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Bengals mailbag: Dalton’s dollars and watching the game pass by

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Was a failure to grasp some modern concepts of the current NFL landscape what pushed Marvin Lewis out of the door in Cincinnati? Is Andy Dalton’s contract worthy and manageable, even with a new head coach on the horizon?

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There has been a whirlwind of news since the Bengals parted ways with Marvin Lewis, but while more questions will come after the ensuing coaching hire, there are others that linger in the present.

We received an email this week, surrounding the value the Bengals have in Andy Dalton and the money they’re spending on him. The email noted the great salary discrepancies at the position in today’s NFL, especially with what the 2018 playoff bracket looks like.

Here’s an excerpt from Michael’s email:

Viewing the playoff teams this year I noticed that many of these high paying QB’s that eat up most of a teams salary cap are staying home this time of year while younger guys on rookie deals making less are in the playoffs. With a new coach coming soon and possibly a new QB to replace Dalton in a year or two I am concerned about this growing trend of paying to much for a middle of the pack QB. Guys like Aaron Rodgers, Ben Rothlisberger, Drew Brees and a few others seem to be killing team cap money and I know these are the elite guys but as they are at the end of their careers the middle tier guys will be moving on from the rookie contracts and into over priced cap heavy deals when do you think enough is enough and how long till this bubble bursts?

Let’s start with Dalton and his figure with the Bengals. Here’s a look at his current contract, courtesy of Over the Cap.

The Bengals’ veteran signal-caller’s contract provides odd dichotomies going forward. It especially presents interesting debates given Dalton’s lack of postseason success, his suffering of two season-ending injuries in a four-year span and a new head coach coming to Cincinnati.

While Dalton’s $16 million salary in 2019 sits at No. 23, in terms of highest-paid quarterbacks, it’s still a number that takes up 8.5% of the team’s cap number. It’s not a huge amount for starting quarterbacks, but it is if you’re a new head coach and Dalton isn’t “your guy”.

Also, there is the often-mentioned dead cap hit with Dalton’s contract next year. If you’re No. 14, it’s the perfect storm for an unclear future: a new coach (probably an offensive-minded one), as well as a contract that is both easily terminable or friendly for a trade.

They other interesting facet the Bengals may want to examine is in the financial landscape of the position. Recent high draft picks are having early success, with some very manageable figures on the books for these teams.

It’s a major win-win situation for franchises.

As we look at the 12 teams in the postseason tournament, there are seven teams with quarterbacks drafted from 2016-2018 spearheading them (Rams, Eagles, Chiefs, Ravens, Cowboys, Texans and Bears). Sure, there is a bit of a caveat with Philadelphia and Carson Wentz, but the point remains, and it even includes a rookie in Lamar Jackson.

None of the salaries of these seven quarterbacks rank higher than 24th, in terms of highest-paid players at the position in 2019 (Jared Goff). On the other hand, six quarterbacks in the postseason bracket rank in the top-13 for average salary next year, including Joe Flacco at No. 7.

This could change this offseason for a number of reasons, but it is an eye-opening stat because over half of the players in the playoffs are on team-friendly rookie deals. It also points to a bloating of quarterback salaries for those “serviceable guys” between Philip Rivers at No. 13 and Dalton at No. 23.

Veteran names like Blake Bortles, Alex Smith, Case Keenum, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo all outrank the Bengals quarterback in top salaries for the position in 2019. Dalton has had as much, if not more success in his NFL career than these names, so from that standpoint, the team is getting a deal.

But, money set to be owed to Dalton, in an odd respect, may not be a factor for Mike Brown. This team is one that is routinely silent in outside free agency, so if they were to move on from Dalton and free up $16 million, it’s not a foregone conclusion that the team will place that money on outside help.

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On this week’s episode of The Orange and Black Insider, one of our callers brought up some familiar knocks on Marvin Lewis, helping to tee up a larger question. With Lewis preferring some of the more traditional linebackers (i.e. the bigger, slower “thumpers”), and his reluctance to play more exciting rookies, were these the signs of the game passing by a lifelong coach?

Now, the blanket statement may not sound all that surprising to some fans. These gripes have been made public since the slew of playoff losses, if not earlier.

However, they became more prevalent during the three-season skid from 2016-2018 (as is often the case with frequent losses). Whether it was in preferring to give the lion’s share of carries to Jeremy Hill over Joe Mixon in 2017, and/or signing aged mid-level defenders with questionable versatility (Karlos Dansby, Kevin Minter, Preston Brown), Lewis and the Bengals didn’t resemble many of the current powerhouses in the league.

With the slow-to-change Mike Brown steering the ship and supporting these outdated practices, it led to a devastating tailspin that directly followed the 2015 Wild Card loss. Even though Lewis brought the Bengals to a sense of modernity, the team is now looking at some of the younger and forward-thinking names in their coaching search.

To that point, some of the facets fans point to when it comes to painting a picture of Lewis aging out of the league could, in fact, be placed upon Brown’s shoulders. The owner’s hesitancy to move the team forward with the times, in terms in organizational practices, trickled down into Lewis’ realm of responsibility.

For instance, take a look at the tight end position. The team didn’t traditionally value the position highly in the draft, even though it started to become an en vogue piece for NFL teams in the early years of Lewis’ tenure.

Finally, in 2010 and 2013, Cincinnati used first round picks on the position in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, respectively. They had spurts of productivity with the club, but high-investment additions from this position were overdue.

Maybe that’s a bit of a weak, pro-Lewis cop-out, but it makes some sense.

To answer the initial question itself, no, I don’t think the game fully passed Lewis by. Sure, some of the above-mentioned indictments prove it to be a half-truth, but there are measures to use on such an accusation.

For instance, many players — both past and present — lauded Lewis for what he meant to this team shortly after his parting of ways with the team. The game hasn’t whizzed past you if your ways still seemingly resonate with current players. He also signed off on numerous high picks spent on talented offensive skill position players, which is a must in today’s NFL.

Sure, Lewis probably relied on some outdated concepts and player profiles a little too much, but the man was architect of one of the best defenses in league history. It was a unit that netted a Super Bowl victory, so why wouldn’t he think that he could parlay some of those blueprints in Cincinnati?

Hanging on to things that are nearly two decades old isn’t always fruitful. Unfortunately, Lewis learned that the hard way.

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