- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Can Kyle Orton produce Jay Cutler numbers?
When disgruntled quarterback Jay Cutler helped orchestrate the trade that sent him from the Denver Broncos to the Chicago Bears, fantasy football owners surveyed the damage of a seemingly lost opportunity for big-time numbers to be duplicated in the Mile High City. Kyle Orton has certainly never been known as a big-time statistical provider and at the time of the big trade in which he and loads of draft picks came to Denver in exchange for Cutler, it wasn't even guaranteed Orton would start for his new team.
Then again, Orton did have his moments of fantasy relevance in 2008. He was named the starting quarterback for this season early in the summer, and he'll have a bright and shiny new offense to guide, as opposed to the run-first motto in Chicago. Brandon Marshall is one of the most talented wide receivers in football, leading a better corps of weapons. Sure, Orton doesn't have the same ability and overall skill level Cutler does, but the system and other factors also have a lot to do with statistical production.
Orton himself would probably agree he's not on par physically with Cutler, but the tables have turned for these quarterbacks based on circumstances. Orton seems to have a lot of the advantages Cutler enjoyed last season, when the Broncos' quarterback finished fourth at his position in fantasy points, and sixth overall, passing for a career-best 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns. That's quite a fantasy breakout, and while nobody argues Cutler didn't have a lot to do with his own emergence, good luck doing that in Chicago. The circumstances have changed indeed.
Orton has never come close to those numbers, that's for sure, but he's also never been placed in a position to succeed until now. After stumbling out of the gates the first two weeks of 2008 with 12 total fantasy points, he delivered 10 touchdown passes in the next five games, and averaged 17 fantasy points per contest. There's nothing wrong with that. An ankle injury cost Orton much of what could have been a numbers dream game against the awful Detroit Lions, and after he missed Week 10, he wasn't able to regain his fantasy footing, if you will. Was Orton rushed back from the high ankle sprain? Surely Bears fans didn't want to see Rex Grossman play, but Orton's mechanics could have been affected by the injury. We'll never know, but despite dealing with injury and a run-first attitude, Orton did throw for nearly 3,000 yards and 18 touchdown passes, while running for three other scores. He wasn't Cutler, but he was someone who showed enough promise to entice the new coach in Denver to entrust him with the spread offense.
Josh McDaniels gets his first opportunity to run a team, and we should note he was able to turn Matt Cassel into something statistically relevant in New England. He believes he can do the same thing with the feisty Orton, who has unfairly been labeled an underachiever with the Bears since they drafted him in 2005. Orton doesn't have to be Cutler, but from a fantasy standpoint, he's going to get chances to produce statistically. That in itself is a victory of sorts. Orton will have to become more accurate with his short passes, reading progressions and knowing when to avoid the potential for a turnover. Then again, Orton isn't some kid who hasn't started before, like Cassel. Orton won 10 games as a rookie with the 2005 Bears, even though the statistics were hardly special. He won. Then he didn't get a chance regularly again until last season. Just because the Bears didn't want Orton to play doesn't mean he can't play.
Way back when he was at Purdue, Orton put up attractive numbers in a wide-open system better suited for what he's good at. He doesn't have the arm or accuracy to beat defenders deep, and didn't try to force the football into double coverage much with the Bears. Those are good things. Now let's see what he can do in a totally different offense.
Two seasons ago, Cutler threw for 3,497 yards and 20 scores, numbers he didn't have any trouble toppling in 2008. Orton could have produced those numbers in Chicago. Asking for more than 4,000 yards and 25 scores from Orton this season is just getting greedy, but consider you don't need to draft Orton as your starting quarterback in fantasy. At least you shouldn't. What you're hoping for is someone who can fill in if your first-string quarterback gets hurt or is ineffective. Orton has upside. He's got all the trappings of Denver on his side. While it's unlikely he produces numbers like Cutler did in 2008, those are big-boy stats reserved for the elite at that position. If Orton gets close, he'll be worth it as your backup choice.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy football. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
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