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Tuesday, March 3, 2009
The argument for Cutler and Minnesota

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

 
  Greg M. Cooper/US Presswire
  The Denver Broncos are reportedly still considering trading Jay Cutler.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Jeff Hostetler. Steve Bono. Tommy Maddox. From a historical perspective, at least, those three names serve as the ceiling for Minnesota's quarterback position if newcomer Sage Rosenfels wins the starting job.

Most starts after turning 30, with fewer than 10 previous starts*
Player After 30 Before 30
Jeff Hostetler 79 4
Steve Bono 33 9
Tommy Maddox 32 4
Kelly Holcomb 21 3
Damon Huard 21 6
Jim Miller 21 6
*Since the start of the Super Bowl era
Source: Elias Sports Bureau

NFL history offers a short list of success stories for quarterbacks who followed the same path as Rosenfels during the early part of their careers. ESPN Research's Keith Hawkins worked with the Elias Sports Bureau to develop the chart to your right, which tracks the development of quarterbacks who started fewer than 10 games before turning 30. (Rosenfels, who turns 31 on Friday, has started 12 NFL games, including five last season for Houston.)

Only Hostetler became a long-term starter after turning 30. Bono and Maddox each started the equivalent of two full seasons.

Does that mean Rosenfels would fail as a full-time starter for the Vikings? Of course not. But here's what we can say: As currently configured, the Vikings must hope for either a historical aberration (Rosenfels) or significant improvement from a previously shaky youngster (Tarvaris Jackson) to upgrade their long-standing deficiency at the game's most important position.

Which is why the Vikings would be foolish -- even after trading a fourth-round pick last week for Rosenfels -- to ignore the potential availability of Denver's 26-year-old starter, Jay Cutler.

I wrote Monday that Cutler makes sense for three NFC North teams -- Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit -- and I still believe that. But of those three, the Vikings might be the most serious suitor. 

Already, there are some preliminary signs that the Vikings are investigating the situation. The Denver Post reported that Minnesota was included in talks on a three-way trade that fell through last weekend, and the Star Tribune reported Tuesday that the Vikings were having "ongoing" discussions Monday about Cutler.

In NFL terms, there is a vast gap between due diligence and serious trade discussions. And there is no indication that Denver is willing to part with Cutler after losing out to Kansas City on acquiring Matt Cassel. But it's time for the Vikings to end their middling approach to the quarterback position and start applying the aggressive, big-thinking philosophy that has netted them proven -- and, in some cases, dominant -- players at almost every other position.

Minnesota's financial outlays since 2006
Pos. Player Contract
QB Sage Rosenfels Two years, $9 million
WR Bernard Berrian Six years, $43.4 million
TE Visanthe Shiancoe Five years, $18.2 million
TE Jim Kleinsasser Three years, $9 million
OL Bryant McKinnie Seven years, $48.5 million
OL Steve Hutchinson Seven years, $49 million
OL Anthony Herrera Five years, $15 million
RB Chester Taylor Four years, $14.1 million
FB Jeff Dugan Five years, $4.35 million
DE Jared Allen Six years, $74 million
DT Kevin Williams Seven years, $50 million
DT Pat Williams Three years, $22 million
LB E.J. Henderson Five years, $25 million
LB Ben Leber Four years, $20 million
S Madieu Williams Six years, $33 million
PK Ryan Longwell Five years, $10 million
P Chris Kluwe Six years, $8.3 million
LS Cullen Loeffler Five years, $3.1 million
Total: $455.95 million. QB: 1.9 percent.
Note: Figures include incentives, only includes players on roster

Take a look at the chart to your right, which breaks down the financial outlay Minnesota has made since coach Brad Childress and vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman came aboard in 2006. The list represents only players currently on the roster, but here is the upshot: The Vikings have signed 18 veterans at 16 different positions to contracts that total nearly $456 million. But less than two percent of that sum is devoted to the quarterback position.

That is an irreconcilable dichotomy for a team with annual designs on a division title and beyond. Why devote so many resources to proven players at other positions while taking a chance at the most important one?

At the scouting combine last month, Spielman noted there are only a "handful" of NFL quarterbacks who truly scare defenses. That dearth of talent and skill causes some teams to reach for quarterbacks beyond their true value.

Cutler, however, has a chance to be one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks after earning a Pro Bowl berth in 2008. At the very least, he has proved far more competent than Jackson during their first three seasons.

Childress seemed adamant last month that Jackson and a veteran, who turned out to be Rosenfels, would compete for the starting job in training camp. He left open the faint possibility of a future big-name acquisition but said, "Right now I would be honest with you and tell you I wouldn't know who that person would be."

At the time, few people knew that Broncos coach Josh McDaniels would pursue Cassel to replace Cutler. Childress seemed to be covering for that possibility when he said, "I wouldn't open or close the door on anything."

  2008: Best of Jay Cutler
  NFL.com Video
  Highlights of the best moments from Jay Cutler in 2008.

Circumstances, as they say, have changed. "Faint" has elevated to "bright." The situation is similar to the one the Vikings en
countered last year, when they pursued several free-agent defensive ends to improve their pass rush before Kansas City made 2008 sack leader Jared Allen available. The Vikings surrendered three draft choices and signed Allen to a $74 million contract, a move that helped improve their pass rush from the bottom of the NFL's rankings to No. 18 overall.

Cutler could be this season's Jared Allen, only more impactful because of the position he plays. Not only was he the NFL's third-most productive passer last season, but he has spent three years in a West Coast scheme that has the same roots as the Vikings' offense. He could be the missing piece of a puzzle that includes the league's top running back (Adrian Peterson), a proven deep threat (Bernard Berrian) and a rapidly improving tight end (Visanthe Shiancoe).

The Rosenfels trade was consummated before the Cutler imbroglio began. The Vikings would be wise to overlook the timing and think big once again.