COLUMN: Drafting QB wrong move for Bengals

NFL insiders have long chided the personnel decisions made by Mike Brown and the Bengals front office, but successful hauls in recent drafts have helped convert some of the naysayers.

That could all change Thursday night if the team not-so-lovingly referred to as the "Bungles" decides to take a quarterback with their top pick.

Multiple media reports have surfaced in the days leading up to the first round of the draft that suggest the Bengals plan to take Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater with the 24th overall pick.

The idea is absurd.

The 21-year-old from Miami, Florida is widely considered somewhere between the third- and fourth-best QB prospect this year. Despite it being a perceived down year for quarterbacks, Bridgewater is a virtual lock to go in the first round or early second round.

But why the Bengals?

Not This Season

With rookie quarterbacks come exaggerated expectations and a push to start right away, which isn't going to happen in Cincinnati, at least not next season; the team is already sold on its starter for 2014.

At least that’s the public position taken by the franchise’s front office.

While keeping their lips mostly shut on the topic, head coach Marvin Lewis continues to reiterate that incumbent starter Andy Dalton is his guy and he doesn't want to take snaps away from him during camp.

“We’re not going to take (snaps) away from Andy Dalton to give somebody else an opportunity to (take snaps),” he said Tuesday during a pre-draft press conference at Paul Brown Stadium.

It’s a sentiment Lewis has expressed since the end of last season, when Dalton struggled in a wild-card round playoff loss at home to the San Diego Chargers.

“I don’t have any questions about Andy’s role… We just have to keep working,” he said after the game.

“Dalton’s the football team, and I know he’s disappointed in himself. I’m disappointed in myself, too, and the two of us have plenty of company on our team. But Andy is the football team and we have not seen the best of him yet, despite all his good numbers.”

Dalton has started all 48 games, plus three playoff games, since the Bengals selected him with a second-round pick in 2011. The team is 30-18 with Dalton at helm, winning more games than the year before every season.

The 26-year-old has shown great promise at times, earning a spot on the 2011 Pro Bowl roster and finishing in the top 10 in passing yards and touchdowns in 2013.

His QB rating has improved each of his three seasons from 80.4 his rookie season to 88.8 last year, a campaign that saw him guide the Bengals to an 11-5 record and the franchise’s first division title since 2009.

While showing signs of inconsistency at times, leading to 20 interceptions and a handful of “what the heck?” moments, part of that can be attributed to the team’s push in recent years to throw the ball more often.

With pass-happy offensive coordinator Jay Gruden taking the head coach position in Washington, and the insertion of Hue Jackson into the role, the number of pass attempts should come down.

So the Bengals would dump a guy who’s improving every season and has already directed one of the most successful stretches in franchise history in order to go with a player who has never thrown in a pass in the NFL?

That makes total sense.

Is Dalton "The Man" Or Just A Placeholder?

While some still doubt Dalton's arm strength and his other physical tools, the biggest knock against him during his professional career is he can't win a playoff game.

Regular season wins are wonderful and every fan gets excited about a trip to the playoffs. But teams don't lineup week after week just to qualify.

It's all about the Super Bowl.

Given Dalton's terrible showings in each of the Bengals’ playoff losses over the past three years, some fans think the Bengals need to move on if they want to snap the franchise's 25-year playoff win dry spell.

Adding to the dilemma is the fact Dalton is entering the final year of his rookie contract, meaning the team needs to decide if he’s The Man or just a placeholder for the long-awaited heir apparent to Boomer Esiason and Ken Anderson.

As a result, the question of whether Dalton is the next Boomer or Carson Palmer needs to be addressed by the end of next season, making it understandable to assume the Bengals are concerned about the future.

After all, it's arguably the most important position in all of sports, and the success or failure of the person playing it can affect a franchise for decades.

A tongue-in-cheek article published by a Sports Illustrated subsidiary, "Fansided," suggests trading Dalton  and moving up in the draft to get a young game-changing quarterback is the easiest way to get the Bengals to appease Who Dey nation and get back to the Big Game.

"In the case of the Cincinnati Bengals they are one of those rare teams that can confidently say they are probably a quarterback away from reaching the Super Bowl," Erik Lambert wrote.

"Indeed thanks to a series of good drafts over the past few seasons the Bengals have put together

a young and highly talented roster on both offense and defense. Yet after three-straight playoff appearances they have not been able to show up when it matters. In those games the biggest culprit for their shortcomings is an offense that hasn’t been able to score more than 10 points in any of them. Responsibility for that must fall directly on the shoulders of the quarterback."

Lambert didn't even mention Bridgewater, instead claiming draft-eligible QBs Blake Bortles and Derek Carr may offer upgrades to Dalton.

The problem with the "Anybody But Dalton" mindset is it assumes Dalton has plateaued, which isn't supported by the numbers. While he does have bad games, many of which have been in the playoffs, his performance gets better every year.

Having an improved running game, two healthy tight ends and arguably the best wide receiver in the sport lining up alongside him should ensure that trend continues.

Can you imagine if the Indianapolis Colts gave up on Peyton Manning when he couldn't get past Tom Brady or after early struggles in important games?

Dalton didn't come into the league with as much hype as Manning, but maybe that's part of the problem.

Being Young Is So In Right Now

Youth is sexy. New is sexy. Green grass on the other side? So sexy right now.

Football fans have long been enamored with the idea of a stud, five-star quarterback coming in after being selected early in the draft and leading their team to the Promised Land. 

How many times has that worked out? Maybe we should ask David Carr (Derek Carr's brother), Tim Couch and Vince Young.

Have any of you Cincinnati fans heard recently from Akili Smith or David Klingler? I'm sure they'd be happy to weigh-in on the topic.

Yet, the idea of a young quarterback coming in and saving a franchise, even right away, isn't without merit.

Recent success by Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco and yes, even Dalton himself have shown it's possible.

And this year's draft has a few candidates who could get the job done.

While considered a down year at the position overall, Bridgewater and a few of the other highly touted prospects have shown flashes of brilliance that suggest they too could prove to be stars in a league that is becoming more enamored with the idea of young, mobile quarterbacks.

Despite his age, Bridgewater is a “calculated, football-smart, precision-matchup rhythm passer,” according to the draft prospect guru Nolan Nawrocki with NFL.com. He said Bridgewater would thrive in a system somewhat similar to the one Jackson will feature in Cincinnati.

“(He would) stand to benefit heavily from operating a short, dink-and-dunk rhythm passing game. (He) compensates for a lack of elite arm talent and prototype measureables with the intangibles and football intelligence that could elevate the other 52 players around him,” Nawrocki said of the 6-foot-3 Bridgewater.

“Instinctive passer with the laser-beam determination to become a Pro Bowl-caliber passer in the right system.”

The gloved passer had monster campaigns in 2012 and 2013, throwing for nearly 7,700 yards, while tossing 58 total touchdowns to only 18 interceptions (four last season). Bridgewater led his team to a 27-8 record in 35 games as a starter.

He’s also a good kid by all reports; and intelligent, finishing his sports administration degree in only three years.

Bridgewater is a great athlete, a good person and could very well turn out to be an amazing pro.

But will he be a better NFL player than Dalton? College stats and passing sessions at pro days can't answer that question. 

Mel Kiper can't answer it, either.

If the Bengals really feel as though their on the cusp of achieving greatness, that seems like an awful big wager to place.

What Marvin Wants, Marvin Gets... Most Of The Time

Regardless of whether or not the Bengals select Bridgewater or another draft-eligible QB, it's clear Dalton is going to start training camp as the starter.

Lewis has made that fact known on multiple occasions.

“This football team has known who their quarterback is, going to be and the leader of it and it’s made us better for that. Because they can get behind them, and rally behind him. And he can rally them," Lewis said.

Heck, they may not even serve as the backup.

Lewis said he feels uncomfortable with the idea of having an unproven commodity in the backup role as his team looks to claim a second straight AFC North title.

Part of that has to do with the fact draftees will get to spend less time with their team prior to the start of the season due to the pushed back date of this year's draft.

“It’s only fair to the rest of the football team that if I’m going to put you in place to be a quarterback – or a competing quarterback – that I give you enough reps to be good enough for the football to win with you," he said.

Lewis said if you're not comfortable with your starting quarterback and cornerbacks "everyone else suffers.”

The Bengals have four corners on their roster who were drafted in the first round for a reason.

The

secondary and both lines are the other positions the Bengals are rumored to be targeting with their first pick, especially after they seemed to solve the depth issue at the QB position by signing veteran Jason Campbell earlier this off-season.

Campbell and Josh Johnson, who signed with the team last season, are expected to serve as Dalton’s back-ups or replace him in the interim if things don’t go well. 

Both have had moderate success as starters in the past but have also embraced the unique challenge of taking on the No. 2 role.

“That’s one of the attractions to Jason and Josh – they’ve been in that situation and they understand what the meaning of that situation is," Lewis said of the other two QBs on his roster.

“But yet they’ve got to have the maturity to know if they have to go in and play, they’re ready to go. So they have to approach their preparation each and every week as though they are the guy, but yet whoever ends up being in the second chair, they understand the duties of being in that chair as well."

No One Said This Year Has To Be The Year ... But Why Wouldn't It Be?

The Bengals parted ways with practice team quarterbacks Greg McElroy and Zac Robinson earlier this off-season.

And there's no reason the team couldn't cut Campbell and/or Johnson before the start of the regular season. Many have speculated Johnson will get the ax so the team can use the roster spot to fill in a void at another position.

So, there’s room if the team wants to draft and groom its quarterback of the future.

Doing so would give QB coach Ken Zampese and Jackson a chance to acclimate their young gun to the NFL waters and prepare him to be ready for the following season if it’s decided Dalton isn’t the long-term solution.

Who knows? Drafting a quarterback could even ignite a fire in Dalton, who would be playing for not only a huge contract but also his job.

Is that really worth a first-round draft pick, though?

Why not go with Tom Savage, A.J. McCarron or Aaron Murray? They're all talented, legitimate prospects who will be available on Day 2 or maybe even Day 3 of the draft.

Want to talk about upside? Jimmy Garoppolo out of Eastern Illinois is said to have Tony Romo-like skill set but should be available long after the first round of the draft is over.

Sure, not one of them is considered a proverbial "can't-miss," ready-to-play talent, but neither is Bridgewater. 

And the Bengals don't need one of those this season.

The NFL is a win-now league and the Bengals are legitimate title contenders. They also have deficiencies that need to be addressed, including shoring up the defensive line, adding secondary help and possibly restructuring the offensive line to fit the team's new balanced, run-first attack.

Easy fixes with the pool of talent available in this year's draft.

Yet, the team would waste its top pick, its best chance at improving itself, on a player it doesn't expect to play a key role for at least another season?

You make sense of it.

 

Photos courtesy GettyImages

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