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The Bengals should have drafted Teddy Bridgewater

With the 24th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Bengals should have drafted Teddy Bridgewater to eventually replace Andy Dalton.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Last May, many Bengals fans were on the record as wanting their favorite team to draft Teddy Bridgewater in the first round. This tweet summarized their thoughts:

While most everyone was still fine with the pick of Darqueze Dennard, the consensus was that the pick's success would depend on Bridgewater and Dalton more than Dennard. That's because QB is by far the most important position in football. This is further highlighted by the fact that Dennard didn't even reach 100 snaps for the entire season, and is still going to be only a backup next season.

Time hasn't quite told everything, but it has already told a lot. A full season has taken its course since the draft. Here's what we know:

Andy Dalton has completed his fourth full starting season and is 27 going on 28. NFL history shows that most starting QBs prove their "tier" by their third full starting season, and around age 26-27. The remaining minority then prove their tier by their fourth season. After that, QBs either remain at the same level of play, or they regress. But barring an anomaly of historical proportions, they do not improve a tier. That doesn't mean it's absolutely impossible to win a Super Bowl with that QB, but the odds are around this level:

It would require Dalton to catch a January hot streak, which has a slim chance of happening, in addition to the rest of the team playing well. Dalton has had four hot streaks in his career: September 2012, November 2012, October 2013, and September to mid-October 2014. However, none were in cold, playoff-like weather.

In 2014, Teddy Bridgewater was better than Andy Dalton in all four standard rate-based production measures: passer rating, completion percentage, TD to INT ratio, and yards per attempt. Bridgewater is over five years younger than Dalton. Here's a basic chart to illustrate this point:

Measure of production: who's better in 2014? Teddy Bridgewater (rookie) Andy Dalton (4th-year starter)
Passer rating
Completion percentage
Touchdown to interception ratio
Yards per attempt

Bridgewater also showed decent mobility, as his yards-per-carry easily bested Dalton's. Bridgewater's 85.2 passer rating was eighth-highest among all rookies in NFL history, and his 64.4 completion percentage was 3rd-highest among all rookies in NFL history.

Bridgewater had a mildly more difficult schedule than Dalton. He had to face the Lions twice and the Packers twice, while playing only one cupcake team, the Buccaneers. Dalton had the luxury of playing three cupcake teams (which greatly weakened the Bengals' strength of schedule): the Titans, the Jaguars, and the Buccaneers.

(Disregard that ESPN link, which shows the teams' strengths of schedules based on 2013 and heading into 2014. Looking back at 2014, plus removing the games in which Bridgewater didn't play, Dalton had the more difficult schedule than Bridgewater.)

The Bengals have had a fairly average defense, ranked 17th according to Football Outsiders DVOA. However, Bridgewater was burdened with a below-average Minnesota defense, ranked 23rd.

According to Football Outsiders, Dalton was gifted with an offensive line ranked top-10 in both run-blocking (9th) and pass-blocking (5th). According to Pro Football Focus, Dalton was protected by the league's best left tackle, Andrew Whitworth:

Though Dalton was missing his second WR, Marvin Jones, and a receiving TE, Tyler Eifert, he still had a top 5-10 WR in A.J. Green and two excellent backs in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Though Mohamed Sanu and Jermaine Gresham were inconsistent, they were great in flashes and were overall positive skill players to have.

Bridgewater was saddled with the 27th-ranked pass-protecting OL, which gave up more than twice the number of sacks as the Bengals' OL. It also surrendered the fourth-highest pressure rate in the NFL, 39.9%. Bridgewater was "protected" by the league's second-worst left tackle, Matt Kalil (third-worst offensive tackle overall):

Kalil and LG Charlie Johnson, just the two of them, gave up about 100 combined sacks, hits, and pressures on the season. Also, the Vikings finished the season with scrap-heap pickups as their starting RG and RT.

At WR, Bridgewater had Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson. The broken-down, aging Jennings had a season short of previous ones, while Patterson did not do as well as his rookie year. Neither of these two came close to touching Green's performance. The third receiver was Charles Johnson, recently plucked off the Browns' practice squad and similar to Cobi Hamilton. At starting TE was the very mediocre Rhett Ellison, similar to Kevin Brock. Bridgewater did have Matt Asiata at RB, who is underrated, but not close to the duo of Hill and Bernard. The names of the other running backs, Banyard and Josey, sound like a circus act.

The season-long absence of All-Pro RB Adrian Peterson and 7-week absence of Pro Bowl TE Kyle Rudolph were yet another burden for Bridgewater, certainly a bigger loss than Dalton having to play without Jones and Eifert.

(Both of these are Vikings beat writers)

Bridgewater clearly had a worse supporting cast than Dalton, yet was able to put up better production. Even Dalton's playoff game supporting cast was better than the one Bridgewater had all season.

To have a chance of playing well, Dalton needs weapons on his offense. Meanwhile, Bridgewater IS the weapon on his offense. Indeed, Dalton had a multitude of weapons who were better skill players than he was a QB. But with the exception of the missing Peterson and Rudolph, Bridgewater didn't have any players who were better skill players than he was a QB. If Bridgewater doesn't become a true franchise-caliber QB eventually, it would probably be due to him becoming undone by an abysmal supporting cast, not that his individual level of play would be poor. Dalton has never had to deal with what Bridgewater overcame in 2014.

Dalton's contract has a base value of 6 years, $96 million (including an escape clause any time after 2015). Bridgewater's contract is 4 years, $6.8 million, to go with a relatively cheap 5th-year option. Bridgewater's contract is nearly $90 million cheaper. Dalton's contract will be an albatross for the Bengals until the day he is let go. Even those who dislike Bridgewater would admit that his contract would make it a lot easier to re-sign A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Clint BolingGeorge Iloka, Dre Kirkpatrick, Andre Smith, Kevin Zeitler, Vincent Rey, Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard, and others who will be free agents within the next two years.

Of course, the most important is Green, who will eventually receive a new contract in the $90-110 million range whether from the Bengals or another team. Mike Brown will be very reluctant to tie up about $200 million in just two players, considering he will want to re-sign most of those other free agents and it will cost a heck of a lot to do so. I would take Bridgewater + Green any day over Dalton + no Green.

Let's look at Dalton vs. Bridgewater in the month of December. Bridgewater played in the cold of the Minnesota Gophers TCF Bank Stadium and had to face three top-12 defenses last month. Dalton played in the rather mild climate of Paul Brown Stadium and faced only one top-12 defense. As we all know, Dalton has usually started off the season fairly well, but then faded as the weather got colder.

In December 2014, Bridgewater had a 99.8 passer rating, a 72.3 completion percentage, and 9.18 yards per attempt.

In December 2014, kept afloat by his performance at home against the Steelers, Dalton had a 90.8 passer rating, a 68.1 completion percentage, and 6.97 yards per attempt. Not that bad overall, but he wasn't able to touch Bridgewater's level of play. Note the huge disparity in yards per attempt, since Dalton made a lot of check-downs, while Bridgewater went "bombs away" due to his team's poor offensive line and lack of a good running game. Bridgewater's December was worthy of being a "hot streak" while Dalton's was not.

Facing three playoff-caliber defenses, Bridgewater was among the best QBs in the league in December, and arguably better than any month in Dalton's entire career, thus indicating that Bridgewater can be a high-performing QB in a playoff climate. Again, keep in mind that Bridgewater accomplished this despite having one of the worst supporting casts in the league, yet another example of why team winning percentage is a poor means of evaluation for individual quarterbacks.

Finally, let's compare them under pressure. Throughout his entire career, Dalton has not done well against pressure. Bridgewater has the highest accuracy % under pressure in the NFL for any player since the 2008 season.

Bridgewater understands the importance of fundamentals such as pocket presence. He knows that no matter what coaches do to scheme around QBs, they either possess those fundamentals or they do not. He's confident in himself to know he has them.

Again, note that the Vikings OL surrendered a very high 39.9% pressure rate. He got better as the season went on. From Week 9 until the end of the season, Bridgewater's accuracy under pressure was a ridiculous 82.4%. I wonder if he has ice water in his veins, because having that accuracy, in spite of that dreadful OL, seems unreal. For the season, the Bengals OL had just a 23.3% pressure rate, yet Dalton's accuracy under pressure was only 47.4%. (The stat counts drops as completions.)

For more information on Bridgewater, you can read the Daily Norseman's "Teddy Bridgewater Is Awesome" analysis.

I admire Dalton for who he is off the field and as a family man and his charity work to improve people's lives. It's hardly enjoyable to see Dalton play like this, in part because I wrote an article about a month ago saying that the Bengals could realistically win a Super Bowl with him. I truly believed that then, but am very doubtful now. He shouldn't get all the blame for the playoff losses, though he deserves blame for his performance relative to his contract. I still think there's a chance that he could be part of a playoff-game-winning team as long as the team around him does well. He will continue to have good flashes at times, as we've seen in his first four years.

Heading into 2014, the chances of Dalton being franchise-caliber were not good, because he had already fallen short in his third year. Therefore, he didn't deserve franchise money until he could actually prove so. If Dalton remained not franchise-caliber, as history would predict, then Bridgewater could have stepped in. If Dalton somehow proved to be franchise-caliber, then Bridgewater could simply have been traded away.

But Dalton still isn't close to being a franchise-caliber QB and most likely never will be, given that he has already completed four full starting seasons and is going on 28 years old. Long-standing trends prove that virtually all QBs plateau by then, or even regress afterward. That's a bad sign for a QB who is objectively ranked in the mid-20's in rate-based individual production in year 4, and was only average to below-average in his first 3 years.

Note that "franchise-caliber QB" isn't limited to the top-tier of Aaron RodgersTom Brady, etc. It also includes the group of Matt RyanJoe FlaccoEli ManningMatthew Stafford, and Ryan Tannehill. These guys aren't top-tier, but are still good enough to be called franchise-caliber right now. Unlike Dalton, all of these quarterbacks have statistically above-average individual production, and are not treading water for keeping their job. (It's clear now that my previous article about Dalton was incorrect about this, which I apologize for.) Dalton will not improve to their level unless he becomes a historical rarity, which I still hope happens but would not bet on. As of now, he is statistically in the bottom-tier mediocre group of starters.

It is too early to call Bridgewater a true franchise-caliber QB, but his rookie year shows he is well on his way. Dalton is still starting-caliber, but the bigger theme is that the Bengals whiffed by not considering Bridgewater.