Young superstar quarterbacks are taking over the NFL these days. Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins are the quintessential franchise quarterbacks. Yet, it's Russell Wilson's Seahawks and Colin Kaepernick's 49ers who find themselves atop offseason league power rankings.
Dalton isn't even in the young, elite QB conversation. To most, he is ranked comfortably in the middle of the league. Perhaps in the 12-20 range. Though, NFL.com's Marc Sessler placed Dalton all the way down at No. 22, as we published yesterday.
Should Dalton be placed above veterans like Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub, Michael Vick, Josh Freeman, Alex Smith, or Carson Palmer? Then, what about younger players like Cam Newton, Ryan Tannehill, Sam Bradford, Christian Ponder, and Jake Locker?
The point of this long-winded question is that it's very murky and muddy water when trying to sift out the middle tier of NFL quarterback rankings. If Dalton hadn't regressed as the 2012 season reached it's most important moments, then maybe he would be firmly inside the top 15.
If Dalton's horrible pocket presence hadn't led to sacks and bad throws. If Dalton's deep ball wasn't so maddeningly inaccurate. If Dalton would just trust his reads and pull the darn trigger.
Then, maybe, the Bengals would have gotten their first playoff win in over twenty years.
These weaknesses perhaps aren't clearly defined to everyone, which is the point of this article. To examine one particular weakness - pocket presence. Which is, in other words, the quarterback's feel for defenders around him. A quarterback with great pocket presence can simultaneously feel the pocket closing around him while making reads down the field. It's knowing when to step up and throw, versus when to dodge and reset. It's delivering an accurate bomb when the center has been pushed back into your lap. Or slipping past an arm tackle from a pass rusher, then resetting your feet and delivering a strike to an open receiver.
Dalton must improve his ability to perform under pass rush pressure in the future. With uncertainty at both the left guard (Boling/Wharton) and center spots (Cook/Robinson), Dalton will certainly have pressure in his lap this year. He needs to either make the throw with pressure in his face, or scramble successfully to find open space.
In 2012, Dalton, both too early and too often, would try to tuck it and run, with little success. He didn't show consistent elusiveness in avoiding defenders. He wasn't accurate when his pocket broke down. He had only a handful of plays where he created success after facing pressure. This area may be where Dalton's lack of size and stature hurts him most. Quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck can consistently make plays with defenders draped all over them. Or, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco can stand tall and deliver with pressure in their face. Then, quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Tony Romo can make crazy Houdini scrambles and somehow end up making a good throw downfield.
Dalton, without the natural size to bounce off tacklers, nor height to throw the ball over them, nor instinctual scrambling ability to evade them, needs a clean pocket to operate well. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Just something you must build around. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, some of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, have very little mobility and scrambling ability. They do, though, have amazing pocket presence.
Pro Football Focus recently published an article on the performance of quarterbacks with and without pressure, which helps explains Dalton's problem.
Dalton was pressured fourth-least in the entire league - on only 26.1% of his dropbacks. Only Tom Brady (24.9%), Matt Hasselbeck (24.5%), and Peyton Manning (an impeccably clean 20%) had cleaner pockets.
But, (and this is a big but), Dalton was sacked third-most in the entire league. Brady (22nd), Manning (31st), and Hasselbeck (38th) were good about not letting pressures turn into sacks.
Dalton must improve his performance under pass rush pressure. His statistics under pressure are miserable: 39 attempts, 101 completions, 38.6% completion percentage, 3 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 47.3 QB rating. His QB rating drops 46.1 points when you compare unpressured and pressured dropbacks.
Pro Football Focus also credited Dalton with 9 "quarterback responsible" sacks (third most in the league). Only Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers had more, but these two players usually do something good after they hold onto the ball too long. When Dalton holds onto the ball longer than four seconds, his stats rank 28th in the league - 18 attempts, 57 completions, 31.6% completion percentage, 1 touchdown, 53.7 QB rating.
Most of the time, Dalton has a quick read, quick release, quick throw. He's done this with a reasonable amount of success. When he doesn't throw quick, he doesn't throw well. Either taking a sack, or making a poor read or throw. This problem only got worse as the year went on, culminating in the wild card game when Dalton looked like he wouldn't pull the trigger no matter how easy the read was.
He folded. He didn't do well under pressure, and didn't do well with a clean pocket either.
Now, pause. This is the point in the article where you take a deep breath, and remember that all happened last year. Dalton could still be the guy. Nobody believed in Drew Brees after his second season. And especially not after his third season. Nobody thought Joe Flacco was going to become more than a game manager after his second season. Heck, Aaron Rodgers didn't start until his fourth year in the league. Plenty of these examples are out there (Kenny Anderson too), but there's no need to keep listing them. Quarterbacks take time and development.
After the sting of the game subsided, the offseason began with a reassurance that Dalton was the guy. In the draft, Tyler Eifert and Gio Bernard were added. When you have a quarterback you like, you build around him. That's what the Bengals appear to be doing in snagging these two playmakers (each at the top of their position) early in the draft. Eifert is the guy that can go up and get it. It's what he hangs his hat on, and it's exactly what Dalton needs - to be able to trust that his receivers will come down with the ball, even when it looks like they are covered.
Now, the protection issue. The offensive line will probably be able to protect Dalton from both tackle spots and the right guard spot. Andrew Whitworth has always been a pass-protection ace, and Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith are very solid too. However, whoever is in at center and left guard will be an X-factor this year in determining the success of Andy Dalton. It could be solid. Or it could be disastrous.
As far as the tight ends and backs go, everyone is decent in pass protection. No one will be mistake free all season, but they will get the job done. Jermaine Gresham improved his blocking greatly as the 2012 season went on, and apparently Tyler Eifert has improved his blocking too at the college level. Both BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Gio Bernard are decent in pass protection too, though Green-Ellis can stack up face-to-face with rushers a little better than Gio, who uses the cut block often.
Dalton appears to have the help around him to be able to succeed and operate at a high level. But, the past ten Superbowl winners have had elite - not just good - quarterback play. It's been over ten years since a Brad Johnson or a Trent Dilfer have won in the Superbowl. It's become a passing league and we all know it.
It goes without saying, but Dalton could be the next Drew Brees. Or, the next Mark Sanchez.
Whether or not Dalton is able to take that next step remains to be seen.