Cincinnati Bengals: Analyzing the quarterback position

Jan 1, 2017; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 27-10. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 2017; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 27-10. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

Andy Dalton is the incumbent and sure-fire starting quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, but the position group as a whole is quite intriguing.

We’re in the depths of the NFL offseason, with little new or impactful happenings set to appear in our newsfeeds regarding any of the league’s teams, including the Cincinnati Bengals. With that in mind, it is a great time to look through the rosters of teams and see what teams have at their disposal for the upcoming season.

In this vein, I’ll be running a series of articles focusing on each of the different position groups on the Bengals, looking at the players on their depth chart and determining how things stand for those individuals and predicting how things look for them going forward.

I begin with the most important position on the field: the quarterbacks. Here are the quarterbacks on the Bengals roster currently.


*Andy Dalton (364/563, 4,206 passing yards, 18 TDs, 8 INTs, 91.8 Passer Rating, 56.8 QBR)
A.J. McCarron (N/A)
Jeff Driskel (N/A)

* = expected starter | 2016 statistics in parentheses

Dalton has been the Bengals starter since he was drafted in 2011, and the only thing that’s kept him from starting every game in that time was a thumb injury which ended his 2015 season after 13 games.

That injury was about as unfortunate as it comes for him and the Bengals. He held the highest numbers in his career for completion percentage (66.1), yards per attempt (8.42), passer rating (106.3), and QBR (73.0) at the time he went down. Behind those and other quality numbers, he stood as a darkhorse MVP candidate heading what was a 10-2 Cincinnati team, which many felt was as talented as any in the league and could legitimately pick up a high playoff seed and challenge for the Super Bowl.

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With the thumb injury, Cincinnati’s best hopes were dashed, and the year eventually ended with mistakes and penalties in a collapse against the Steelers in the playoffs. There was the possibility that Dalton could continue his gains as a player moving forward into 2016, but it didn’t take long for those hopes to be dashed for numerous reasons.

Per Pro Football Focus’ grading metrics, prior to 2015, all of Dalton’s seasons ended with him being just average or barely above it. For the first four years of his career, he graded out between 70.1 and 81.0 (on a 0-100 scale) each season. 2015 sat as a clear outlier (87.6), and it was more likely he’d take a step back than hold up his new pace based on what we had already seen. That became reality, with Dalton dropping back to an 80.3 grade for 2016.

That’s definitely on him to a certain degree, but issues and changes around him made the chance of staying at such a high level virtually impossible. His offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson, left, taking his innovative gameplans with him. Two of Dalton’s receivers (Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones Jr) left for greener ($) pastures. His high-end tight end Tyler Eifert missed a large chunk of the year due to injury, and A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard didn’t finish the season due to their own.

2016 proved once again what we already knew: Dalton is a limited player, and he will need more talent around him to succeed than the Tom Bradys and Aaron Rodgers of the world. That doesn’t mean he can’t win though, and having him lead your team gives you a decent shot if he has that help.

The team has done pretty well in trying to find some more for him. The struggling running game added Joe Mixon to the mix. Between him, Bernard, and Jeremy Hill, they are as set as they’ve ever been in Dalton’s tenure in terms of assets in that facet of the game. John Ross and Josh Malone were added to the wide receiver mix. Eifert is set to start this season healthy. The second year with Ken Zampese acting as play-caller should be at least somewhat more effective. The defense has added talent as well, lowering the bar the offense should have to cross on a weekly basis to get a win.

The offensive line looks to be a mess again, but even if there isn’t an improvement there, the talent additions elsewhere should boost the possibilities for Dalton on any given play. If the new young additions can fulfill quality roles right away, we could see Dalton step closer to his 2015 performance and put the team in good position to return to the playoffs.

Should something happen to Dalton, the team will clearly take a step down with McCarron, but it wouldn’t be as steep a drop as with many backups.

Oct 9, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron (5) gives the thumbs up from the sidelines during the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 9, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron (5) gives the thumbs up from the sidelines during the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

When Dalton’s season ended early in 2015, McCarron was still able to help the team finish the year with a 12-4 record (2-1 in starts) and almost beat the Steelers in the playoffs, proving to be a worthwhile backup option who can do decently well in spurts of starts. The passing game is undoubtedly lessened from Dalton to McCarron (250 vs 208.8 yards per game; includes numbers for both from Steelers game where Dalton went down early with his injury), but if the other areas hold up the team can still compete with him under center.

Plus, he could also have improved since those games. It says something about how a team feels about a guy when they reportedly ask for a first-round pick in any potential trade for him, as Cincinnati seems to have done leading up to this year’s draft.

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With Dalton and McCarron, Driskel likely won’t ever need to play for the team anytime soon. The games Dalton missed in 2015 were the first in his career, and the team obviously is comfortable with McCarron stepping in as needed.

McCarron is set to be a free agent, however. As a restricted free agent, he’s unlikely to sign a tender elsewhere. Teams rarely go for tendered guys these days as the combination of having to offer an amount the current team doesn’t want to match and needing to give up a pick — based on their asking price for him in a trade this year, it seems like a first-round tender is in his future — the opportunity cost is often too astronomical to be considered worth it by front office. But if the right situation arises it isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Here are a couple potential ways it could happen:

  • Cincinnati (a notoriously frugal franchise) ends up giving McCarron a second-round tender, and a team with quarterback problems decides a second-rounder is well worth a chance at a possible starter. If DeShone Kizer isn’t their answer at QB, Cleveland could look that way.
  • Cincinnati puts the first-round tender on him, and a team towards the end of the draft with an aging quarterback (Arizona or New Orleans, if they make playoff runs) could decide on McCarron over the prospects there if they don’t like any of what’s available.

Again, each of those is highly unlikely (neither falls in line with smart decision-making at this point in the league’s history), but the door is at least slightly cracked.

Even if he doesn’t leave after this year, unless he is resigned to being a backup for his career he’s almost certainly gone after 2018, so that’s where someone like Driskel comes in. He could easily be gone by then as well, but having a third guy around to develop is always a smart move. For franchises that keep their purse strings tied tight it makes even more sense, with that guy being a possible cheaper replacement for when the current No. 2 guy is set for a sizable pay raise.

In all, the group as a whole mirrors their starter well.

They don’t have the game-changing talent of some other teams’ groupings, but their floor is pretty high and their cost is economical. They have found workable starters and work to surround them with talent to elevate their outlook. The opposite may be the better option, but it is also requires an element of luck. That means either timing when they happen to be bad, leading to getting a high pick to spend on a high-end prospect, or finding a prospect that slipped into later rounds who everyone else missed on. However, that doesn’t work out in the vast majority of cases for teams searching for quarterbacks.

Next: Biggest 2017 offseason story for Bengals, each team

If Dalton stays healthy, challenging for a playoff spot again should be a decent expectation for Cincinnati in 2017, and the door shouldn’t be entirely closed on that hope even if McCarron needs to pick up a few starts along the way. The performance of the people around them will be the biggest determining factor for how this year works out for the Bengals.