Fantasy football: Jay Cutler’s owners got a bad break

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If you had told me three months ago that I would be lamenting the loss of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler as the fantasy playoffs approach, I’d have said you were crazy. But that’s exactly the situation I find myself in.

After shuffling quarterbacks for most of the season — first relying on Joe Flacco, then trading for Philip Rivers - I decided two weeks ago to give Cutler a shot. A waiver-wire pickup six weeks into the season, I was only keeping him around for emergencies or as possible trade bait. When I could find no takers, and with my other QBs continuing to underperform, I made the move.

By then, Cutler had started to live up to his potential — fantasy and otherwise — so I put aside my natural skepticism as a Bears fan, benched Rivers and inserted Cutler into the starting lineup for a matchup against one of the two teams I was chasing in the standings.

He delivered with two passing TDs and a rushing TD and was the difference in a close game.

Then, just as our seasons were taking off, a broken thumb suffered on a fluke play ended Cutler’s season and threw a wrench into my postseason plans.

I’ll move forward with Rivers and Flacco, although I’m unlikely to go very far. But from a fantasy standpoint, I think Cutler’s overall performance (he’d thrown 13 TDs against just 7 interceptions in 10 games before the injury) makes him one of this year’s fantasy surprises to keep an eye on next year.

Every year by this time, you could put together a fantasy lineup of players like Cutler — guys who were mostly afterthoughts at the start of the season whose surprising play significantly raises their draft stock for the following year. With Cutler at quarterback, here’s the rest of my “Wish I Had Drafted Him” lineup.

Bills RB Fred Jackson: Actually, I did draft him — as a late-round sleeper in the aforementioned league. He was knocked out for the season the same week as Cutler (crying towels can be sent to my attention at The Times’ office). Assuming he fully recovers from a broken bone in his lower leg, he’ll be a first-round pick in 2012.

Raiders RB Michael Bush: With his performance the last month since taking over for an injured Darren McFadden, he’s almost certain to sign a big free agent deal with another team. If he does, he’s a top 10 back from Day 1.

Giants WR Victor Cruz: So long, Mario Manningham; it was nice knowin’ ya.

Bengals WR A.J. Green: Living up to the hype as a rookie with another rookie throwing to you is impressive. Doing it in a Bengals uniform, even moreso.

Saints RB Darren Sproles: If Philip Rivers is reading this column, hopefully there are no cats in his general vicinity. The offseason steal of the year, the former Charger is the perfect fit for Sean Payton’s offense and the perfect flex player in PPR leagues.

Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski: He singlehandedly put my playoff chances in another league on life support with his two-TD game against the Chiefs two weeks ago. He’s on pace to set the single-season mark for TDs at his position (he needs 3 to set the record with 14) and be the top TE drafted next year.

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