The start of this season seemed a good time to place an ultimatum on the NFL's quarterback class of 2011. As the second half of the season begins, now seems a good time to start rendering judgment. It's reasonable to believe that the class, in its present form, could be halved by next season.
Two-plus years ago, six quarterbacks were among the draft's top 36 picks. Three have stumbled in what seemed a reckoning year for them. The others are starting for playoff-contending teams, but I think that group includes the most interesting and mystifying case of the six.
But first things first. Already, Blaine Gabbert is no longer the Jacksonville Jaguars' starter. Jake Locker has added two more significant injuries to an already long list of ailments and is on the Tennessee Titans' injured reserve list. And there is no reason to believe Christian Ponder has a future with the Minnesota Vikings, given his ongoing injury issues and the team's decision to sign free agent Josh Freeman.
The Jaguars and Vikings almost certainly will be in the market for a new starter this offseason, likely via a high draft choice. The Titans have a more difficult decision to make, one complicated by Locker's annual health issues. He managed only seven starts this season and, over three years, has started only 18 of a possible 48 games. Locker is expected to make a full recovery from the Lisfranc injury that ended his season, but can the Titans responsibly count on him to be their unquestioned starter in 2014 given his history?
In truth, you can say that about only two members of the 2011 class. The Carolina Panthers will move forward with Cam Newton, perhaps with a major contract extension this winter, and the San Francisco 49ers by all accounts are fully committed to Colin Kaepernick -- who has the best career Total QBR (64.8) and winning percentage (69 percent) of this class.
On the surface, the Bengals seem to have found their franchise quarterback. They are positioned for a third consecutive playoff appearance, and Dalton is on pace for a 4,500-yard season.
But closer observers know Dalton has had a boom-or-bust season that, barring a deep playoff run, should require close examination for the Bengals' front office this winter. Here is the breakdown from ESPN Stats & Information:
Weeks 2-4: Three consecutive games with a Total QBR below 40
Weeks 5-8: Three consecutive games over 50
Weeks: 9-10: Two consecutive games below 18
Dalton displayed similar traits of inconsistency in 2012, when he would average a 75 QBR over three- or four-game periods and then below 35 for periods of four consecutive games.
Some performance variation can be expected from quarterbacks who haven't finished their third season. But at some point, if the Bengals expect Dalton to take them to the Super Bowl, he'll have to stabilize and avoid the kind of stretch he is in now: a combined seven turnovers and 10 sacks in consecutive losses.
Matt Williamson, who scouts the NFL for ESPN.com, has been critical of the Bengals for trusting Dalton even this far. They have made a "glaring mistake," he said this week, because Dalton "is not a franchise quarterback."
What would prompt the Bengals to consider their options? A multi-turnover game that leads to a playoff loss? Or is the fourth year a lock? How much improvement would it be reasonable to expect after three seasons?
And, importantly, what are the chances the Bengals could find or draft a quarterback who is materially better? Based on the class of 2011, and some other trends we've documented this season, it's 50-50 at best.