This is not a rip job on Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. In polling a large cross-section of NFL coaches and executives, prevailing opinion says at least a dozen NFL teams would be better off with Dalton in their lineup. But the issue, in the face of the Bengals' looming contract extension negotiations with their QB, isn't whether Dalton is good enough to start. He is. The issue isn't whether the Bengals can be a playoff team with him. They already have been one.
The issue is what to do when a QB such as Dalton finishes his team-friendly rookie contract. The Bengals have been one-and-done in the playoffs for three years running despite the flexibility that comes with having a young, drafted quarterback earning $1.3 million per year under the rookie wage scale. What happens if Cincinnati pumps up Dalton's average to $15 million or more a year? The roster will become more difficult to maintain, and Dalton might not improve enough to overcome the difference.
The case against re-signing Dalton is not an easy one to make. Any coach or exec will tell you just how horrible it feels when your team lacks a viable starter. The dread becomes consuming. That partly explains why teams felt OK paying $18.1 million a year for Jay Cutler or $17.7 million a year for Matthew Stafford, even though neither QB had been exceptional or consistent before signing for those respective amounts.
These dynamics make the Bengals' QB outlook compelling as Dalton, a player without the raw abilities that made Cutler and Stafford first-round draft choices, enters the final season of the four-year rookie deal he signed as a second-round pick in 2011. The case against re-signing Dalton is philosophical, not personal. Is it practical? Will the Bengals or another team dare to turn the short-term advantages associated with cheap QB labor into a long-term edge by continually moving on from drafted middle-tier starters instead of paying them market value? They should, and here is why.
The beauty of cheap QB labor
Five of the NFL's eight division winners from last season featured QBs playing on rookie contracts negotiated under the current wage scale.