2014 brings with it a dilemma unique to a handful of NFL teams. "New CBA" quarterbacks such as Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers and Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals are all entering the final year of their team-friendly rookie deals.
Dalton can claim something that neither Newton nor Kaepernick can, having led the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first three NFL seasons.
However, it's Dalton who has the most to prove entering his contract year, and the Bengals would be well served to make him do it before they open the vault and ink the "Red Rifle" to a lucrative long-term extension.
As Chris Wesseling of NFL.com reports, Dalton told SiriusXM Radio on Monday that there's been some preliminary talks regarding an extension:
There have been talks about it. There have been a couple of proposals sent over and different things. We're working. Hopefully, we can get something done. I'm not too worried about it. I know in the right timing, everything is going to happen. Obviously, everyone would like to get something done sooner rather than later.
We are hopeful we can get a deal done that works and Andy can put it behind him. He can get back focusing on football. He doesn't have to go into the season and worry about this contract thing, every week someone is going to ask him a question … all those things that come into play later on. Let's get it behind us.
On some levels, it makes sense to get a deal done now. Dalton has already done something no other Bengals quarterback in franchise history has, with three consecutive playoff appearances. His 4,293 passing yards and 33 touchdown passes last year were both team records.
Per Pro Football Reference
Still, there's a very valid reason why Bengals owner and general manager Mike Brown wasn't quite as enthusiastic about Dalton, according to Geoff Hobson of the team's website:
We are going to try to get something done but I don’t know if we are going to be able to or not. At some point we are going to have to do something more than just let everyone else leave waiting to get something done with that situation. We held back this year trying to put ourselves in a position to get him done. If it turns out it can’t be made to work we will do something elsewhere.
That reason for Brown's reluctance, of course, is what's happened to Dalton at the end of each of those three NFL seasons.
Per Pro Football Reference
As good as Dalton's been in the regular season, he's been equally horrific in his three playoff losses. He's thrown only one touchdown pass and six interceptions over that stretch, and as Wesseling pointed out, three of the 10 worst starts of Dalton's career (by QBR) were those postseason defeats.
That's not the only issue with Dalton, either. His turnovers have gone up each year, and he's still yet to post a passer rating of over 90 for a season.
And so the knock on Andy Dalton was born. He's a decent NFL quarterback, and he can get you to the playoffs. But don't expect a whole lot after that, because when the time comes when Dalton has to win the game for you things probably aren't going to end well.
That perception makes it difficult to justify committing a big chunk of salary-cap space to Dalton, a fact that Brown lamented while speaking at the owners' meetings, according to Coley Harvey of ESPN:
When you go forward in this league it is not clear which is the better way to go. Do you have a high-priced quarterback and less elsewhere? Or do you try to have as many guys as you can have and maybe a quarterback that is young and not so highly paid?
Granted, all this isn't to say that no way, no how should the Bengals extend Dalton this spring. If Dalton's willing to sacrifice some money in the name of financial security and sign a below-market deal, then that's obviously a different story.
However, there's been absolutely no indication that would happen, and it's not all that realistic a scenario. What is realistic, in the opinion of Kevin Patra of NFL.com, is an offer in the neighborhood of $14-15 million per season.
And if that's the case, the Bengals are best served by sticking to their guns and letting Dalton play out his walk year.
Is Andy Dalton worthy of a five-year, $75 million contract as things stand today?
Yes, there's a risk involved. If Dalton goes out and plays like a maniac in 2014, leading the Bengals deep into the playoffs, then his price tag will go up, and that $15 million will look like a steal in hindsight.
(Cue Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome nodding solemnly)
So what? Yes, it will cost more, but at that point, Dalton will have shown what the Bengals would be paying him for. The ability to be a true franchise quarterback, capable of leading the Bengals to their first playoff win in two decades.
He hasn't shown that yet, and if all else failed in negotiations next year, the transition and franchise tags would be in play as fall-back options.
At the end of the day, all Brown and the Bengals need to answer is one simple question:
What makes more sense? Having to overpay your franchise quarterback coming off a career year, or paying a quarterback $15 million a year who is OK but will never be anything more than that?
The answer is easy.
The answer is wait.