(Editor's note: This is the first installment of many others, in which we will be breaking down each position before the Bengals head into Training Camp. It's a benefit that we didn't have last year because of the lockout, so we're taking advantage of the full offseason. Enjoy.)
There is a heated competition brewing at many positions on the Bengals roster this year. Both starting and backup roles at cornerback, wide receiver, defensive tackle and safety are all up for grabs. One position that is locked down and isn't up for grabs is that of quarterback. The position is the most important on an NFL team and because the Bengals have solidified the spot, they're in a much better spot than some of the other teams around the league, including their division rivals, the Cleveland Browns.
Starter, Andy Dalton, second season: After a sensational rookie campaign that led the Bengals to the playoffs (which was overshadowed by Cam Newton's rookie season), Dalton has been a busy man. A couple of months ago, Dalton let the public know that he has been hitting the weights harder and perfecting his footwork, in an effort to improve the deep ball aspect of his game. Of his workout regimen, Dalton said:
"When I threw my Go ball, I wasn’t very good last year," Dalton said. "I know there were sometimes I was rushing my drop because I felt like I had to get back quicker than I really had to. I thought there was going to be pressure when there wasn't really going to be pressure. Little things mentally. I knew what was going on, but I'd go back quicker and when I did I'd step on my back foot. The ball wasn't where I wanted it to be.
"I'd rush the top of the drop," he said of the last two or three steps in the five-step drop. "I'm not hitting that fifth step, hitching up, and getting it out. It’s a hit the fifth step, kind of have to gather, and then hitch, and then try to throw it, so the timing is off."My focus has been more on getting that fifth step and really getting that hitch, and really getting more into it," Dalton said. "Rather than trying to feel a throw out there. Just let it go. There were so many times last year we were running by guys even if they were the off corner. A.J. and some of these other guys are going to get past them. It can be frustrating when you know you've got it and you just missed the throw. Hopefully it will happen a little less this year."
Aside from the on-field/physical aspects of the game, Dalton has been tuning up some of the intangible attributes that a quarterback must exude--namely leadership. Dalton was flung into the starting role after a lockout-shortened 2011 offseason and really didn't grab hold the the team's reigns until late in the year when they made a playoff push. This year, with the benefit of a full offseason, Dalton's confidence has grown and he's ready to be the true leader of the team.
"I feel like everybody on this team understands and knows what they're going to get out of me. They know I'm going to put in the work and the time. I am able to step out a little more. I was able to prove myself a little bit last year and everyone knows we're going to be on the same page and I can voice that a little more."
It hasn't been all positive for Dalton this offeseason, though. He received some out-of-the-blue criticism from NFL Films guru, Greg Cosell, which seemed a bit unfounded at the time. It was a criticism that had been hanging around Dalton since he came out of TCU in the NFL Draft, namely his arm strength. While Dalton chose to not sound off on Cosell's remarks, his offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden, didn't shy away from his feelings on the issue:
"I don’t know where that came from and why he (Cosell) said it. If there were reservations about Andy Dalton there would be a lot more quarterbacks here right now. We know and he knows he has to get better and he is chomping at the bit to get going. I have no reservations about his arm strength. I think he can do it all. He might not run 4.3 in the 40 or be 6-6 but to play the position and what we need to do he can do everything we want.
"If you can throw it 62-63 yards that is pretty strong. He does have a long way to go to get better. We’re not putting his jersey or shoes in Canton right now but we have every reason to believe he will continue to improve."
The big questions for Dalton in 2011 were if he could grab a hold of the starting job and if he'd play effectively. He answered those questions with a resounding "yes", but more surround him in 2012. With more reliable receiving targets, as well as an improved offensive line and running game, will he improve his play in 2012? How close to his overall talent ceiling is Dalton? And, most importantly, will Dalton be able to get the Bengals past their big dry streaks of stringing together back-to-back winning seasons and winning a playoff game? The answers to these likely won't be had until the season commences, but it will all start in Training Camp.
Second-string, Bruce Gradkowski, seventh season: While much of the focus has been on Dalton, his backup Gradkowski has quietly plodded along and done his job since joining the team last offseason. Gradkowski is a Gruden-system guy, dating back to his days as a Buccaneer in the mid-200s. He appeared in two games in relief of Dalton last season, one in the opening day win against the Browns when Dalton was injured, and another in a drubbing at the hands of the Steelers.
If Gradkowski is relied upon to step in as the starter for the short term, he's a good option. If the team were to have to rely on him in the long term, they would likely not fare nearly as well as they would with Dalton at the helm. Still, the pundits at ESPN ranked the Bengals in the top-half of the league (fourteenth, to be exact) in terms of stability at the backup quarterback position.
The Bengals are very comfortable with Bruce Gradkowski as their backup. Well, at least offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is. Gradkowski played under Gruden for two years when both were in Tampa Bay, so there is a strong familiarity with his offensive system. -- Jamison Hensley
The bottom line is that Gradkowski is an able backup with game experience with four NFL clubs (Buccaneers, Browns, Raiders, Bengals). That being said, Gradkowski isn't pushing Dalton for the starting job and he'll only see the field during preseason and/or if the same types of instances that got him on the field in 2011 occur once again.
In the Marvin Lewis era, the Bengals have wavered on keeping either two or three quarterbacks on the active roster. Last season the team kept two (Dalton and Gradkowski), while relegating Robinson to the practice squad. If you remember, Robinson was added after the final cuts last season as a replacement for the ineffective Dan LeFevour. The team got an up-close look at the youngster when Cincinnati faced the Lions in the preseason and decided that he was a better option.
This season, the team brought in undrafted rookie free agent, Tyler Hansen, out of the University of Colorado. In the early portions of minicamp, Hansen has grabbed the coaches' attention with his play. Of Hansen, Jay Gruden was quoted as saying:
"He throws the deep ball extremely well. He reads his progressions. He's made some outstanding throws and he can move in the pocket. He's very accurate," Gruden said.
It appears that Robinson and Hansen will be fighting out for the final quarterback spot in a battle that will last throughout the duration of Training Camp. The only question is if they will be on the active roster, or if the Bengals will eschew a third quarterback to make room for a player who could contribute more at another crowded position.
The wild card of the bunch is former University of Cincinnati Bearcat, Tony Pike. The team invited Pike to try out in last month's rookie minicamp (which was also open to a few players with limited experience like Pike), and though coach Lewis sung his praises, there are doubts that linger about his future in the NFL.
I thought Tony really progressed well through the weekend. I think he’s still coming back from the surgery; I think he’s still gaining strength and confidence in the arm. That’s something that I think is going to be a process. But with Tony, his ability to handle football, his ability to know where the ball should go – that stands out. He’s got a great disposition about him. From my experience around him this weekend, and even going back to when he was coming out of UC, I think he’ll be able to handle the pressures of playing quarterback in the NFL. It’s not going to get too big for him. I think he showed that this weekend handling things."
Unfortunately, Pike has been subject to a recent elbow surgery and it appears that he's not totally comfortable with where the progress is at right now. Aside from that issue, Pike also seems as if he's a fit for the old Bob Bratkowski offense and not Gruden's West Coast style. Because of all of this, he hasn't been signed to a contract with the Bengals, but we wouldn't be surprised if he finds his way back with the club at some point during Training Camp and/or the preseason.