The Cincinnati Bengals have invested heavily in their young quarterback Andy Dalton. According to ESPN, the team and player have reportedly reached an agreement on a six-year contract extension worth $115 million dollars.
We don't know the exact details of the contract at the time of writing this article, but Ian Rapoport of NFL Media has reported that the deal will include more full guarantees than those given to recently extended Colin Kaepernick. In other words, the Bengals are buying the more expensive ring for this budding relationship.
So did they make the right decision? You'll surely read several other articles pointing to Dalton's inability to win in the playoffs or his ability to win games as a young starter in the NFL as reasons against or for his extension. But what has the TCU product really done in the NFL, and does it justify his new deal?
Let's take a look at our numbers and find out.
From the Bargain Bin to the Top Shelf
Andy Dalton was among the young signal-callers I mentioned as good values in an article assessing the cost-effectiveness of every NFL quarterback. Dalton ranked fourth in cost per Net Expected Point, which determined the amount of production each player provided compared to their average salaries.
But that was largely due to Dalton being on a team-friendly rookie contract, similar to other top cost-effective options like Nick Foles. If he were playing on his new contract last season, his cost per NEP would be ranked 18th, behind Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford and Tony Romo, and just ahead of Matt Ryan.
And as is the case with Stafford's Lions, Ryan's Falcons and Romo's Cowboys, can the Bengals continue to bring in the strong talents they have with a salary cap weighed down with a big quarterback contract? A.J. Green figures to stay with the Bengals at all costs, but can the team keep young defensive stars like linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the long haul after forking over a ton of cash to their quarterback?
As I wrote in the article referenced above, teams have to capitalize better on their young quarterbacks' early seasons before the salary cap becomes restrictive as they attempt to hold onto the "face of the franchise" at the expense of other important role players. The Bengals weren't able to do that, and now they have to rely on Dalton to take a step forward and earn his paycheck.
Comparing to Colin
Colin Kaepernick recently earned a new deal with the San Francisco 49ers, placing him in the same upper-echelon of salaries at the quarterback position. And according to the report from Rapoport above, the Bengals are hitching their wagon to Dalton with even more gusto.
So how do the two young quarterbacks compare? Let's take a look at our data.
||Pass NEP/Drop Back
This data is based on the players' careers to date, and it's important to note that the overall production numbers favor Kaepernick despite him playing in fewer games, and starting even less than the number shown above. Kaepernick has only started 23 games under center (Dalton has started all 48), yet has out-produced Dalton in Passing NEP (which is a cumulative statistic) over their short careers.
So the comparison to Kaepernick reveals that the Bengals either made a horrible decision to guarantee more of Dalton's deal and pay him a similar amount to what the 49ers' quarterback is set to make, or they're banking on his ability to improve moving forward and progressively become a better value by improving as a passer.
Can Dalton Make the Leap?
Despite his continued playoff frustrations, Dalton did improve last season, rising to 12th in our Passing NEP metric after finishing 20th the year before and 18th as a rookie. He improved his per drop back metrics significantly, and maintained his solid rushing performance from 2012.
But the reality of being 12th among quarterbacks in our metrics and being 6th or 7th in annual salary is that improvement has to be on the way to justify the expense.
Our own JJ Zachariason has done research into young quarterbacks multiple times this offseason, and the results are mildly optimistic for Dalton and the Bengals.
In an article about the best young quarterbacks since 2000, Dalton showed up on a chart alongside Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, but his numbers paled in comparison to these highly-touted quarterback prospects. Dalton fell short of Luck's per-drop back and per-season production, while not even earning half of the production of Newton, Griffin and Wilson.
And in an piece looking at how rookie performances predict future success, Dalton finished in "Tier 1" among the best rookie signal-callers, but still fell well short of many of the aforementioned young stars.
Dalton is, then, in an odd middle ground between mediocrity and "eliteness." But his contract would make him among the best-paid players at his position in the NFL, so they can't afford for their franchise player to be anything less than a franchise-changer.
That means Dalton can't be paid 87% of Aaron Rodgers' annual salary just to produce 37% of the Total NEP Rodgers earned on a per-game basis last season. He has to narrow the gap between himself and the top quarterbacks in the NFL in a hurry for the Bengals' investment to be worth it.
Did the Bengals Get It Right?
When we consider the fact that Joe Flacco and Matthew Stafford are paid in the same neighborhood as Andy Dalton, we can find numbers that reveal that Dalton's paycheck is "fair" because his career is heading in the opposite direction of Flacco's (the Ravens' quarterback has regressed in our metrics every year since 2009), and has the same "lack of meaningful wins" as Stafford's.
But Dalton has his own "demons" in the form of division games and games against tough defenses, which proved to be a big weakness for him last season.
The reality of today's NFL is that teams are chasing a franchise quarterback, and are willing to spend on a flawed version in hopes that they can get the same results as the Patriots and Packers, who go to the playoffs every year when their star quarterbacks are healthy.
So Dalton is just another example of a team paying the going rate for a less-than-elite player under center who has won games and not screwed up badly enough to deserve a lack of commitment. If we compare Dalton to the other well-paid players at his position, we can see some that are better than he has been, and some that are worse.
But he's a slightly above-average quarterback by any measure, and unless he takes a step forward (something we're still slightly optimistic he can do), he's simply not worth top-seven quarterback money.
The Bengals have pushed in all of their chips, but they're behind the odds. They need some good cards to show up on the table to get back their investment and profit from their faith in Andy Dalton.