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An upcoming choice between Andy Dalton and A.J. Green?

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Sometime after the 2015 season, the Bengals might keep only Andy Dalton or A.J. Green, not both.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last offseason, the Bengals gave Andy Dalton6-year contract with a face value of $96 million, which could increase to as much as $115 million based on various incentives.

However, it initially amounts to only 2 years, $25 million. 2014 was the first year, the end of his rookie deal along with new guaranteed money. 2015 is the second and final year of this initial contract. The Bengals can realistically opt out of Dalton's overall contract as soon as the end of the 2015 season, though they will have to allocate $7.2 million in dead money to Dalton if he is cut.

If not, then they can pay him a team option each new year as long as they want through 2020, and can cut him after any of the seasons. Either 2015 or 2016 will likely be the make-or-break season for Dalton in terms of remaining a Bengal. Meaning, he is already on the hot seat and could be released a year or two from now, but if he survives that, then he could perhaps make it through 2020 (more on this later).

If Mike Brown and Katie Blackburn were fully sold on Dalton before 2014, then they wouldn't have put in that escape clause. Last March, Brown was tentative about giving Dalton (or any individual player) big money, unsure of whether Dalton was worthy:

"More often than not you don’t win overpaying a guy," Brown said, via Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "With quarterbacks there is another dilemma. With a fixed cap there is a certain amount of money and no more. You allocate that on a quarterback you have less to hand out to everybody else. It can cause attrition. We are going through a difficult time right now because we are trying to work through a deal with Andy and trying to hold back enough money in the cap to do that, yet we don’t know what that is.

After 2014, Brown can't be any less tentative about Dalton. And when saying the word "attrition" above, Brown certainly had A.J. Green on his mind.

Brown has been taking his time in securing a long-term deal with Green, and rightfully so. As a former first-round pick, Green has a fifth-year option. Brown has said that it will be exercised, meaning that Green will be a Bengal in 2015 for $10.2 million.

In 2016, the Bengals can still avoid signing Green long-term, instead opting to give him a one-year franchise tag. In 2014 a WR franchise tag costs $12.3 million, and the projection for 2015 is about $12.7 million. So it would cost the Bengals a little over $13 million to tag Green for 2016.

The Bengals have the luxury of hanging onto Green until before the 2017 season (through 2016) for a reasonable price, without giving him a long-term deal yet, by paying about $23 million over two years. If they do this, then the realistic deadline for keeping Green long-term and for keeping Dalton long-term might coincide, or be within a year of each other.

In theory, the Bengals could give Green the franchise tag again in 2017, and then a third time in 2018. However, multiple franchise tags are quite costly:

Teams can continuously franchise players, but it'll cost them to do that. As had been the case previously, a player tagged a second straight year would have his number set at 120 percent of the previous figure. A third straight year? That's where things change, and the percentage goes up to 144 [from the second year].

Meaning the cost to tag Green in 2017 would be about $16 million, and the cost in 2018 would be about $23 million. The Bengals certainly wouldn't do it in 2018, and probably wouldn't do it in 2017 either.

Calvin Johnson's and Larry Fitzgerald's contracts are each 7 years, $113 million (rounded). With Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant due for new contracts soon, that will provide a better idea, though they will most likely be franchise-tagged this year first, as expected for Green in 2016.

In the comments section of Cincy Jungle, following this year's playoff loss, eric nyc wrote what I think could be a prophetic comment:

I think Katie and the entire organization knew exactly what they were doing when they constructed Dalton’s new contract. This was year one, and he thoroughly blew it on just about every front.

If he continues to do the same (and there’s no reason to expect a significant jump in performance – he is what he is) then they will move on after 2015 either through the draft or FA. That’s the same time frame they’ll be thinking about Green’s extension.

By the time they’re in serious negotiations with Green they will likely have a very good idea of what they will be doing at QB beyond 2015. The question is if Green will want to stick around for a rebuilding process at QB or if he would rather go to a team with an established passing attack.

[I lightly edited Eric's comment for the sake of brevity, without changing the overall message.]

We don't know for sure whether Eric is correct, but I think it is plausible that the Bengals designed Dalton's contract in a way such that if he proved he was not worthy of it, then in a short time-frame, they could release Dalton AND sign Green to a long-term deal, whether in the same year or just one year apart. Whether or not you like that strategy, it's possible that this is how the Bengals intentionally planned it, as Eric mentions. Realistically, the chances aren't good that both will be kept long-term.

The Bengals might choose only one or the other, given how tentative Mike Brown is about devoting a monstrous contract to just one player - let alone two. Brown would likely be fundamentally opposed to spending about 20% of the team cap, and close to $200 million total, on only two players.

I understand his perspective, because having both of those contracts would seriously hamper the team's ability to re-sign upcoming free agents at other positions. After 2015, George IlokaKevin ZeitlerAndre SmithMarvin JonesMohamed SanuDre Kirkpatrick, Vincent Rey, and Brandon Thompson are the significant unrestricted free agents. After 2016, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard will also be UFA's. The Bengals would prefer to re-sign most of them, and it will cost a heck of a lot to do so.

There is a case, though not really a compelling one, to keep Dalton over Green. Green has league-record-breaking individual production, someone with the most receptions and second-most receiving yards in NFL history in his first three seasons. He's clearly the higher-caliber player. But Dalton is still a serviceable starting-caliber QB, and it's not easy to upgrade even that.

Based on round 1-2 QB's from 2000 to 2013, excluding 2014 (before I am lectured to stop being a Bengals fan because I think Bridgewater is more cost-effective than Dalton), there is only about a 30% chance that a given high-round QB would be better than Dalton. I played it safe by calling Vick, Cutler, Sanchez, Bradford, and Griffin as worse than Dalton. The fifteen high-round QB's who are objectively better than Dalton (eight in the top-10, four in the 11-20 range, one in the 21-32 range, two in the second round) all have above-average individual rate production, and fourteen are still starters in the league today. However, there were over twice as many busts.

So that's the choice: keep the expensive serviceable QB, or keep the expensive top-tier receiver and bet on the odds that a newly drafted QB will be serviceable or better. Personally, I'd go with the latter. There are possible (though less-than-likely) odds for hitting on an upgrade. Also, Dalton might become worse than serviceable if he loses his top weapon.

It's virtually impossible to win a championship with the timid attitude of "we could do worse," instead of attempting a possible upgrade. With the offensive supporting cast the team has set up, consisting of a top-5 WR, a top-10 offensive line, and two top-20 running backs, the new QB would have a very real chance of playing adequately or better, while not costing an extra $15+ million per season at the QB position.

Dalton will almost certainly finish at least the 2015 season as the starting QB, no matter what the Bengals decide to do in terms of finding a replacement. The Bengals won't let Dalton go unless they already have a future QB plan in place, someone who is ready to start. The plan may consist of a number of possibilities:

  • A.J. McCarron (unlikely)
  • Trade for a young QB who will have a relatively cheap second contract, such as Jimmy Garoppolo or Ryan Nassib (unlikely)
  • A 2015 high-round QB only (this option is unlikely, and has a chance only if the Bengals think they can release Dalton after 2015)
  • 2016 high-round QB only (conceivable for releasing Dalton after 2016)
  • A reasonably-priced free agent QB along with a 2016 high-round QB (this option is the most conceivable, since it works for releasing Dalton as soon as after 2015, but could also work for after 2016)
  • reasonably-priced free agent QB along with a 2017 high-round QB (conceivable for releasing Dalton after 2016)

The Bengals won't splurge on an expensive free agent QB as a solution. They would likely prefer to groom a new long-term QB for a year, like they did with Carson Palmer in 2003. It could be behind Dalton, or behind a cost-effective stopgap starter similar to Jon Kitna. Or, the rookie might earn the right to start immediately by beating out Dalton/stopgap, or start mid-season after a benching of Dalton/stopgap.

QB prospects who could go in round 1 or 2 of the 2016 NFL Draft include Cardale Jones, Connor Cook, Gunner Kiel, Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan, and Christian Hackenberg, among other possibilities. It is plausible that one of these players could be under center for the Bengals by the start of the 2017 season, or already during the 2016 season.

If the Bengals arrive at the deadline for Green's long-term contract without having drafted a high-round QB to be the future starter, then Green is expected to walk in free agency. In other words, if the Bengals don't draft a new QB by the 2017 offseason, then Dalton and his massive contract would be the only real choice at long-term QB, thus likely preventing Brown from giving Green a massive contract as well (considering there are others to re-sign). So at the expense of losing his best weapon, Dalton would survive as the starting QB perhaps through 2020.

  • If this is because Dalton plays his way to earning a good amount of the contract incentives, then this would be great, because it would mean Dalton is a franchise-caliber QB. If so, he should be the primary choice to keep over anyone else, including Green.
  • If this is because Dalton plays the same or regresses, but Brown is simply apathetic about finding a replacement, then this would be sadly amusing: paying long-term franchise money to a middling QB, while allowing a Hall of Fame-caliber receiver in his prime to leave. One can never count out this front office in being complacent about putting in the effort to attempt to find a replacement.

The only realistic way both Dalton and Green stay long-term is if Green somehow accepts a team-friendly contract. As long as Dalton is getting paid via his massive contract, there's almost no chance Green can receive one too. He'd have to voluntarily take a reduced price (as compared to contracts of other elite WR's) for both to stay. However, there are free-spending teams that could be willing to pay a lot for Green, so the Bengals have to be careful in playing hard-ball. For players and agents, the NFL is a business above all. Green and his agent might want to simply accept the highest offer, whether from the Bengals or another team, and no one could blame them.

Green's agent, Tom Condon, has a history of going after the highest amount of money as possible, which is his job. Condon has negotiated the most expensive contract in NFL history for a rookie (Sam Bradford), defensive player of any kind (J.J. Watt), running back (Adrian Peterson), and offensive guard (Carl Nicks). He has also recently negotiated monstrous contracts for Drew BreesPeyton ManningTony Romo, Matt RyanMario Williams, and Gerald McCoy, each around $100 million with hefty guaranteed amounts and signing bonuses. Green's contract won't necessarily be nine figures, but as long as it is somewhat close, it will not be team-friendly.

If Green leaves, then Marvin Jones or Mohamed Sanu (whoever of the two the Bengals re-sign) could be promoted to #1 WR, but more likely, the Bengals would look to draft a new high-round WR to replace Green. If Green stays and Dalton goes, then Jones/Sanu would remain the #2 WR below Green, and the team would look to the draft and free agency for the QB position.

The quarterback-receiver combo of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green will exist for at least either one or two more seasons. But after that, there is a strong chance that either Dalton could be released or Green could walk in free agency. There is also a possibility that neither of them stay long-term, if Dalton continues to underperform his contract, and if Green is deemed as not quite worthy of a big long-term contract (after his 5th-year option and franchise tag).