A new NFL year begins at 4:00 p.m. on March 14. The free agent market, in all of its frantic glory, will open. Teams will rush to finalize contracts with players that they’ve targeted. Being productive during this stage of the offseason requires entering it with a well-defined plan. Now that the NFL Combine is in the rearview mirror, those plans will be better defined than ever.
This is the first of multiple articles, breaking down the state of the Bengals’ roster as it enters this phase. How did players perform in 2017, and how does it affect their job security in 2018? What will the Bengals look for to address each position group as a result?
Without further ado, let’s talk about quarterbacks.
- 2017 Snap Count: 941
- Completion Percentage: 59.9% (297 of 496)
- Passing Yards: 3,320
- Touchdowns: 25
- Interceptions: 12
- 2018 Contract Situation: $16.3M cap hit ($2.4M dead money); signed through 2020
Andy Dalton didn’t fall through the floor by any stretch, but no one would describe the year he had in 2017 as ‘good’. Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 team ranked him as the 24th-best quarterback of the 2017 season. Pro Football Focus graded him as their 19th-best quarterback.
Here’s an excerpt from the Bleacher Report list that sums up Dalton:
At his best, Dalton can make a variety of throws with good timing and near-perfect placement. But there were more occasions when he was slow and deliberate with his reads, particularly when blitzed or pressured, leading to trouble.
PFF was more flattering, highlighting Dalton’s strength throwing with anticipation and touch between the numbers when given time. In more general terms: he’s a quarterback with discernable strengths. Those strengths were still present in a down 2017 and should continue to be present in 2018. Dalton didn’t suddenly wake up as a sub-franchise quarterback.
Given, you wouldn’t know that from his contract. Dalton’s $2.4M dead money value in 2018 is a fraction of the $18.1M he would’ve carried in 2017. On the last two years of his contract – 2019 and 2020 – Dalton carries no dead money at all. The Bengals would suffer no penalty for releasing him outright and starting a new chapter.
That might become relevant again if their coaching situation changes, but for now, Dalton is the Bengals’ guy. It’s an incredibly team-friendly contract for such a caliber of quarterback.
For better or worse, a lot of Dalton’s future could ride on his performance in 2018.
- 2017 Snap Count: 26
- Completion Percentage: 50.0% (3 of 6)
- Passing Yards: 19
- 2018 Contract Situation: Pending Free Agent
A fifth-round pick of the Bengals in 2014, A.J. McCarron was initially slated to enter the 2018 market as a restricted free agent (RFA). As of February 15th, that’s no longer the case. After filing a grievance that his 2014 season – which he spent predominantly on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list – should count towards fulfillment of his four-year contract, an NFL arbitrator ruled in McCarron’s favor.
It’s virtually certain that the longtime backup won’t return to Cincinnati. Now 27 years old, McCarron’s at the end of his years of being seen as a young player with potential developmental upside. If he wants a chance to fight for a long-term starting job, he has to strike now.
It remains to be seen what McCarron can make of such an opportunity, but it’s certainly out there for him. In Cleveland, likely – numerous reports have already connected him with the Browns’ quarterback vacancy.
- 2017 Snap Count: 0
- 2018 Contract Situation: $630K cap hit; signed through 2019
Days after McCarron won his grievance, news dropped about the Bengals’ third-string quarterback as well. Jeff Driskel spent most of the 2017 season on injured reserve before his activation in advance of Week 15. In practice ahead of Week 17, he suffered a fracture in his non-throwing arm. On February 17th, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that this happened while he was taking snaps as a receiver.
Why the Bengals had Driskel lining up as a receiver is unknown. On one hand: he’s been active as an emergency receiver before, this isn’t unprecedented. On the other: the Bengals’ receiving corps was fine – this was no emergency. Perhaps a long-term position change is in the cards, but why get ahead of themselves in limited practice time?
Whatever the case, Driskel is expected to be healthy for offseason workouts in April. A break for him – for a fringe roster player (ostensibly) facing new competition, any lapse in availability can be costly.
Free Agency Outlook
Before McCarron was drafted, the Bengals’ non-Dalton quarterbacks included names like Jason Campbell and Josh Johnson. Campbell retired quietly in 2015, a year after McCarron came in. Johnson is currently employed by the Texans – his eighth different team since last taking a snap for the Browns in 2012.
Fortunately, the Bengals shouldn’t have to dip into such murky waters to find a backup quarterback in 2018. The well-documented quality at the top of the market should translate into backup-level names being left on the vine. A list of such names that took a snap last season would include Blaine Gabbert, Mike Glennon, EJ Manuel, Matt Moore, Tom Savage, Geno Smith, and Drew Stanton.
It’s absolutely possible that one of those seven names lands in Cincinnati to back up Dalton. As for which one? A Fitzpatrick reunion might be interesting for reasons beyond the novelty value. Gabbert makes a lot of sense as a combination of youth, scheme fit, and (albeit marginal) upside. Moore might have a connection with offensive coordinator Bill Lazor from his time on Miami’s staff years ago.
They’re not sexy names, sure, but that’s generally the case with backup quarterbacks. It wouldn’t be surprising for any of those three to be wearing stripes by training camp.
Incidentally, McCarron also happens to be the last quarterback that the Bengals drafted. Driskel was a sixth-round pick of the 49ers – he’s still playing under a contract that he signed with them. Before McCarron in 2014, it was Dalton in 2011. Before Dalton, it was Jeff Rowe, in the fifth round back in 2007.
You could say that they’re due to take another one. It’s probably safe to say that it won’t be Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, or Josh Rosen. Those five are clear first-round or upper-second-round picks. The question that remains is how they affect the placement of the rest of the class.
In his most recent seven-round mock, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has Lamar Jackson as the only one of the top five quarterbacks to fall to the second round. He’s joined there by Mason Rudolph and Luke Falk, with Kyle Lauletta coming off the board in the third round. Mike White and Kurt Benkert go in the fourth. Riley Ferguson and Tanner Lee go in the sixth.
The Bengals have three picks in the third and fourth rounds at 77th, 100th, and 112th overall. If Rudolph or Falk fall there, there’re strong cases that the Bengals should take them. If not, there’re cases for one of White, Lauletta, or Benkert. Should the Bengals choose to wait longer, they’ll likely miss the boat on a prospect worthy of an opening-day roster spot.