Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is heading into the crucial third year of his young NFL career. This is the year in which quarterbacks can either become superstars or distant memories. Dalton must improve his game in certain ways to avoid the latter option.
During his first two years in the league, Dalton threw for 7,067 yards, completed 60.2 percent of his passes and has accumulated 47 touchdowns against 29 interceptions. That is good for a passer rating of 83.9.
Not bad for a former second-round selection that was thrown into the fire as a rookie and dealt with so many personnel changes heading into his second year.
However, stats never tell the full story of how a quarterback performs.
There have been games in which Dalton has put up great statistics, but most of the workload was on the shoulders of the wide receivers. Also, there have been games in which Dalton ended up with miserable numbers but played much better than the final stats.
This is where trends come into play.
There have been certain trends that Dalton has embodied throughout his career thus far that have deteriorated parts of his game. He needs to be able to handle pressure up the middle, increase his pocket awareness, become consistent with his ball trajectory and progress through his reads better.
If Dalton can improve in these areas, he could just be headed toward elite status. He is a far better passer than he is given credit—mostly due to personnel changes so early in his career.
This year, there are no excuses. The Bengals kept the same offense together for a second consecutive year. They have also added weapons in the form of tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard.
With a healthy Mohamed Sanu returning to action, Dalton has all of the necessary components in front of him to succeed.
Let's diagnose these areas in which Dalton must improve heading into the 2013 season.
Dalton is one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL when pressured up the middle. It is only a matter of time before opposing defenses realize this and give him nightmares on Sundays.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave Dalton a dismal negative-10.5 grade when pressured compared to a positive-10.4 when no pressure is applied. When pressured, his completion percentage is only 38.6 and comes with a passer rating of 47.3.
When Dalton is under pressure, he needs to react with more urgency. Quite often, he makes himself susceptible to batted passes—he had 16 of them last season—due to a late reaction.
Dalton needs to know where his receivers are on the field at all times and develop enough chemistry with them to throw to a spot in anticipation of their routes. This will allow for a clean release and should help avoid unnecessary pressure.
Last season, Dalton was sacked a total of 48 times. The offensive line held up nicely for the most part—Dalton was sacked 26 times when blitzed and 22 times without a blitz. However, Dalton consistently holds on to the ball too long while looking for a perfect throw.
He needs to create an internal clock in his head and make sure the ball is released before that time ticks down to zero. He cannot afford to simply sit back and wait for a receiver to get open. This makes things difficult for his offensive line and can wear them down during a game in the process.
Dalton has a good amount of accuracy on short and intermediate routes. Trusting his ability to throw into a tight window while the pocket is collapsing is something he must work on before the season begins.
One question always raised about Dalton has been his arm strength on deep passes. This is actually not an issue with him. His strength is fine; however, his accuracy on deep passes needs significant work.
Dalton has struggled with deep passes due to his inconsistent trajectory. He has allowed the ball too much height which gives defensive backs time to break up a play. He has also thrown the ball to the ground more like a frozen rope closer which puts his receivers at a disadvantage—it does not allow them to use their height advantage on smaller cornerbacks.
Over the offseason, Dalton has been working on his trajectory with quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. They have been quickening Dalton's dropback and have been experimenting with the velocity and height of his throws, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Dalton has been known to lock on to his first read—usually A.J. Green—throughout the duration of a play. This prevents the receiver from gaining open ground on defensive backs and can also translate to missing other wide-open targets on the field.
In a West Coast offense, reads are quick due to the short nature of the routes that are run in the scheme. If Dalton can learn to look off his first read to come back to him later, or simply find his secondary target if his first option is not available, he will be much improved.
With the addition of Bernard in the backfield and Eifert as a second option at tight end, Dalton will be loaded with security blankets. This will force him to look for other options on the field on a regular basis.
So, what happens if Dalton can put this all together?
First of all, he already has the ability to do all of these things. He only needs to develop enough to make them a consistent part of his game. If he can do that, he has a great chance of becoming the next franchise quarterback for the Bengals.
During his rookie season, Dalton showed all of these traits in one particular play against the Seattle Seahawks. Let's break down that play to get a glimpse of what Dalton is capable of once these bad habits are turned around.
This play takes place in a hostile environment in Seattle. After a penalty, the Bengals are faced with a 1st-and-15 on the Seahawks' 43-yard line. Dalton notices that his receivers—mainly Green, who is lined up in the slot—are in man coverage with no safety help on top.
Dalton takes the snap and executes a perfect play action by turning his back away from the play. This does two things; it freezes four defenders and also prevents Dalton from staring down his intended receiver.
Three pass-rushers are beginning to close in on Dalton. He notices this and sees an alley to slide through so he can avoid the rush. He also takes notice of a defender who is sitting back near the line of scrimmage as a quarterback spy.
Dalton gets up into the opening in a hurry and quickly finds his target downfield. Notice how his entire body is squared up with the direction in which he intends to throw the ball.
Just as the pocket closes in on him, Dalton unleashes the ball. His body is in perfect position for a deep pass. He is still squared up with his target, and his upper body has shifted to create an optimal trajectory for a deep ball.
While this has been going on, Green has covered 19 yards before Dalton looks at him for the first time. That is the kind of chemistry that will throw off even the best defensive backs.
Due to his perfect form under pressure, the trajectory of Dalton's pass comes in at a perfect angle for Green. Only the receiver can make a play on the ball in this instance as it is dropped in with precision.
This allows Green to corral the pass and protect the ball so it can not be jarred loose by the defensive back. The result is a 43-yard touchdown.
Quarterbacks can only be measured by what they are capable of producing on the field. Stats, winning records, Super Bowl victories and Pro Bowl appearances are nice, but the real qualities that make an elite quarterback cannot be measured by these things.
Dalton certainly has the skills and the weapons to rise into the upper echelons of NFL quarterbacks. We will find out if this possibility can become a reality during the 2013 season.