Heading into the offseason, the major focus of free agency and the draft was universally thought to be improving the linebacker, safety, and running back positions. If you had asked anyone prior to the March 12th start of the new league year, chances are they would have named those three groups as the biggest needs heading into 2013. So what have the Bengals done to improve their standing in those areas?
As it turns out, not a whole lot. Yet.
But one position that has received a lot of attention has been the quarterback position. Out of all the free agency signings made by the Bengals so far, the only two players signed by the team who weren't here last year are quarterbacks--Josh Johnson and John Skelton. Surprising, no? Despite the pressing needs at other positions (linebacker, safety, running back), only the backup quarterback spots were addressed at all during free agency.
And that's not all.
According to multiple pro day reports, the Bengals have also been making the rounds with a number of college quarterbacks like Oklahoma QB Landry Jones, Western Michigan QB Alex Carder, Arizona QB Matt Scott, Florida State QB E.J. Manuel, and Miami University QB Zac Dysert, amongst others. The argument could be made that the Bengals are just doing their due diligence on each prospect, but given the attention that the quarterback position has received during free agency, perhaps there is something deeper at play.
Behind starter Andy Dalton, the cupboard was relatively bare following the departure of former Bengals backup QB Bruce Gradkowski. The only remaining quarterback was third-stringer Zac Robinson, and he never developed beyond the stage of practice squad fodder. So there was a definite sense of urgency to upgrade the position, but it now appears as though the Bengals have moved beyond the idea of merely upgrading it and have instead opted to blow the whole thing up and start over behind Dalton.
And why not?
With the new rookie salary cap, starting over is now easy. Gone are the days where If a team missed on a high-round quarterback, the entire franchise would suffer both from stagnation and the player's crippling contract. Lower rookie contracts means a lower level of investment, and cutting ties with highly drafted players has become a relatively painless affair. If Dalton fails to take the next step in his development as a franchise quarterback, then the Bengals have only to allow his contract to expire after his four years are up. Done. Simple as that.
Which is why scouting the next batch of college quarterbacks has become more important than ever. Young talent is now cheap talent, and it makes more financial sense to invest in rookies than in aging veterans. Of course there is no guarantee that the rookies will work out, but that is why the Bengals picked up a couple of serviceable journeymen quarterbacks in Johnson and Skelton to battle it out in camp. They are an insurance policy against injury or ineptitude, and also serve as a reminder to Andy Dalton not to get too comfortable high up there on starter mountain.
I still believe that Andy Dalton can be a long-time starter in the NFL, as do Jay Gruden and Marvin Lewis based on their public comments. But the way the draft is now set-up, it makes more sense for a team to scout quarterbacks every single year rather than waiting until need catches up to them. Until their rookie contracts expire, young quarterbacks are a cheap investment with a very high upside.
Ultimately, the Bengals surprising interest in quarterbacks this offseason is just a sign of the times. Dalton is still very much the starter, but the Bengals are also keeping one eye on the next generation of quarterbacks "just in case." And in the meantime, we can all start enjoying the plethora of Skeletor puns and jokes available to us courtesy of new backup QB John Skelton.
Hey, it's the offseason. We need something to entertain ourselves.