CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals find themselves at a crossroads.
When they drafted Andy Dalton with the 35th overall pick in the 2011 draft, their goal was to make him a star. Carson Palmer's career had begun stagnating, the locker room was fracturing and a new direction was needed for the franchise. The powers that be believed Dalton gave them the best chance of making that happen.
Three years and three playoff berths later, Dalton has lived up to many of those expectations.
But losses in all three of his playoff games and a penchant for throwing interceptions have cast doubt over whether he ought to be given the long-term reins to the team's offense. Doubt or not, the Bengals remain convinced that Dalton is the man for the job, and want to make sure they hold onto him for years to come.
It is the very nature of Dalton's play -- sometimes really good, sometimes really bad -- that has made agreeing on a contract extension difficult this offseason. Bengals president and owner Mike Brown reemphasized Sunday at the league owners' meeting in Orlando, Fla., that the top personnel priority moving forward is to get Dalton locked up. When that will happen is anyone's guess, he said.
While performance will play a big role in determining the length and amount of Dalton's contract, there are also other factors to take into account -- namely trying to balance what the starting quarterback market has done in recent years with what it could soon be doing.
That conundrum is at the crux of what the Bengals are facing.
"When you go forward in this league it is not clear which is the better way to go. Do you have a high-priced quarterback and less elsewhere? Or do you try to have as many guys as you can have and maybe a quarterback that is young and not so highly paid?" Brown said at the meetings Sunday, according to Bengals.com.
The 49ers and Panthers are probably pondering the same question in varying degrees. Soon, the Seahawks, Colts and Dolphins might be facing the same question, too. Each of these teams has starting quarterbacks who were drafted after the latest collective bargaining agreement changed rookie contracts in 2011. As a result, they either already started or will soon start trying to balance the old model for paying and playing quarterbacks, with a new system that Dalton and the Bengals could be the first to christen.
All players who were selected in the second through seventh rounds of the 2011 draft were inked to four-year deals, per the new CBA. Those selected in the first round are eligible to have fifth-year options exercised and won't necessarily be playing out the final year of their rookie contract in 2014.
Where this gets tricky for quarterbacks -- namely those taken in the second round like Dalton and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick -- is that the money this post-CBA class will receive on its second contract likely will look much different from what quarterbacks were getting. They likely will get paid significantly less. With fewer restrictions on rookie contracts before 2011, first- and second-round quarterbacks were walking away with rookie deals that paid them upward of $9, $10 and $11 million a year.
Dalton's rookie deal was for four years at $5.2 million total. Carolina's Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, received a four-year deal for $22 million total. That's a big change from what quarterbacks were commanding before.
Remember, in Dalton's case, that salary was for a second-round, post-CBA pick who was also joining a team that already had a starter in Palmer. Even though Palmer was eventually placed on the reserve list before ultimately getting traded to Oakland in the middle of the 2011 season, he had been Cincinnati's big earner. At that time, he was entering the sixth year of a 10-year, $119.5 million contract that had been signed in December 2005, on the heels of the Bengals' first playoff berth since 1990.
Dalton will not be seeing a $119.5 million contract.
But a closer look at his statistics after three seasons, shows perhaps he has deserved a modest second-contract bump that could compete with what his recent quarterback counterparts have received.
In an effort to figure out which recent quarterback Dalton's second contract might mimic, we looked at statistics of players who had credentials like his: Drafted in the first or second round, started Week 1 of their rookie seasons and continued to play a true starter's role throughout their first three years. We went back as far as the 1998 draft class led by Peyton Manning:
Of the quarterbacks across those 14 seasons who matched that criteria, only Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco had more wins per season than Dalton. Only Manning averaged more passing yards and more touchdown passes in the first three seasons of his career than Dalton did. Along with Dalton, Flacco is the only other quarterback who went to the postseason in each of his first three seasons.
Dalton struggled with interceptions, though. His 16.3 per season average was higher than Flacco's, Palmer's, Newton's, Sam Bradford's, Matt Ryan's, Matthew Stafford's, Joey Harrington's, Derek Carr's, Tim Couch's and Charlie Batch's.
He may have played better into his second contract than many of these other signal-callers, but it's clear Dalton won't see the financial windfalls they did. So how big will his raise be?
The Bengals, stuck at a crossroads, are busy trying to figure that out.