Any New Andy Dalton Contract Needs to Protect Bengals First

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Any New Andy Dalton Contract Needs to Protect Bengals First
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Bengals owner Mike Brown wants quarterback Andy Dalton's new contract to resemble Colin Kaepernick's. It better protect the team the same way.

Contract negotiations between the Cincinnati Bengals and starting quarterback Andy Dalton have been ongoing this offseason. Dalton is heading into the final year of his rookie deal and will be making just shy of $1.7 million for 2014. 

It seems like a deal could be imminent. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green said last week to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com that he believes "they're going to get something done before the season starts." Team owner Mike Brown also chimed in on Tuesday, saying via ESPN's Coley Harvey that Dalton's new contract should be comparable to that of the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick's. 

The comment makes sense. Dalton was taken one spot before Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft and has had nearly as much success as a starter. For each of Dalton's three completed seasons for the Bengals, the team has reached the postseason. 

However, the price tag of such a deal is staggering. Kaepernick signed a six-year, $126 million deal in June that includes as much as $61 million in guaranteed money. A deal like that would lock the Bengals into starting Dalton for the long term, a risky gamble when he's looked both like an All-Pro and a mess at times in his tenure thus far.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the Kaepernick deal does provide a good blueprint for how Dalton's new contract should look. The 49ers were smart—they didn't just throw money at Kaepernick, they put together a calculated package of financial compensation that rewards Kaepernick for success and protects the team and its money should he not.

Breaking Down Colin Kaepernick's Contract Stipulations
Amount/Length: 6-year, $126 million
Total Guaranteed: $61 million
Niners Can Opt Out: 4/1/2015; 4/1/2016; 4/1/2017
2018 Stipulation: Kaepernick only guaranteed $5.2 million of $17 million, 4/1/2018
De-Escalators: $2 million/year if: Not 1st or 2nd Team All-Pro OR Not NFC Champion with 80% playing time

via Spotrac.com

Though Kaepernick could receive up to $61 million in guaranteed money, that guarantee must be picked up by the 49ers on a yearly basis. This season, he'll receive a total of $12.97 million in guaranteed salary and signing bonus. His guarantee for 2015, however, won't take effect until April 1; the same goes for 2016 and 2017. And only $5.2 million of his $17 million salary becomes guaranteed on April 1 of 2018.

That means San Francisco can part ways with Kaepernick and his large payout as early as April of next year should they choose. Ultimately, they are only locked into paying him his guarantee for this year. And his salary decreases $2 million each year he is either not named a First- or Second-Team All-Pro or does not win the NFC Championship in a season in which he played both 80 percent of the regular season and postseason.

All of a sudden, that $126 million contract doesn't look so big or so limiting for the 49ers.

That's the approach the Bengals should take with Dalton if they want to sign him to a contract of comparable value to Kaepernick's. There should be a level of financial reward given to Dalton considering his hand in the past three years of relative success.

There should also be an opportunity to continue compensating him well should he continue to improve. However, the Bengals would have a great degree of insurance should he not. They wouldn't be locked into Dalton or into his salary-cap hit if Dalton's progress doesn't continue or if he backslides. 

This is especially important when considering the other free agents the Bengals will have to try to re-sign to the roster. Though the Bengals are projected to be in a good cap situation—right now, OvertheCap.com has the Bengals spending roughly $99 million of what's expected to be a $145 million salary cap for 2015—a deal paying Dalton $12-20 million next year eats up a significant amount of their space.

John Grieshop/Getty Images
Dalton's deal could eat up half of the Bengals remaining cap space, which means hard questions to come for 2016 free agents like A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Leon Hall and others.

Among the 2015 free agents are guard Clint Boling, tight end Jermaine Gresham and return specialist Brandon Tate. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict will be an unrestricted free agent as well. In 2016, the free-agent list reads like a who's-who of the Bengals roster, with Green, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, cornerback Leon Hall, safety Reggie Nelson, defensive ends Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry and receiver Marvin Jones all unrestricted.

All of a sudden, having half of the Bengals' projected cap space wrapped up in Dalton for the foreseeable future could drastically alter the makeup of the team.

Dalton is not a poor quarterback. His pass attempts and completions have been on the rise every year he's been in the NFL, as have his passing yards and his touchdowns. In 2011, the Bengals won nine games, in 2012 they won 10 and last season they won 11. Dalton's improvements have been his team's improvements.

Andy Dalton's Regular Seasons vs. Playoffs
Year Atts. Comp. Comp.% Yds. TD INT
2011 516 300 58.1% 3,398 20 13
2012 528 329 62.3% 3,669 27 16
2013 586 363 61.9% 4,293 33 20
2011 Playoffs 42 24 64.3% 257 0 3
2012 Playoffs 30 14 46.7% 127 0 1
2013 Playoffs 51 29 56.9% 334 1 2

via Pro-Football-Reference.com

However, Dalton's performance in the postseason has been the biggest negative mark in his career thus far. Though he certainly helped the Bengals get to the playoffs, when in them, he's primarily been the one to knock them out. He's thrown just one postseason touchdown to six interceptions, and his completion percentage dropped from a career-average of 60.9 percent to an average of just 56.9. 

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That's why the Bengals need to completely model Dalton's contract extension to that of Kaepernick's and not just the money alone. While it's great to have a quarterback capable of helping the team win enough games to play January football, Dalton has yet to prove he has what it takes to lead the Bengals to one specific game played in February—the Super Bowl. 

Just reaching the postseason should never be good enough—not when a team does it three years in a row but the quarterback, in particular, shows up nervous and cold and cannot win a single playoff game. A quarterback should not be renowned for his playoff losses.

If Dalton can take his game, and by extension the Bengals, further, then by all means his contract should reward him for that. However, if he cannot, then the Bengals need to find a way to not be locked into Dalton for so long that their window of Super Bowl opportunity goes from open to shut while he is under center.

A pay-as-you-go deal puts Dalton's payday into Dalton's hands and allows the Bengals to hit the reset button at quarterback whenever they see fit, should it come to that. Protecting the team's interests in the way that the Niners did with Kaepernick's contract is the only way the Bengals can justifiably sign Dalton to so lucrative a deal. 

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