Yes Bengals fans, as strange as it seems you may soon be finding yourself thanking the one team that robbed our beloved Bengals from their only opportunities at a Super Bowl win. After losing both Super Bowls XVI and XXIII in 1982 and 1989 respectively, the 49ers can’t help but play a vexing role in the Bengals’ history. But recently the 49ers may have accomplished something that removes much pressure from the Bengals and will allow fans to breath a sigh of relief as it pertains to our polarizing quarterback: establishing a second-tier quarterback contract market.
Quarterbacking may be the most difficult job in the NFL and the most difficult position for teams to evaluate. Quarterbacks face a level of scrutiny that far outweighs the ones his fellow players are presented with. He is the “face of the franchise” and is perceived as the biggest reason for his team’s successes or failures. It’s because of all this that they are entitled to substantial amounts of money and seek it relentlessly. This is where teams have found themselves in a bind recently. Established “franchise” quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees make decisions to sign them to lucrative contracts easy because they’ve proven their abilities to carry their teams. On the flip side, third-tier quarterbacks like Alex Smith and Carson Palmer end up taking salaries that are slightly less than half the average yearly value of top-tier quarterback contracts as they’ve struggled to establish themselves as “franchise” guys. This has left several teams in limbo the past few years when trying to decide what their potential “franchise” quarterback is worth. Quarterbacks who have achieved much less such as Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Tony Romo have benefitted from this gap in the market because it lacked second-tier contracts. But recently this issue may have been resolved with the signing of Colin Kaepernick.
Colin Kaepernick recently signed a deal that is amongst the largest in NFL history on paper, but the deal isn’t what it initially seems. His contract is incentive-laden and will allow the 49ers to dictate their commitment to him. Due to potential dead money, the 49ers only required themselves to retain Kaepernick until 2016. If the 49ers chose to move on from him prior to the 2016 season they would save over $11 million in cap space while accruing just under $7.5 million in dead money. Kaepernick can also lose $2 million/year unless he either makes the Super Bowl or earns at least 2nd-team All-Pro (while playing 80% of games) during this contract. This potentially saves the team even more money each year he isn’t extremely successful at some point during this contract. The Bengals can model Dalton’s contract after Kaepernick’s and make it very difficult for Dalton to argue against it. Thus far Kaepernick has been more successful than Dalton. They were drafted simultaneously in 2011 and both have got their teams to the playoffs multiple times. Kaepernick has gone deeper in the playoffs though after making the Super Bowl in 2012 and losing a difficult NFC title game last year versus the Seahawks. Kaepernick has played within a run-emphasizing offense and Dalton’s offense will be transitioning to this approach in 2014. The similarities between the two make the Kaepernick’s contract unavoidable in conversation. The Bengals will benefit from his contract having created this second-tier market (along with Jay Cutler’s new deal) which Dalton clearly fits within. Dalton himself has even expressed a favorable view of the contract.
“You have to have confidence in yourself that you’re going to be able to do things and that’s what he did. He’s confident enough where he’s going to be able to play out the whole contract and he’s going to be able to earn everything.”
“So for me, I feel the same way. I feel confident with what I’m able to do.”
If Dalton is willing to take a deal that will allow the Bengals flexibility while giving him the opportunity towards extensive pay, then it’s best for both he and the team. The Bengals will secure their young quarterback for years while giving AJ McCarron time to develop in case Dalton doesn’t work out. McCarron won’t be ready by next year, but he could be ready with two years experience and this would align perfectly for when the team could hypothetically move on from Dalton assuming they sign him to this type of deal. Potentially separating from Dalton in 2016 would also give the team substantial cap space if needed to retain other stars who are scheduled to become free agents in 2016 such as AJ Green (if he isn’t franchised as the team has alluded to) and the entirety of the stellar 2012 draft class (unless the team exercises fifth year options on Kirkpatrick and Zeitler). Allowing Kaepernick’s deal to guide the negotiation between them and Dalton would be a wise decision.
If the Bengals were looking to extend Dalton a year ago the market would have allowed him to seek a much longer deal with significantly more guaranteed money upon signing the deal; this is no longer necessarily the case. A caveat to any deal is how it would effect the team’s ability to sign Vontaze Burfict, which should be the Bengals’ number one priority as they enter this season; they should be able to complete both deals though with over $23 million in available space and an expected increase in the salary cap next season. Facilitating a Kaepernick-like deal may prove to be best for the Bengals as they continue to try and join the elite franchises of the NFL by finding success in the playoffs. This will hinge upon the team’s ability to maintain financial flexibility and retain its key players. Ironically these goals may have become easier to reach because of an old foe, the 49ers.