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Why Bengals’ deal with Andy Dalton is both justified and a sign of things to come for young QBs

Jay Gruden (right) played a large role in developing Andy Dalton during his time as Bengals offensive coordinator. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo)

RICHMOND — Is Andy Dalton worth it?

That’s the question that was asked in and around the sport after the news came out Monday that the fourth-year quarterback had agreed to a six-year contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals worth as much as $115 million. Dalton, after all, has a career playoff record of 0-3 in the NFL and he was tied as the league’s 15th-rated passer last season. He is not among the NFL’s top dozen quarterbacks when it comes to Q rating. In fact, if he even breaks the top 20 in that category, it’s toward the lower end.

That’s hardly the stuff, it might seem at first glance, of a $100 million-plus quarterback.

But look a little bit closer, and it’s fairly easy to see that the signing is justified.

First of all, the reality of NFL contracts rarely matches the value on paper of those deals — and even more rarely matches what is reported when the agreement is first struck. Such is the case with Dalton’s contract. According to details of the deal obtained by Profootballtalk, the base value of Dalton’s contract is $96 million over six years. Dalton makes $18 million, including bonuses, for this season and $7 million for the 2015 season. That’s $25 million over two seasons and, combined with a $10.5 million salary in 2015, $35.5 million over three seasons.

Many agents and front office executives judge any new contract on its three-year value because players so often are released or have their deals reworked after that. The annual salaries in Dalton’s contract are not guaranteed and the Bengals can walk away from the deal — and from Dalton — if things aren’t working out.

For the Bengals, it is a manageable contract for a productive quarterback. For Dalton, who had one season remaining on a rookie contract worth about $5.2 million over four years (that’s a total of $5.2 million, not $5.2 million per season) under the NFL’s rookie pay system that went into effect in 2011, it is a deal that pays him almost $12 million per season over the next three years. Then, maybe, if he is a top-tier quarterback, it actually does become worth more than $100 million.

“I’m very happy for him, much deserved,” Jay Gruden, the Bengals’ offensive coordinator before becoming the head coach of the Washington Redskins, said during his news conference Monday. “He’s won a lot of games in Cincinnati and the future is very bright for him and the Bengals. I’m very proud of the fact that I was part of bringing him into Cincinnati and I’m glad he got a good deal. He’s got a great family, works hard and is a heck of a person.”

The Bengals have won 30 games over three seasons with Dalton as their quarterback. He has thrown 80 touchdown passes (with 49 interceptions) over that span. He has surpassed 3,300 passing yards in each of his three seasons and he topped 4,200 yards last season. Last season he ranked third in the NFL in touchdown passes, seventh in passing yards and eighth in completions. But he also ranked fifth in interceptions.

And there remains the issue of the lack of playoff success. Dalton has thrown one touchdown pass and six interceptions in the Bengals’ three postseason defeats during his tenure. Now it’s up to Dalton, Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, the former Oakland Raiders head coach, to turn regular season success into playoff results for Cincinnati.

Get used to these significant quarterback contracts after three seasons. Dalton’s contract follows the deal signed by fellow 2011 draftee Colin Kaepernick with the San Francisco 49ers during the offseason. Under the rules of the rookie compensation system that went into effect with the 2011 labor deal between the league and the players’ union, drafted rookies sign four-year contracts and those deals cannot be renegotiated until after three seasons.

So teams like the Bengals and 49ers are eager to lock up their franchise quarterbacks after three seasons if it can be done on terms that the clubs deem reasonable. The players are, in some cases, willing to sign such deals after playing for three seasons under modest rookie contracts. Next up could be Carolina’s Cam Newton. He also was drafted in 2011. But Newton was the top overall selection that year while Dalton and Kaepernick were second-round choices. Under the rookie pay system, teams have fifth-year options in the contracts of first-round picks. The Panthers have exercised that option for Newton and have him under contract through the 2015 season. So for them, there might be less urgency to strike a deal sooner rather than later.

So, too, it will go for the celebrated 2012 quarterback class. Andrew Luck of Indianapolis, Washington’s Robert Griffin III, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Philadelphia’s Nick Foles are eligible for new contracts after the 2014 season. But Luck and Griffin, as former first-rounders, have potential fifth-year contract options that don’t exist in the deals of third-rounders Wilson and Foles. So Wilson, the reigning Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and Foles, the league’s highest-rated passer last season, potentially could get new deals ahead of Luck and Griffin, depending on the approaches taken by each team.

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