Though Cincinnati Bengals starting quarterback Andy Dalton is in no danger of losing his job during the offseason, considering that, with his help, his team has reached the postseason in both of his first two seasons with the team, but he has yet to become the face of the franchise.
And whether or not he will ever be viewed that way by the powers-that-be in Cincinnati will be hinted at when the Bengals bring on a new backup quarterback in the coming weeks, someone to replace Bruce Gradkowski, a free agent who isn't likely to be re-signed.
Dalton certainly showed improvement in his second year in the league, throwing for 3,669 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2012 with a completion percentage of 62.3 during the regular season. This was up from his rookie season in which he threw for 3,398 yards and 20 touchdowns and completed 58.1 percent of his passes.
However, his increase in passing attempts from 516 to 528 resulted in him throwing 16 interceptions in 2012, up from 13 in 2011. He was also sacked 46 times, compared to 24 during his rookie season, so clearly, there are areas that need improvement, specifically when dealing with pressure.
Dalton thrives when he can build a rhythm, but once he's knocked off it, it takes him a lot of time to recover. According to Pro Football Focus, his reaction to pressure in 2012 was worse than all other quarterbacks in the league save Mark Sanchez—he was sacked 29.4 percent of the time when facing pressure, more than any other passer, and his pressured completion percentage of 39.4 percent was the worst in the league among the full-time starters.
And it's not as though Dalton was pressured more than his peers, either—he saw the pass rush on 25.8 percent (per Pro Football Focus) of his dropbacks with only two quarterbacks seeing less pressure than him.
Handling pressure is the No. 1 thing he will need to work on this offseason to take the leap from second-round pick to full-fledged franchise quarterback, and depending on who the Bengals decide to bring on as his backup, he may have to fix these problems in a hurry.
Whether the Bengals opt to find Dalton's backup via free agency or the draft, who they choose, when they choose him and what his contract value and length looks like will provide hints to how satisfied the Bengals brass is with Dalton's progress over the past two years and what they think about his future in Cincinnati.
With the Bengals currently $50.6 million under the projected $120.9 million salary cap for 2013, they can certainly get a bit creative and aggressive in free agency if they so choose.
None of the impending free-agent quarterbacks—save Joe Flacco, who shouldn't really be considered a free agent, because he's either getting a new deal or the exclusive-rights franchise tag—are out of Cincinnati's price range, and there are quite a few available who could put a bit of pressure on Dalton to step up his game.
Fourth-year players like Brian Hoyer, Josh Johnson and Chase Daniel would likely love to have a shot to prove themselves as worthy of a starting job. Veterans like Rex Grossman, Matt Leinart and Tarvaris Jackson wouldn't mind seeing an incumbent falter. And every single one of these players would relish the opportunity to throw to a receiving talent like A.J. Green.
However, none of those veteran quarterbacks have a recent postseason pedigree to rival Dalton's. Should any of them be brought on to back him up, Dalton will have less to worry about when it comes to the future. It simply supplies them with someone with NFL experience to be there behind Dalton should injury require him to miss time—like Gradkowski was over the past two years.
What should concern Dalton more is if the Bengals choose to draft his backup—especially if they do so on or before the fourth round.
Options for the Bengals could include Zac Dysert from Miami (Ohio), Oklahoma's Landry Jones or Kansas State's Collin Klein. Though none project to be ready to start in their first year—and the Bengals wouldn't be asking them to, no matter what—all three could develop enough while on the bench to provide competition for Dalton in 2014.
Dalton's third season needs to be an improvement on his second one. Though his yards and touchdowns went up and though the Bengals yet again made the playoffs, there is more he has yet to show if he wants to keep his job for longer than just one rookie contract.
With someone younger behind him, the pressure increases because the Bengals have someone else they can turn to who can provide a long-term solution at quarterback if they aren't thrilled with Dalton's progress.
Granted, if the Bengals do draft a quarterback but don't do so until the fifth or sixth rounds, then Dalton's likely not in trouble when his 2013 wraps. And another trip to the postseason should likely keep him under center longer—three straight years in the playoffs and Dalton starts looking like the league's next Joe Flacco, which isn't a bad thing at all.
But it's hard to look at Dalton's first two years in the league and say that the Bengals are completely comfortable with sticking with him for seven or 10 years. How they approach hiring his backup will provide important clues to just how comfortable they are now, how much work they think he needs to do and how confident they are that he can do it.
Though Dalton's future in Cincinnati is mostly up to him and what he can accomplish on the field, who ends up backing him up this year provides a glimpse into how much his coaches and the team's decision-makers believe he can make the leap into franchise quarterback territory in 2013. Think of his 2013 backup as a barometer of the team's long-term commitment to Dalton.