This was originally published in The Athletic.
I didn’t want to have to write this column, because exactly 12 months ago, I wrote a column about how I wanted the Bengals to use the 21st overall pick in last year’s draft to take Lamar Jackson, with the idea that the Louisville product could be both the long-term heir apparent to Andy Dalton and a badly-needed short-term jolt of excitement for a staid, stale franchise.
But the team didn’t do what I’d suggested, and so here we are. Another draft, and another column about how the Bengals should take a quarterback in the first round. Don’t blame me, though. Instead, point the finger—as Bengals fans always do—at Mike Brown. When the Bengals owner told reporters at the NFL’s league meetings last month that the team will not be extending Andy Dalton’s contract this offseason beyond 2020, he instantly invited speculation about the notion that someone else will soon be playing quarterback for his team.
You can’t really fault Brown, or the people working for him, for not exactly rushing to the negotiating table with an offer of an insanely lucrative deal for a quarterback whose faults and liabilities are well-established and who still has two seasons remaining on his deal. And for what it’s worth, you couldn’t hold it against Dalton either for looking at the current quarterback market and dreaming about what a couple of quality seasons could eventually yield in free agency. It could be successfully argued that he’s at least as good a player as some of the guys who’ve gotten player-friendlier deals over the last two offseasons. But with the expiration date on Dalton’s current deal drawing closer, and Brown opening the door to the possibility of life without his current quarterback at some point in the near future, I’ll crash through the opening and urge the Bengals to at least be willing to draft Dwayne Haskins on Thursday night.
In some respects, the Bengals almost can’t get 11th overall pick wrong. Much of the activity before their turn will dictate their direction in round one, and it’s hard to look at the roster of a team coming off three straight non-winning seasons and pin their needs down to just one or two areas. They’re badly in need of linebacker help, and they’ve paid dearly for years of cutting corners at that position. That long-time neglect has combined with an almost abject refusal to make linebacker upgrades in free agency this winter to create a sense of urgency as the draft approaches. If a team that had the NFL’s worst defense in 2018, in large part because of its glaringly weak play at linebacker, allows this weekend to come and go without significantly plugging its biggest hole, there’s almost no reason to think that they’ll improve enough on that side of the ball to have a winning 2019.
There are clearer, although maybe less emphatic, cases that could be made for using the 11th overall pick to address a pass rush that never materialized the way so many had hoped last season, or for sending Roger Goodell to the podium with the name of an offensive lineman as Cincinnati’s choice. The defensive line is a collection of guys that are either gradually approaching the end of their careers or still have a way to go to be considered reliable assets, and the offensive line overhaul that began with essentially two first-round picks being used on lineman last spring (the 12th pick being used to trade for Cordy Glenn and the 21st to take Billy Price) isn’t anywhere near done.
But at some point, even if it’s not this Thursday, or this weekend, the Cincinnati Bengals will have to focus energy on the franchise’s single most important player personnel question, one that’s loomed for about a year, and one that will only get more pressing, and perhaps filled with more unknowns the longer it goes unaddressed: Who will be the starting quarterback in 2021?
Andy Dalton will be the starting quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2019, and that’s fine. Having a quality, experienced QB is a luxury of sorts for a young, new staff that’s likely faced with enough challenges without having to focus much time and effort getting a substandard or newbie quarterback up to speed. I don’t necessarily believe that Dalton is really “owed” a chance to operate in a system designed by new coach Zac Taylor, but if you want to see if the Dalton/Taylor marriage can work with hopefully a more intact, healthier group of offensive weapons, then I can’t blame you. More importantly, if this is what the folks running the Bengals want, then I can’t find any harm in seeing what Dalton can do under the new regime.
But let’s be honest, we’ve had a chance to watch eight years of Andy Dalton’s work and we know what the most and least likelly outcomes are. He’s probably going to play some fine football, and his exploits will likely be a major reason why they win more than just a handful of games. He just won’t be the reason why they win an overabundance of them, and his deficiencies will probably be blamed for more than one loss. At this stage in his career, what Dalton is too firmly established to either take his game to unprecedented levels or to totally bottom out. He’ll be good, not great. Likely worth about what he’ll be making this season, but in all probability, not really deserving of the Bengals paying what he’ll be hoping to make after next season.
Enter Dwayne Haskins.
To read the entire piece, go to The Athletic.