This offseason, the Bengals made it well-known they were looking to get younger and faster in all facets of the team. While they made limited moves in free agency, the team used 11 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft to influx the roster with athleticism and big-play capability.
Cincinnati used five of those picks on offense, with three of them coming in the first four rounds (running back Joe Mixon and wide receivers John Ross and Josh Malone). After a 2016 season marred by injury and underachievement on that side of the football, the Bengals have replenished the skill position stable, giving quarterback Andy Dalton a slew of big-time weapons to utilize in the years ahead.
Now, before we ask the question that is coming, let’s not be hasty in jumping to conclusions. He’s Cincinnati’s guy and this isn’t a call for him to be replaced.
Dalton is a Pro Bowl quarterback who has improved on a number of aspects of his game over the past two years—particularly in the area of turning over the ball. He’s set single-season passing records with the franchise, while a major “what if?” scenario hangs over Bengaldom had he not been injured for the 2015 Wild Card debacle against the Steelers.
Still, familiar stigmas hang with No. 14. He’s 0-4 as a postseason quarterback, throwing for just one touchdown against six interceptions, which is good (or bad) for a 57.8 rating. He has also struggled in other primetime games against quality opponents, which has caused the national perception to overshadow his substantial growth and production in recent seasons.
Still, with the amount of high-impact talent the team already has on the roster and the others they added last weekend, the embattled Bengals quarterback has a lot to work with in 2017. One has to wonder if pressure is finally mounting on the Bengals’ franchise quarterback to take the team to the next level.
Why Pressure Should Be Mounting:
High investments at key spots: Including this year’s draft class, the Bengals have two top-10 picks at receiver (Ross and future Hall of Fame wideout A.J. Green), as well as two other former second round picks in Tyler Boyd and Brandon LaFell. At running back, they have three second round selections at the position since 2012 in Mixon, Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, as well as first and third round selections at tight end in Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft, respectively.
Even though the offensive line is a big question mark right now, they have made significant investments there in the Dalton era. The team used their top two picks in the 2015 draft on offensive tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher.
The structure of Dalton’s contract: While Dalton signed a contract that was both personally lucrative and team-friendly back in 2014, the team does have an option to get out of the deal after this season, if they so choose. While it seems like a little bit of a short leash, should they cut ties at that point, the surrounding talent can’t be ignored—even if there are a number of inexperienced faces.
Aforementioned primetime struggles: We’ve covered this issue of primetime struggles extensively here at Cincy Jungle, so we won’t go into greater detail, but the bottom line is that though Dalton has been a winning quarterback in his time with the Bengals, he hasn’t proven to be able to regularly win the biggest games. With so many exciting playmakers at his disposal, the excuses for his poor play on those stages might be running empty.
The team’s seemingly-high respect for AJ McCarron: Even though he’s started just four NFL games, he’s been the talk of many trade rumors during the past two offseasons. Because the Bengals’ front office and coaches really like him, they supposedly have been asking upwards of a first round pick for him, even as recently as the hours preceding day two of this year’s draft. They didn’t have any takers for their steep price, so it looks like he’s remaining a Bengal for 2017. And, though he didn’t light the NFL world on fire in those four games as a starter in 2015, he did have the team on the precipice of one of their biggest wins in franchise history.
There are a couple of schools of thought here. Cincinnati may have been asking that high of a price both because they knew no one would pay it, but also in the case there’s an off-chance they can fleece someone as they did the Raiders with Carson Palmer in 2011. Then there’s also the simple thought that the Bengals feel they have an expensive insurance policy, in terms of possible draft collateral and the belief in McCarron’s ability to relieve Dalton effectively, should he get hurt again. And, yes, McCarron’s rookie deal is up after this season, but he may be a restricted free agent in 2018, so the team should have some solid control on his future.
Why We Should ease off the pressure:
Massive roster turnover the past two offseasons: Whether it’s at wide receiver with the departures of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, or their two best offensive linemen this offseason, the Bengals haven’t done many favors for Dalton in free agency. While Dalton hovers around the top-10 level of NFL quarterbacks, he’s a passer who needs a good supporting cast. Yet, instead of paying significant money to players he already has a rapport with, the Bengals have gone with cheaper, unproven options in the draft.
Offensive line questions: Based on their lack of free agency moves and what they did in this year’s draft, the success level of the 2017 season could very well hinge on this unit’s performance. Even with Whitworth and Zeitler, the Bengals were not a stout group up front last season, and now they are relying on two relatively-unproven players in Ogbuehi and Fisher.
While the team did some nice things with this year’s class, they only added one offensive lineman in Utah’s versatile J.J. Dielman, and it was in Round 5. If Dalton is to ably use his weapons, this team will need to improve in significant ways this year along the offensive line.
Injuries to star players: Even though the Bengals have made big draft investments for talented skill position players, many of them have missed big chunks of time. Green, Jones, Bernard and Eifert weren’t available for the 2014 Wild Card game against the Colts, with the latter two spending a bunch of games on the inactive list throughout their careers.
You can point to the questionable reputation of the team’s medical staff, the front office’s inability to properly recognize durable players when drafting them, or simple bad luck, but it’s had an effect on Dalton’s productivity. Their incumbent stars will need to remain healthy, as will the exciting new players they added last weekend.
The needed time for acclimation of new players: When you turn a roster over at critical spots, growing pains will occur. Jones and Sanu battled injuries early in their career, but from 2013-2015, it was evident that Dalton and his group of receivers had a great relationship. LaFell stepped up nicely when Green went down last year and Boyd developed well as the year went on, but they weren’t always on the same page. With Ross, Mixon and Malone being added, they will all need to get on the same page quickly.
Three offensive coordinators in six seasons played: This is a similar argument that Alex Smith supporters had throughout the first part of his career. Just when Dalton appears to be hitting his groove under an offensive coordinator’s tutelage, his promising coordinators get scooped up for head coaching gigs elsewhere. After Dalton broke franchise single-season passing marks in yardage and touchdowns in 2013, Jay Gruden took a job with the Redskins. Then, after a near-MVP campaign in 2015, Hue Jackson left for the head job in Cleveland.
Dalton is comfortable with Ken Zampese because of his time as quarterbacks coach since Dalton arrived in 2011, but a dropoff in the offense’s productivity was noticeable in Zampese’s first year as the offensive play-caller in 2016. Zampese will need to show growth in his second year as the team’s coordinator if Dalton and the offense are to thrive once again.
Do you think there is added pressure on Dalton this year because of the team’s draft additions on offense?