The Bengals must draft Zach Mettenberger. The former Louisiana State quarterback is the solution to their Andy Dalton dilemma.
I could use a lot of flowery sportswriter rhetoric to explain why the Bengals must draft Mettenberger.
I could even resort to one-sentence paragraphs, the sports-column equivalent of pounding the pulpit and waiting for an "Amen" that never quite arrives.
Instead, let's use some simple logical decision structure. That makes this the last one-sentence (make that two-sentence) paragraph you will read.
Andy Dalton will improve, get worse, or stay the same in 2014. He could also get injured, but that falls into the same general category as getting worse. Dalton is entering the fourth year of a post-2011 contract, so the Bengals can either offer him a rich extension, wait out the season and try to re-sign him, or let him walk at the end of his contract. The Bengals can either draft a quarterback or not draft a quarterback. They could draft a seventh-round no-name quarterback, but that is roughly the same as not drafting a quarterback.
The decision to draft a quarterback comes nested with its own set of decisions, of course. The Bengals could conceivably trade up for one of the top three prospects. They could choose a second-tier Derek Carr-Jimmy Garoppolo consolation prize. Or they could take a risk on a player with first-round talent but an injury that makes him useless to teams with immediate quarterback needs: Zach Mettenberger.
The Dalton dilemma is really a puzzle with 36 outcomes: three contract situations times three levels of Dalton performance times four draft possibilities (no quarterback, top prospect, secondary prospect, Mettenberger). Let's reduce the outcomes to 18 by taking away one of the least likely branches: the "Dalton gets an extension" branch.
The Bengals are looking into a Dalton contract extension, but there are multiple complications. A.J. Green is ahead of Dalton in the priority queue, and he will cost some serious cash. Dalton's market value is not easy to ascertain, and Dalton will be as reluctant to settle as the Bengals are to splurge. Both sides can see the advantages of waiting a year: Dalton sees potential in a Joe Flacco spike in quality and salary, and the Bengals see an opportunity for a cheap escape if that does not happen. A reasonable-but-fair Dalton extension in the next four months sounds like vaporware. The Bengals are going to either sign him or let him walk after they have a gander at the 2014 product.
Now, let's examine how other Bengals quarterback scenarios play out. We will take them one at a time, and explore what happens if Dalton's play improves, deteriorates, or remains at its current plain yogurt state.
The Bengals Draft No Quarterback. If Dalton markedly improves, they must pay him Joe Flacco-Jay Cutler money. Those contracts often bring a healthy dose of buyer's remorse. Dalton's improvement in the "no replacement quarterback" scenario will have to be a 35-touchdown, Ravens-and-Steelers sweeping, Super Bowl-appearing doubt eraser to make everyone completely comfortable with the idea of guaranteeing $50-million. Another year of modest development in yards and touchdowns, fueled by big games against bad teams and a healthy dose of catch-and-run heroics from his stellar supporting cast, will only cloud the issue.
If Dalton collapses… the Bengals must draft a rookie in 2015 and more-or-less hand him the starting role. They could try to lowball Dalton, but what purpose would that serve? Short of a complete Dalton meltdown or a zombie plague in greater Cincinnati, the Bengals are too loaded at other positions (and the AFC North is too mediocre) to project a record much worse than 7-9. The Bengals will not be in Marcus Mariota territory next year any more than they are in Johnny Manziel territory this year.
If Dalton treads water… the Bengals will be stuck deciding whether to pay him near-Flacco-Cutler bucks to stick around for another year or two of gutsy above-averageness or cut bait on a young man who is durable, dependable, and always keeps the team hovering around 10-6. Neither decision will be popular, and both have explosive backfire potential.
The Bengals Trade up for Manziel-Bortles-Bridgewater. This scenario is as unlikely as Dalton and the Bengals finding a financial middle ground that they both love this spring, but let's explore it anyway. Teddy Bridgewater, for example, could fall the way Aaron Rodgers did a few years ago, allowing the Bengals to climb up a few spots and pounce in exchange for a mid-round pick they can afford to spend.
If Dalton improves… Great, the Bengals have two top-flight quarterbacks. Do you see Dalton improving under these circumstances? If the Bengals are moving up, they are moving on. The organizational pressure will be to prepare the youngster. Dalton could be extra-motivated by the challenge, but Dalton has always been extra-motivated. Motivation is not his problem. His arm is his problem.
If Dalton treads water… Marv Lewis will feel pressure from above, below, outside and within to tinker with the big-name rookie. If Dalton slips early in the season, he falls immediately down the basement steps. The Dalton ship essentially sails the moment the Bengals draft one of the big names, but it is not in the Bengals' best interests to let Dalton sail away. He has accomplished enough in three years to deserve a full, 16-game-and-playoffs opportunity to assert himself, and the Bengals need to be certain their new quarterback is really the best choice, not simply the newest choice.
The Bengals draft a Carr or Garoppolo. Carr and Garoppolo are not true first-round prospects. They are quarterbacks who are likely to get drafted in the first round because they are quarterbacks, and teams need quarterbacks. They are a lot like Dalton in the broad sense: high-character, high-energy guys who are close to maxed out when it comes to upside. Replacing Dalton with Carr or Garoppolo will be like replacing Dalton with another flavor of Dalton.
All of the pitfalls of selecting a top prospect remain factors if the Bengals dip into the second-tier prospects. Dalton will give up a few starters reps in camp, decreasing the odds of a sudden quantum leap forward. Talk radio will chatter, and that little itch in the back of Lewis' neck will demand a scratching after that first three-interception game against the Ravens. The Bengals could come away from the 2014 season with two quarterbacks they do not feel great about instead of one.
The Bengals draft Zach Mettenberger. Mettenberger was healthy enough to throw at his Pro Day, so there is no reason to worry that a 2013 ACL injury will impact a pocket passer who will never be asked to run a read option. But we have all learned the lesson of Robert Griffin, so Mettenberger will not be rushed onto the field. The Bengals are drafting a redshirt and giving Dalton 16-to-20 uncontested sink-or-swim games.
If Dalton throws for 4,500 yards and reaches the Super Bowl… the Bengals are in the same position the Chargers were in when they had Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers. They could pay Dalton and figure out what to do with their quarterback surplus, but they do not have to pay Dalton if they are not 100 percent satisfied or his contract demands get a little wacky. It's happy time in Cincinnati.
If Dalton treads water… the Bengals battle through another 9-to-11 win season and hope things break their way in the playoffs. There are worse fates, and they come out of the year with complete certainty about Dalton's portfolio.
If Dalton falters… they can bid him farewell and turn to the fastballer they have been quietly grooming on the bench. Instead of exchanging apples for oranges (as would be the case with Carr and Garoppolo), they would be trading apples for a flamethrower with high athletic upside and a year of NFL coaching and knee rehabilitation under his belt. But unlike a big three prospect, Mettenberger brings zero 2014 expectations and does not cost additional trade-up resources.
The worst time to draft a quarterback is when you absolutely must. The best time to draft a quarterback is when you do not need one immediately but may need one soon. It helps to have an excellent receiving corps in place, an established coach and a defense that can make life easier by holding most opponents under 20 points. The Bengals have all those things. This is the time to draft a quarterback.
With few other needs, the Bengals can splurge in the first round. But if they want Mettenberger, they cannot wait past the first round. The Cardinals also have a need for a near-future quarterback. The Rams come around in the second round with few other needs and more doubts about Sam Bradford than they are willing to admit. Mettenberger will be popular among bargain hunters who can afford to wait.
The Bengals are in position to protect their quarterback investment without hedging their bets. They can give Dalton the fair chance he deserves while giving themselves the peace of mind that they will not be yoked to a cap-choking long-term deal if their veteran quarterback is not worth the value. They can get a top-10 talent with a bottom-10 draft selection. They can have a deferred, controversy-free quarterback competition that will not stand in the way of their 2014 playoff aspirations or leave them without 2015 options.
It's the best solution to a thorny problem, because it is really several solutions in one. The Bengals must draft Zach Mettenberger because he is the absolute best quarterback for a team that may not really need a quarterback.