Can Cutler actually take a fantasy team the distance?

Should Jay Cutler still be considered a No. 1 fantasy quarterback in drafts?

We all remember the last image we have of Jay Cutler on the football field: huddled in a parka on the Soldier Field sidelines as backups Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie tried (ultimately in vain) to rally the Bears from a 14-point deficit against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.

Cutler sprained a ligament in his knee in the second quarter, tried to play through it, but was unable to continue for long into the second half. Trouble was, Cutler didn't look especially hobbled (likely because of a painkiller administered at halftime), so the critics pounced. Cutler was quitting. Or sulking. Or just plain letting down his team. Fans, analysts -- even opposing players via their Twitter accounts -- piled on. You'd have thought Cutler had done more damage to Chicago than Mrs. O'Leary's cow.

How can a player be expected to lead his team -- and, by extension, our fantasy teams -- after all that?

Well, it's particularly important to note that none of Cutler's detractors (then or now) included his coaches or his teammates. They all saw him take 16 regular-season games worth of beatings while trying to pass the ball behind a porous offensive line. They know he's willing to stand in and take a hit for the team.

Okay, so Cutler will be back. But will he be better? Last year, Cutler's passing yards (3,274) were modest. His 23 touchdown passes helped, but he still ranked in the middle of the fantasy pack among regular starting quarterbacks.

Still, the truth is, there was nothing wrong with Cutler's performance in 2010 that a little pass protection can't cure. Cutler was sacked a whopping 52 times -- 12 more than anyone else in the league -- last year and hurried many more times than that.

To alleviate the problem, the Bears selected hulking Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi in the first round of the draft. The 6-foot-7, 314-pound Carimi played tackle at Wisconsin but could move over to guard in Chicago. Wherever he plays, he's expected to give Cutler more time to throw the ball.

More time to throw, plus a second year digesting coordinator Mike Martz's offense, equals better numbers this season for Cutler.

Bottom Line:Jay Cutler is a No. 1 fantasy quarterback who could provide good draft value in 2011.

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