QB Jay Cutler thrived at Vanderbilt, honing his skills under sometimes difficult circumstances
(The 2006 NFL Draft is scheduled to take place on the weekend of April 29-30, during which nearly 300 college standouts will enter into the professional ranks. During the months of March and April, Buccaneers.com will run a series of features on these NFL hopefuls, taking a closer look at some of the names you'll be hearing on draft weekend. There is no correlation between the players chosen for these features and the Buccaneers' draft plans, and any mentions of draft status or scouting reports are from outside sources. Our next feature: Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler.)
Five games into the 2005 season, with his unheralded Vanderbilt Commodores sitting at 4-1 and eyeing their first bowl bid since 1982, Jay Cutler made a startling claim, as told to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.
Cutler, a strong-armed and mobile quarterback who had learned to excel without a supporting cast of All-Americans, was confronted with a hypothetical identity switch. If he had the chance, would he rather be lining up behind a wall of USC Trojan behemoths than taking snaps for a Vandy squad that was used to three-win seasons? Would he like to have a bevy of NFL-ready offensive talent at his disposal and the nation's eyes on him, just like a certain Heisman Trophy winner who is sure to be a top-five draft pick in April?
Cutler's response: "I wouldn't trade places with Matt Leinart for anything."
He probably could have, though, and that's no knock on Leinart. Since the 2005 college season ended – Vanderbilt slipped to 5-6 and missed out on that bowl appearance – Cutler has emerged as a likely first-round draft pick along with Leinart and Texas' Vince Young. The small-town kid from Indiana with the easy confidence and heavy-lidded eyes wowed NFL scouts at the Senior Bowl and did nothing to hurt his standing by participating in all the drills at the NFL Scouting Combine. It's tempting to wonder where Cutler would rank on the draft boards had he been in Leinart's shoes, or Young's for that matter.
Of course, Cutler had reason to show his stuff in Mobile and Indianapolis, while Leinart and Young probably couldn't raise their profile much more. Leinart and Young battled it out for the national title in the last game of the year, while Cutler had to settle for the career-capping thrill of beating Tennessee in the Commodores' season finale.
Yet Cutler wouldn't swap with Leinart if he could, and he might have a point. If you factor in degree of difficulty, Cutler's 3,073 passing yards and 126.1 passer rating in 2005 might be as impressive as what Leinart accomplished – 3,815 yards, 157.7 rating – at USC. That's for the scouts to decide.
"I got it done without a lot of guys around me," Cutler pointed out at the Combine. "Nothing against those guys – I love them to death but we didn't have All-Americans scattered across the field. I had to adjust. I had to deal with pressure, had to be able to get the ball into tight places. I think that's going to help me on the next level, going through adversity and being able to succeed through it."
Leinart had 13 USC teammates with him at the Combine. Cutler was the lone Commodore invited.
"At times we don't have the front five to block like some of the Floridas and LSUs, so I had to throw off my back foot," said Cutler. "I had to move around a little bit, couldn't really get my feet set or my hips in line. There are a lot of aspects that go into playing quarterback."
In other words, there might be more variety to what Cutler has put on tape for the NFL scouts than many of the top-rated quarterbacks. While he insists he is not a "gunslinger," Cutler admits that he has had to take calculated chances and improvise at times. It's no coincidence that the quarterbacks whose styles he most appreciates are John Elway and Brett Favre. NFL teams may already have a feel for how Cutler is going to react to pressure and respond when things break down.
On the flip side, the scouts may be less sure about Cutler's fundamentals, for the same reasons. That's what he expects to work on upon finding an NFL home.
"Obviously I've got a lot of arm strength, so I'm going to put it in there," said Cutler. "Now, my footwork, I've been working on that. That was an issue, a concern going into the Senior Bowl and coming [to the Combine]. Just a lot of little things. I think once I land somewhere we'll really iron those things out throughout the year."
Though he wouldn't trade in his four years at Vanderbilt, or the lifelong friendships he built there, Cutler certainly wouldn't mind playing behind a talented line or helming an explosive offense. He certainly didn't go to the Combine trying to impress the scouts with his scrambling.
"I think they want pocket guys who can move a little bit," he said. "I don't think they're looking for guys who can get out of the pocket quickly and run around. You're not going to make a living running around in the NFL. Being able to escape from the pocket and get rid of the ball quickly, I think that's one thing they definitely look for, though."
Scouts seem to agree that the 6-3, 226-pound Cutler is tough, intelligent, strong-armed and resourceful. They also like the leadership skills that he developed at Vandy, and the fearlessness (cockiness?) that he displayed at the Combine. His performance in Indianapolis was strong, too, as expected. Has he done enough to threaten the 1-2 status of Leinart and Young, or Young and Leinart? We won't know for another seven weeks or so, but it seems certain that Cutler has solidified a spot in the first round.
That's a heady place to be for a kid from Santa Claus, Indiana. He doesn't seem to be overwhelmed by it.
"It was a long road to get here, especially at Vanderbilt," he said. "It was a little bit tougher road than some other people here. Everyone's saying something different [about the draft]. I'm going to wait and see what happens on April 29th. Until then, I'm not going to expect anything."