After looking at the offensive and defensive lines, it is time to look at the most important position on the field: Quarterback. Even though there is no question who the starter will be, there will be important decisions to make regarding this position.
The biggest decision will be how many QBs to carry on the roster. The Bengals typically carry three, but last year they opted to keep just two and use the extra spot on another position. This decision made a lot of sense because, if the Bengals have to go to their 3rd QB, do they really have a shot at winning? Having that roster spot to keep and extra D-lineman or DB could smart. If Mohamed Sanu makes the team, he could possibly serve as an emergency 3rd QB.
On the other hand, Bruce Gradkowski is currently only signed through this year. If one of the two guys shows enough potential, the Bengals might not want to risk losing him and could allow him time to develop with the rest of the squad.
Starter: Andy Dalton
There is no doubt that Andy far exceeded the expectations of most in his rookie season. But for a number of reasons, the effectiveness of the offense lulled in the second half of the season. The quality of opponents’ defenses improved significantly. The running game was largely ineffective. Opponents had more tape of Dalton to study. Fatigue from a much longer season may have complicated things as well.
This year there is the specter of the dreaded sophomore slump which, while common, is not a given. Sam Bradford and Matt Ryan both saw their performance sag in their second year, as did Josh Freeman in his second full year as a starter (third year overall). But QBs Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco both improved in their sophomore season. We hope that Dalton can follow the lead of his AFCN counterparts.
And then there is the tough schedule facing the Bengals this year. The NFL did the Bengals no favors, playing 3 of the first 4 games on the road, including the season opener in Baltimore on MNF, as well as 3 of the final 5 on the road, including tilts at San Diego (ugh, the west coast), Philly and Pittsburgh. Throw in home games against Dallas, the Denver Mannings, and the defending champion Giants, and Dalton has to improve just to keep the team even.
There is nowhere to hide with this year’s schedule. If the Bengals are to manage a second straight playoff appearance, they will have to earn it every week along the way. I can tell you that it will take better than averaging 22 pts/game (especially the 16.4 pts/game scored against teams with winning records) to get there.
Fortunately, Andy and OC Jay Gruden have five months to install and hone Gruden’s WCO. With a year in the system already, Gruden’s creativity and Dalton’s execution need to go to another level. Or two.
Backup: Bruce Gradkowski
Having a proven, veteran backup is a lot more reassuring than days of sorting through guys like Jordan Palmer, J.T. O’Sullivan and Jeff Rowe. Gradkowski might have flaws, but he is easily the best backup QB that the Bengals have had since Jon Kitna.
Assuming that he is happy to stay on, I would not mind seeing the Bengals offer him another one or two year deal at the end of this season to continue to back up Dalton.
Practice Squader: Zac Robinson
The predecessor to Cleveland’s new QB Brandon Weeden, Zac was drafted by The Hoodie out of Oklahoma State in the 7th round two years ago, but he did not make their final roster. He was picked up by Seattle, and later Detroit, but made no game appearances. Since he spent all of 2011 on the Bengals’ practice squad, he is officially a second year player.
Robinson’s scouting report makes him sound somewhat similar to Andy Dalton… only without the confidence, poise and recognition of the defense. (Kind of important elements in the NFL.) With lots of work, Ken Zampese might raise him to the level of almost-suitable backup.
UDFA: Tyler Hansen
Robinson was the QB for the 3-10 Colorado Buffalos in 2011. His scouting report reads much like my own assessment of Jordan Palmer. Give him a pocket and a decent passing lane, and the guy is money. (How often does that happen in the NFL?) Put pressure on him and he falls apart. To be honest, the kid has a long, uphill battle to make the team. If he shows something in camp, he might make the practice squad.
I have no problem with bringing Robinson and Hansen into camp for a look, but it is hard to think that they will really push Gradkowski all that hard. The Bengals will need one of the two on the practice squad to simulate the opposing QB. Anything beyond that would be a complete surprise. Then again, stranger things have happened.