores quarterbacks coach Jimmy Kiser to readily acknowledge his team often was outmanned.
But Kiser says that disadvantage has left Cutler better prepared for the step up to the NFL.
"I think Jay's transition to the pro game is going to be easier than for other people who have played with tremendous talent on their team," says Kiser. "He's used to the speed of the game and people flying around him, and throwing the ball with tremendous pressure on him."
Cleveland GM Phil Savage agrees, telling media at the NFL Combine that "if Cutler goes to a team that's struggling, it's not going to be a new thing for him, whereas it could be for a Matt Leinart or a Vince Young. They won virtually every game during their careers. I think that is a positive for Jay."
Team guy all the way
The pressure Cutler faced at Vanderbilt included enduring 33 sacks during the 2004 season. But those sacks don't mean Cutler can't run. He ran for 314 yards per season.
"He knew he was going to have to get bigger and stronger to weather all those hits. He never backed off," Vandy head coach Bobby Johnson says. "Sometimes he tried to run over guys. We tried to get that out of him. He's not a 'protect me' kind of guy. He'll stand up and say, 'I can handle it.' "
Cutler says that ruggedness stems in part from being a two-way player in high school, playing safety on defense.
"It makes you tougher. You just have a different attitude," says Cutler. "You go out there, you don't worry about getting hit. You just pop back up. Some guys who are quarterbacks all their life don't know what it's like to get hit."
But Vanderbilt center Trey Holloway says Cutler's best attribute is being a good teammate. The two roomed together in the summer of 2004, and Cutler regularly opened the doors of the five-bedroom house he rented with teammates to freshmen who needed a place to stay.
"In summer, there would be nine guys or so," says Holloway. "He's a guy who understands that everybody needs to be together in the summer."
On the field, says Holloway, "Some of the protection we've given him has been a little shaky, and he's never said a word about it. He's a guy who never once had complained about the things that have happened to him."
And who also likely won't have much to complain about on draft day.
USA TODAY's Jarrett Bell contributed to this report
How the three most prominent quarterbacks in this year's NFL draft compare:
Jay Cutler Matt Leinart Vince Young
College Vanderbilt Southern Cal Texas
Born April 29, 1983 May 11, 1983 May 18, 1983
Height 6-3 6-5 6-5
Weight 226 225 235
Seasons as starter 4 3 3
2005 Record 5-6 12-1 13-0
2005 Comp-Att, Yds 273-462, 3,073 283-431, 3,815 182-285, 2,769
2005 Int 9 8 10
2005 TD passes 21 28 26
2005 Rushes-Yds 106-215 51-36 136-850
Posted 4/18/2006 7:29 PM ET