With the NFL draft right around the corner, it’s a debate on when and if the Cincinnati Bengals should take a quarterback.
The answer to this question entirely depends on your opinion of quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has undeniably been a viable starter during his professional career, leading the Bengals to numerous playoff berths, but notoriously not a single playoff victory.
His on-field play has polarized the Bengals fan base, with some believing Dalton is a solid NFL quarterback whose best play can lead Cincinnati to a Super Bowl. Others are tired of the mediocrity and seek a signal caller with more upside than. In fact, Dalton has hit both these extremes while starting for the Bengals, ranging from MVP-caliber play during the 2015 campaign to games whose tapes should be burned and the ashes were hidden where no one can find them (see: 2017, Week 1 vs. Baltimore).
Dalton’s actual value to the Cincinnati franchise likely falls somewhere between these two extremes. That is fine but begs the question of head coach Marvin Lewis, director of player personnel Duke Tobin, and owner Mike Brown: is that good enough? Is finishing above .500, making the playoffs, but never sniffing the Super Bowl good enough?
With Dalton at the helm and a fully healthy roster, this Bengals team is fully capable of securing a wild-card berth and competing for the AFC North, but cannot stack up against the AFC’s elite. Dalton has yet to prove that he is reliable in the playoffs, laying eggs against Houston, Indianapolis, and the team formerly known as San Diego. He’s only thrown one touchdown in four playoff appearances.
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Heck, former backup quarterback A.J. McCarron had the best playoff performance of any Cincinnati quarterback, and he’s on a one-way trip to Buffalo. With regular season stability and playoff variability, how should the Bengals use this draft to plan for the future at quarterback?
Before delving into quarterback draft prospects, it is important to consider the current quarterback contract situation in Cincinnati. No matter what your opinion of Dalton is, it is impossible to overstate how good this contract is.
Dalton signed a 6 year, $96 million deal three years ago, which, at the time, paid right in line with his current production. However, quarterback contracts have skyrocketed in value since then, leading to monstrous albatrosses such as Joe Flacco and Brock Osweiler. Considering Kirk Cousins, a fair comparison for Dalton will earn $28 million each year for the next three years no matter what, Dalton’s $16 million figure seems almost paltry. Most importantly, only $2.4 million of that $54 million is guaranteed.
The Bengals have essentially no money invested in the backup position as well, now that McCarron has walked. Current backup quarterback Jeff Driskel makes about $500,000 a year, and while he seems to be a solid backup quarterback (or at least made some plays last preseason), Driskel is not the future for the Bengals. Certainly, he is non-essential should a better option come along.
The Bengals also signed journeyman quarterback Matt Barkley this offseason to a 2 year, $3.5 million deal following Driskel’s broken arm. Though Barkley’s name carries some weight as a former college standout, he is simply not talented enough to overtake Dalton. Barkley is fairly expendable as well, as he would contribute less than $500,000 in dead cap should he be cut.
All this contract discussion is to say that Cincinnati has a lot of options at their disposal in this year’s draft. The Bengals are in no way bound to Dalton as their future quarterback, but his contract is reasonable enough and his performance is strong enough that he could start while the Bengals groom a late-round flier with upside.
The Bengals should stay away from top prospects
Though this draft is chock full of quarterback talent, the first round seems too early for the Bengals to select a signal-caller. Top quarterback prospects Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, and Baker Mayfield are almost guaranteed to go before the Bengals pick at 21, and the gap between tiers of QBs is too great to reach on one in the first round.
Former Heisman winner Lamar Jackson may still be available, but his skill set deviates from a traditional NFL quarterback, meaning he is a huge risk for a team like the Bengals who have stuck with more traditional pocket passers. Much like Vince Young, Jackson needs to be in the right system in order to fully utilize his athleticism and passing.
There are also more pressing needs on this Bengals team. Even with the acquisition of tackle Cordy Glenn from Buffalo, the offensive line is still a massive weakness, especially at the center position. The offense focuses on the run game, so creating holes for running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard should be a priority.
Also, run defense last year was an issue, so selecting a space-eating defensive tackle would also be a wise first round pick. Considering the likely lack of high-end quarterbacks available at their pick and more immediate positional concerns, the Bengals should stay away from the quarterback on day one.
If the Bengals cannot net one of the elite quarterbacks from this draft, they should focus on upside prospects in the later rounds. Presuming a Darnold or Rosen doesn’t take an Aaron Rodgers-like tumble in the draft, Dalton will be the starter in 2018.
With a reliable starter in place, Cincinnati can groom a backup over the course of a year or more without worry. Second-tier quarterback prospects like Mason Rudolph or Luke Falk have a safe floor as contributing NFL QBs, but don’t offer any significant upside over Dalton and would likely cost a second or third round pick.
Aside from the offensive and defensive line, the Bengals also need more depth at inside linebacker, tight end, and in the secondary. They would be well served by spending some of their day two capital on the defensive side of the ball rather than gambling on a potential future quarterback.
That leaves just the fourth round and later, which seems too late to snag any prospect of merit. Certainly, it’s rare to see a prospect taken that late blossom into a franchise quarterback, but it’s not impossible.
Quarterback Tom Brady is the easy example as a sixth-round pick out of Michigan, but quarterback Tony Romo, undrafted out of Eastern Illinois, has a Hall of Fame case and quarterback Kirk Cousins, a 4th rounder from Michigan St., is now the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL for a Super Bowl favorite.
It doesn’t make a ton of sense for the Bengals to look multiple years down the road at a position that Dalton has had some success in a “make or break” season; Head coach Marvin Lewis needs a playoff berth to ensure his job security, so drafting linemen who can immediately help this team benefits Lewis much more than gambling on Dalton’s successor with a valuable early selection. The Bengals simply don’t need to take a QB early this year, and I would be stunned to see them draft one before day three.
As far as candidates for late-round fliers for the Bengals, there is one solid prospect I think fits the bill for the Bengals. If Cincinnati is willing to invest fourth or fifth round capital in a potential starter, they should select the quarterback out of Richmond.
Lauletta is one of the quickest risers among quarterback prospects as he went to the Senior Bowl and backed up his season performance at Richmond. Richmond is an FCS school, but is among the more successful FCS programs in the country, and went to Virginia and toppled the Kurt Benkert-led Cavaliers behind a strong game from Lauletta.
Being an impressive QB from an FCS school, Lauletta has started to draw some lazy Jimmy Garoppolo comparisons, but the comp is not without merit. His career arc and skill set mirrors Jimmy G’s in a way; Lauletta has a good pocket presence and has the ability to make solid reads and deliver accurate passes on short and intermediate routes. He can also make those throws on the run and scramble for a few yards here and there.
Now Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith is my best comparison for Lauletta, which is somewhat uninspiring, but if the Bengals drafted the next Jimmy Garoppolo on day three, that would be a massive coup.
Looking a little further down the big board, Cincinnati could spend a sixth or seventh round pick on quarterbacks Nic Shimonek or Riley Ferguson as deep flier prospects.
Shimonek was a one-year starter at Texas Tech, taking over for last year’s 10th overall pick quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He produced on a fairly similar level to Mahomes this year, although the air raid system Kliff Kingsbury runs at Tech lends itself to enormous stat lines.
Shimonek has some Pat Mahomes equity, as he is a solid athlete who can stretch the field vertically with his arm. Taking over an NFL offense and making complex reads and crisp throws at all levels will be a challenge for Shimonek, but he does show good decision making, only turning the ball over about once per game. He had a great outing at the East-West Shrine Bowl, so he may have caught the eye of Lewis as a potential developmental player who can sit and learn behind Dalton.
Ferguson, a two-year starter at Memphis, comes on the heels of another first-round pick in Paxton Lynch, though Lynch has certainly not lived up to the billing. Ferguson was a former Tennessee recruit who bounced around before landing at Memphis, which shows he was billed as an NFL talent coming out of high school.
Much like Shimonek, Ferguson has blown up stat sheets at Memphis, racking up multiple 7 touchdown games over his career, although on the shoulders of Mike Norvell’s air raid system. Ferguson’s build is a concern, and may not be able to hold up to NFL wear and tear, but he can make all the throws to stick in the league. If the Bengals can tap into Ferguson’s evident skill set and allow him to physically and mentally develop, he could grow into a very good starting quarterback down the line.
Both Shimonek and Ferguson are definitely long shots, but at a very cheap price, they offer starting quarterback upside multiple years in the future.
With Andy Dalton, this Cincinnati Bengals team is not a Super Bowl contender. To capture that elusive Lombardi Trophy, they will have to make a change at quarterback. However, this team, fully healthy, can go to the playoffs and remain one of the NFL’s better squads.
Bolstered by good selections in the first couple rounds, the Bengals should finish above .500 and contend for a wild-card spot. Unless one of the generationally talented QBs falls to pick 21, I don’t think there’s any reason to move on from Dalton at this juncture.
Lauletta, Shimonek, or Ferguson would be intriguing guys to try to develop over the course of a few years, but the Bengals can compete without changing QBs this year. Should that change in the next couple years, and it becomes clear that Dalton is no longer a viable starter, then management can turn to the draft for a successor.
For now, let’s wait and see.