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With or without Jay Cutler, Bears should be looking for a QB in draft

INDIANAPOLIS — If the Bears have a chance to draft Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston, should they take him?

“I don’t think you ever pass on a quarterback — it’s the most important position in the game,” Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Thursday when asked about his own quarterback situation at the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. “If you have one at a value that you’re comfortable [with] and [you’re] in position to pick him, I think you pick him.”

That philosophy worked for the Packers in 2005, when Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who like Mariota and Winston was a candidate to go No. 1 overall, dropped curiously to back end of the first round. Even with the great Brett Favre still going strong at 35 — and a 25th-ranked defense that needed help — Packers GM Ted Thompson took Rodgers at No. 24 because Rodgers was No. 1 on their board and too good to pass up.

(McCarthy, famously, was at the wrong place at the right time. In 2005, he was the offensive coordinator of the 49ers, who passed on Rodgers to take Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall pick — starting Rodgers’ precipitous decline. After some smoothing over when McCarthy was named the Packers head coach in 2006, the Rodgers-McCarthy pairing quickly turned to gold.)

The Bears can’t expect to have that kind of luck. But  general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox will consider every option as they try to correct the muddled quarterback situation they inherited from Phil Emery and Marc Trestman. Jay Cutler is a 31-year-old career underachiever whose $16.5 million salary will take up more than 11 percent of the Bears’ salary cap in 2015.

There’s no assurance Pace and Fox will wiggle their way out of that quandary. But the new guys at least are giving themselves the best chance to get it right.

By refusing to commit to Cutler one way or the other, the Bears are leaving all their options open.  Or at least keeping the rest of the league thinking all their options are open.

Door No. 1 still looks like the best of those options: Keeping Cutler and de-emphasizing his role by establishing a running game and rebuilding the defense and special teams so Cutler doesn’t have to carry the team on his back — a role Cutler just can’t sustain. Cutler was 27-13 in the final three years of the Lovie Smith/Dave Toub era. He was 10-16 in the Trestman era, when the Bears had two of the worst defenses in the 95-year history of the franchise.

But Pace could have other opportunities in the upcoming draft, especially if either Mariota or Winston drops to the Bears’ at No. 7. They can either draft the available quarterback, or trade the pick a team that values Mariota or Winston as a franchise quarterback. And there’s always someone willing to take the bait. In 2012, the Redskins traded three first-round draft picks to move up four spots and take Robert Griffin III. The bounty for No. 7 wouldn’t be nearly that great, but it would likely be significant.

Pace and Fox have virtually zero history with drafting successful quarterbacks while with the Saints, Panthers and Broncos (Jimmy Clausen, Tony Pike, Stefan LeFors, Randy Fasan, Zac Dysert and Brock Osweiler for Fox in Carolina and Denver; Adrian McPherson and Sean Canfield for Pace in New Orleans). But already it appears they are much better equipped to manage the Cutler situation.

Emery and Trestman, regrettably, set the bar low — misjudging Cutler as a franchise quarterbacks and signing him to a seven-year, $126 million extension when even Jake From Round Lake knew better. But Pace in particular seems like an advanced student who knows what he wants and is eager to learn how to get it.

“[Quarterback is] the hardest position to find and I recognize that,” Pace said. “But that’s what we do and that’s my challenge.

“I know Ron Wolf [the Packers’ Hall of Fame general manager] used to draft a quarterback every year. It’s such a critical, critical position that it’s something we’re always going to look at. And we want competition throughout the team. So competition at [quarterback] is just as good as competition anywhere.”

But knowing what you want is one thing; getting what you want is another. The quarterback class in this draft is considered subpar — Mariota and Winston on one level; UCLA’s Brett Hundley and maybe Baylor’s Bryce Petty on another and whole lot of roll-of-the-dice guys after that.

Of course, it only takes one stroke of good fortune to make a draft. The worst draft for quarterbacks in the last 20 years — when Marshall’s Chad Pennington was the only quarterback chosen in the first two rounds in 2000 — produced Tom Brady.

Brady was more than just dumb luck. Bill Belichick kept a fourth quarterback out of training camp in 2000 because he saw the potential for something special in Brady. As it turned out, he was right. The measureables are tough enough in this racket. Identifying intangibles is quantum physics.

“There are different “it” factors for different players,” the Packers’ Thompson said. “I do think there are moments during games even on the collegiate level where you can see that this guy is something different — someone [who] sees things differently. they see things a little bit quicker. They’re a little bit more cognizant of what’s going on. Something like that.”

Pace knows the intangibles he’s looking for in a quarterback. “It’s his preparation,” he said, “his study habits and leadership and all those traits that come with the position.”

The challenge is even more difficult because so many great college quarterbacks, like Mariota, come from programs with no-huddle/spread offenses. Mariota said he hasn’t even huddled since he was in high school. Yet he could be the No. 1 pick.

It’s worth noting that two head coaches with stellar reputations for developing quarterbacks had polar opposite views on that subject.

“I think it’s great training,” the Packers’ McCarthy said. “There was a time when people felt that shotgun and all this wide-open  offense in college would hinder a quarterback playing in the NFL because you had to teach them to get under center. The reality of it is pressure, third-down, key-situational football is the biggest challenge for a young quarterback. And I think these college programs have done an outstanding job of playing wide-open, asking the quarterbacks to do more and I think they’re much better prepared today than when I first got into the league.

Arians had a different viewpoint: “So many times, you’re evaluating a quarterback who has never called a play in the huddle, never used a snap count,” Arians said. “They hold up a card on the sideline, he kicks his foot and throws the ball.

“That ain’t playing quarterback. There’s no leadership involved there. There might be leadership on the bench, but when you get them and they have to use verbiage and they have to spit the verbiage out and change the snap count, they are light years behind.”

That illustrates just how complicated scouting quarterbacks can be. What one sees as an advantage, another sees as a disadvantage.

That’s the challenge Pace and his personnel staff face in finding a quarterback to eventually succeed Cutler. But it’s critical to their success. So even with a supposed weak class, in a year where the Bears need more help in other places, don’t be surprised to see Pace draft a quarterback, whether or not he sticks with Cutler.

Mariota or Winston is a long shot; Hundley is an intriguing prospect with size (6-3, 227), athletic ability and the biggest hands of any quarterback at the Combine; I like Bryce Petty’s gumption; former Bears quarterback Jim Miller likes East Carolina’s Shane Carden’s smarts and accuracy.

“I think all doors are open,” Miller said. “Adam Gase is a pretty interesting guy, because he’s coached a lot of different quarterbacks — a pocket guy like Peyton, who does stuff out of the shot gun; he’s coached Tim Tebow, who does a lot of spread-option stuff. There are a couple of diamonds in the rough here. I think everything is on the table for the Bears.”