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If I were to ask you to group the top NFL quarterbacks in tiers, at first there would be much yelling, mothers would be insulted, and haymakers would be thrown. Sounds like fun, so I’ll play too.

  • Tier 1: Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady
  • Tier 2: Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger
  • Tier 3. Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III
  • Tier 4: I dunno, (almost) everyone else?
  • Tier 10: Matt Schaub, Geno Smith, Matt Cassel/Christian Ponder

That’s just a rough attempt, but it looks about right. That fourth tier, the muddled middle, is what’s important here. It’s in that space where the contract extension confusion lies. It’s where there’s at best negligible separation between, say, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. It’s where the decision to make a heavy financial commitment needs to be sat on for many a sleepless night, because tying yourself long-term to a franchise arm who isn’t a franchise arm at all can be crippling. It’s where average lives, a line that some quarterbacks hover above while others are slightly below.

Andy Dalton is among them, and right now he’s the poster boy for the difficulty of paying his kind.

Like others, you could argue that Dalton belongs in Tier 3, and on some weeks you’re right. The problem is one of projection, and being confident that he’ll stay there. More specifically, the problem is the long-term quarterback marriage with someone who typically falls somewhere between above average and good.

Or even more specifically…

The Problem

Dalton is entering the final of his rookie contract after being a second-round pick in 2011. You remember that draft year as the one which gave us Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Cristian Ponder. Of those three, Gabbert isn’t on the team that drafted him anymore, Ponder will likely be beat out by Matt Cassel this summer (yowza), and Locker is on his last starting breath after missing 14 games due to injury.

Yet they were all top 12 picks in that draft while Dalton waited, and waited. He sat until the second night when the Bengals selected him with their 35th overall pick, some 23 slots behind Ponder. Dalton has now made 48 regular-season starts, while combined the other three atop his draft class have logged 80.

The likes of Gabbert and Ponder have replaced JaMarcus Russell as the go-to club out of the bag during draft season when we talk about an early-round quarterback bust, and the consequences of reaching too early out of desperation. The Bengals were patient enough to avoid that land mine and get the proper valuation on the quarterback of their choosing, and they’ve been rewarded with three straight playoff appearances since 2011, and a 30-18 regular-season record with Dalton under center.

But similar to the Seahawks and Russell Wilson, Cincinnati has done all that winning with Dalton being paid little under his first NFL contract. Now it’s time to pay him, and they still don’t quite know who he is, and what he could become.

The numbers and failures

If we look purely at the regular season with Dalton, we see a quarterback who may be weak-armed, but often that’s mattered little. With ample weapons around him from A.J. Green to Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham, and Giovani Bernard, Dalton is at the center of a youth-filled core.

While heaving to Green, Dalton completed 56 passes for 20 yards or more this past season, a career high good enough for the fifth best total in the league, and it was a steep improvement over his 2012 total of 37. Consequently Dalton’s 2013 yards per pass attempt was also a career high at 7.3, a climb from 6.9 a year ago, and 6.6 in his rookie season. Another dot easily connected then: Dalton’s overall passing yardage rose significantly from 3,669 (229.3 per game) to 4,293 (268.3), and he did that while throwing a career high 33 touchdown passes. His completion percentage was average at 61.9, but there were five games when that was above 70.0.

Great, right? Right. But the interception column isn’t so kind, as it tells us Dalton threw 20 of those, the fourth most in the league. Then Dalton’s true two-faced existence comes when we look at the playoffs. That’s a time games really, really matter, and yet Dalton has posted this line over three post-season appearances:

239.3 yards, 1 touchdown pass, 6 interceptions, 1 fumble lost, 5.84 YPA, 56.9 completion percentage, 54.4 passer rating

That great divide between regular season Dalton and playoff Dalton is the root of the contract dilemma, one Bengals owner Mike Brown knows quite well.

The ownership and sideline perspective

Yesterday as the NFL owners meetings continued in Orlando, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was asked about Dalton, and the prospect of agreeing to an extension with him now. As far as Lewis is concerned, his current quarterback is the bees knees.

I’m not sure exactly who’s comparing Dalton to Brees and Rodgers, but it might be these guys. Brown, the man who handles all paycheck signing and distribution, had a more realistic and reasoned perspective on the fork in the road his franchise is quickly approaching.

“What do we do? Do we sign guys then find out we don’t have enough to do [Dalton]? Or do we risk and hold back enough to make sure we can get him done and maybe lose a guy or two? That is what happened to us already this year. 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? Seattle, for example of that. In fact, you look at the statistics it is rather surprising how few quarterbacks that are old in recent years – saying over 30 – have won the Super Bowl. They’ve gotten there but they haven’t won it. I don’t know, is that a better formula, to go with a younger guy and spread the money around? That’s a dilemma for us. … It’s slow going. I can’t predict when we are going to get that matter resolved.”

Therein lies the great question of our time, one Dalton and the Bengals are faced with this offseason, one the 49ers are navigating with Kaepernick, and those Seahawks will deal with it a year from now. How much is too much for a quarterback before the financial anchor becomes too heavy?

The anchor

About that quarterback contract anchor: it can be a ship-sized one absent proper management. Consider a year ago when the Ravens were in the process of handing Joe Flacco his bank, eventually giving him a $120.6 million deal over six years that averages $20.1 million annually. They plunged into the fiery pit of salary cap doom shortly thereafter, and they were forced to let five defensive starters walk while trading away Anquan Boldin. Some luck (Elvis Dumervil) and the usual wizardry of Ozzie Newsome through the draft and bargain free agency moves kept them competitive. But the defending champs still missed the playoffs, with Boldin’s absence a key factor in the passing game.

We’ve seen a similar turnover in New Orleans, where there’s a team with $20 million annually committed to Drew Brees. Sure, the Saints found the cash for their free agency dive this year when they signed Jairus Byrd, but not after purging four defensive veterans, along with Lance Moore and Darren Sproles. Even after that juggling they still have the lowest cap space in the league due to the money also tied up in Jimmy Graham’s franchise tag.

The Solution(?)

Salary cap room isn’t a problem right now for the Bengals, as at an estimated $26.6 million they have the fourth most space in the league. Of course, that number means little as sweet cash has been stockpiled, with a possible Dalton extension anticipated.

Lewis wants that to happen now. He’s aware of a simple reality that’s not acknowledged nearly enough: internally he may actually not like Dalton, but what’s the alternative? Starting over at quarterback is a step backwards, and it usually leads to losing and unemployment.

But paying him now and sacrificing something in the neighborhood of $15 million annually with much more guaranteed isn’t ideal either. That’s what the quarterback market would dictate.

Given his age and recent performance, Matthew Stafford (like Dalton, he’s 26) is the best comparable with the extension he signed last sumer. It will pay him $76.5 million overall, with $41.5 million guaranteed. That’s an average of $17.6 annually.

What lies behind door No. 2 is much more favorable: make Dalton earn it and take the Flacco approach. Do nothing this summer, and if the Bengals are likely paying him Stafford-ish money regardless, take another season to feel more secure in that investment.

Patience. It’s not trendy with quarterbacks, but it should be.