Among rookie QBs, Cutler might pass test first

The Baltimore Sun

Mike Mayock said it when Vince Young hysteria was at its peak. He said it before Matt Leinart's stock dropped perceptibly before the NFL draft. He said it to anyone who would listen.

Jay Cutler, the NFL Network's draft analyst said time and again, would prove to be the best quarterback in the Class of 2006.

So far, Mayock has everyone scooped.

In his first NFL preseason, Cutler showed the ability to make all the throws, to take a team down the field in the two-minute drill, to get a team into the end zone.

It doesn't hurt that his team, the Denver Broncos, is the best of three that drafted quarterbacks in the first round.

"He can play in a lot of systems," Mayock said as the preseason came to a close. "I think he got himself into a situation that is tailor-made for what he can do. The Broncos need a quarterback athletic enough -- the last couple they had were [John] Elway and [Jake] Plummer -- to run the play-action package.

"But at heart, [coach] Mike Shanahan is a vertical pass-attack guy. That's what Cutler does. He can get the ball down the field. He's totally unflappable. He's got a great work ethic."

And he was the 11th pick in April's draft, behind Young, who went third to the Tennessee Titans, and Leinart, who went 10th to the Arizona Cardinals.

None of them, of course, has thrown a pass in the regular season. But each threw enough in the preseason to get an idea of which one might develop quickest.

Despite his incredible athleticism and imposing 6-foot-4 frame, Young has struggled, as many predicted, in the Titans' camp. The one-time Texas star often drops his arm to near sidearm on his release, and a lot of his passes get batted at the line of scrimmage.

Leinart, meanwhile, missed 15 days, 17 practices and one preseason camp in contract negotiations. When he finally signed, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner from Southern California showed he was a quick learner and that he had paid attention at minicamp.

Leinart completed nearly 62 percent of his preseason throws in three games for 314 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 6.7 gain per pass attempt.

Still, he wasn't quite as impressive as Cutler, who played at Vanderbilt. In his debut for the Broncos, Cutler passed for 192 yards, the most by a Denver quarterback in a preseason opener since 1975.

In his fourth preseason game Thursday night against Arizona and Leinart, Cutler threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns. His most spectacular play came on an 84-yard touchdown pass to David Kircus. A right-hander, Cutler rolled left and heaved the ball more than 60 yards in the air.

Before the draft, everyone agreed that he had the best arm of the three.

"Cutler is the most game-ready of all of them," Mayock said, "because in the Southeastern Conference, on a poor team, he had to fit the ball into tight windows with poor protection. People don't appreciate what that means."

The Titans were the only team that brought all three quarterbacks to their facility for pre-draft interviews. Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher also coached Cutler in the Senior Bowl and said the Titans' interest was real. Ultimately, general manager Floyd Reese made the call for Young.

"Over the last 10 or 12 years, maybe two of the three [top drafted] quarterbacks make it," Fisher told the San Francisco Chronicle in August. "That's about your average. All three of these guys are going to make it."

Interestingly, Shanahan said the Broncos would have taken Cutler if all three were available.

The chances that any of the three plays this year hinge strictly on injuries. In Denver, Cutler will be the No. 2 man behind Plummer. In Arizona, Leinart will work behind Kurt Warner. And in Nashville, the Titans seem determined not to play Young unless absolutely necessary.

Last week, disenchanted with starter Billy Volek, they signed free agent Kerry Collins and said the veteran could be ready for opening day.

The Titans play four of their first six games on the road. If they lose at home to the New York Jets on Sunday, they could be looking at an 0-6 start and mounting pressure to play Young.

Like most draft analysts, Mayock still isn't sure what to make of Young, who possibly could have the greatest impact of the three if he plays the way he did at Texas.

"I'm blown away by his athletic ability, his ability to win games at the collegiate level and to be a winner when it counts most," Mayock said.

"But at some point, I believe if you can't throw the ball effectively from the pocket, you can't lead a team to the Super Bowl. I wouldn't have invested the future of my franchise [on Young]; I'd have gone for Cutler or Leinart. But I could be wrong."

Mayock doesn't appear to be wrong about Cutler, though. In four games, the rookie quarterback completed 64.5 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and one interception. He averaged a very preseason-like 9.0 yards per pass attempt.

But he won't play unless Plummer goes down.

"Hopefully, we win a lot of games, Jake stays healthy and we go deep in the playoffs," Cutler told reporters. "And I get to sit back and soak it all in."

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