Stafford has improved his play over the last three seasons and will face a tough decision on whether to stay in Athens or declare for the NFL.
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Identifying a quarterback who has the potential to lead a franchise to the Super Bowl is the most critical element for a team trying to ascend from the ground up. It’s the one position on the field where you absolutely need superior talent, great leadership qualities and the confidence to get the job done when times are tough.
For years, the Denver Broncos never had to worry about the quarterback position, since it was occupied by one of the greatest players who ever graced an NFL field, John Elway. But when Elway decided to retire before the 1999 season, the Broncos turned to Brian Griese, who was a third round selection the year before Elway’s retirement. Griese gave the Broncos four solid seasons before relinquishing his duties to veteran Jake Plummer for the next four years.
But when the Plummer-led Broncos finished the 2005 season with a 13 – 3 record, and were upset by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game, after that loss you could sense that Denver wanted to go in a different direction.
Cutler had a good career at Vanderbilt, but he didn’t have much help.
Realizing that the franchise was in a transition period, the Broncos made a bold move in the 2006 NFL Draft. They traded the 15th pick overall and their third round selection to the St. Louis Rams in exchange for the 11th pick overall in order to secure their future signal caller, Vanderbilt’s Jay Cutler.
Coming into the league, Cutler had all the physical tools and ability to be a successful player. But, he was donned with the stigma of being a gunslinger that achieved individual success on a mediocre Vanderbilt squad, because of his arm strength, not for his accuracy or consistency.
Looking ahead to the 2009 NFL Draft, Georgia’s junior phenom Matthew Stafford is a highly touted quarterback with a similar skill set and physical characteristics to those of Cutler, but has been draped with the same distinction of being inconsistent and prone to turning the ball over.
“Their body types and style of play are similar,” said Georgia Head Coach Mike Richt, in regards to the comparison between Cutler and Stafford. “They have strong arms, and they don't need to be on balance to throw. That can be good, but it can be a negative too if they rely on it too much.”
From the moment Stafford arrived at Georgia, he’s been a contributor. As a freshman, he started eight games leading Georgia to a 6 – 2 record, and even received snaps in games that he didn’t start. Stafford has been a tremendous leader and has been a major reason why Georgia has posted a 29 – 9 record over the last three years.
But hidden in the team’s success has been the stubbornness of the quarterback, who believes he can fit a ball in the tightest spot and get away with it. Relying solely on your arm to make throws can be a formula for disaster, especially playing in a tough defensive conference like the SEC. In just three seasons, Stafford has thrown 32 interceptions.
“Early on, most quarterbacks with strong arms try to make plays that sometimes are just not there,” said Richt. “However with experience, they get better. I'd rather have an aggressive guy you can coach up and tone down than a guy who will never try to throw it down the field.”
Stafford’s decision making has gotten better over the years by raising his completion percentage and offensive production, as well as limiting his interceptions. A lot of Stafford’s problems with turnovers have to do with his footwork and ability to get set in the pocket. But with his flaws come plenty of positives that have made him a sure top-ten selection next April.
A lock to be a top-ten pick if he declares for the draft, Stafford has to improve his accuracy.
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If Stafford decides to leave school a year early, he will leave on a high note. He posted his best statistical output of his career by throwing for 3,209 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He will lead the 16th ranked Bulldogs (9-3) in the Capital One Bowl on January 1st. And, he’s become a more polished player on the field.
Stafford is a strong, athletic signal caller who demonstrates the leadership qualities it takes to be an elite player. He has great awareness, and when he feels a rush from the weakside, he has the mobility to make a play on the run. He goes through his progressions nicely and locates the open receiver. He has an elite arm and a great sense of timing, giving his receivers a chance to make a play.
Cutler was also thrown into the fire from day one at Vanderbilt, but didn’t have the team success that Stafford has had, as the Commodores went 10 – 35 in Cutler’s 45 career starts.
Cutler didn’t have the comfort of a quality offensive line, rushing attack or vertical threats on the outside that can make highlight reel plays. It wasn’t until Cutler’s senior season when he finally received a No. 1 receiver in freshman Earl Bennett (drafted by the Chicago Bears in the third round of the 2008 draft).
With Bennett, who caught 79 passes for 876 yards and nine touchdowns as a true freshman, Cutler broke out and had his finest season throwing for 3,073 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Even though he completed just 59-percent of his passes, you got a sense for what Cutler could do with an offensive threat and better pass protection, which was orchestrated by another freshman, offensive tackle Chris Williams (also drafted by the Bears in 2008; 14th overall).
The numbers that Cutler put up as a senior and the production Stafford has had this season are close to identical. The progression Cutler showed during his senior season continued in the NFL, and he’s now one of the league’s most promising players. His strong arm and leadership qualities have been an asset, and being surrounded by great talent and an athletic offensive line has allowed him to emerge as a dynamic offensive sniper.
The success that Cutler is having now is similar to what Stafford experienced during his time at Georgia. Stafford plays in a program that draws blue chip recruits, and that provided him with weapons that allowed for immediate success. Stafford is far more advanced than Cutler was when he entered the draft because he was exposed to premier talent from the start and was successful. But for Stafford to achieve the success Cutler has enjoyed in the NFL, he will have to end up with a franchise that has a plan to protect him and supply him with the weapons necessary to win.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.