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Bengals' high opinion of Andy Dalton reflects new normal for QB contracts

Photo: Mark Lyons/Icon SMI

Shy of possibly Tony Romo, Andy Dalton is as polarizing of a surefire starting quarterback as the NFL has to offer.

Dalton, 26, has helped the Bengals -- a team that had two postseason berths between 1991 and 2010 -- to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. His stats have improved each year, too, with his completions, yards, touchdowns and quarterback rating all ticking incrementally upward. He's also 0-3 in the playoffs, and many outside of Cincinnati's front office believe his ceiling to be limited, looming not all that much higher than where Dalton has climbed to date.

But for all the negative sentiment from the general public, the Bengals have stood steadfast behind Dalton as their present and future quarterback. The latest gesture of support came from team owner Mike Brown, who reportedly said Tuesday that Dalton's next contract, which the quarterback needs before hitting free agency next offseason, should be "around (San Francisco 49ers' quarterback Colin) Kaepernick's."

The immediate reaction from most of the NFL public: Are you crazy?

Kaepernick is believed to be one of the league's rising superstars, with a Super Bowl berth already under his belt. His recently signed deal averages out to $19 million per year and could bring him $114 million in total. Only five quarterbacks -- Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning -- currently hold deals with higher per-season payouts. Four of those five have won championships.

Dalton does not seem to fit the bill. The phrase "elite quarterback" is a rather hollow one bogged down by semantics, but rare would be the Dalton supporter willing to place him within that illustrious group.

So why on earth would Brown kick a leg out on his own negotiations by mentioning Dalton and Kaepernick in the same sentence?

Here's why: The Bengals believe in Dalton, for now. Kaepernick's contract is not a game-changer so much as it is the new norm in a league where the salary cap continues to press upward. Alex Smith's contract is up after the 2015 season; Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Tannehill all will need either existing contract options picked up or extensions to stay with their current teams beyond 2016.

Any and all of those quarterbacks mentioned could threaten Kaepernick's $19 million per year when all is said and done. What those players may not do, however, is agree to deals that come off quite as team-friendly as the one Kaepernick landed. Yes, his overall number reads $114 million, but Kaepernick will count less than $4 million toward the cap this season, and the 49ers have the option to cut him loose, with minimal penalty, prior to April 1 of each year.

In other words, though in principle Kaepernick was rewarded as one of the NFL's top quarterbacks, reality paints a much less secure picture. So a Kaepernick-like contract -- which Dalton told ESPN's Coley Harvey he might be open to accepting -- is not as far-fetched as it seems.

Nineteen million per season for Dalton is an inflated number ... right now. If Dalton and the Bengals keep winning, however, the deal could fall into its proper place by the time the Newtons and Lucks of the world ink their next contracts.

Just where Brown's remark falls on the insanity scale depends on what exactly he meant and exactly how committed to Dalton this organization is. There has not been near enough evidence from the TCU product to justify a lucrative long-term deal with no way out for the Bengals, but perhaps he has shown the front office what it needs to see to fork over some dough on a year-by-year basis, similar to how the 49ers will proceed with Kaepernick.

To keep Dalton, the Bengals will have to pay him. Landing him "around Kaepernick" range would reward Dalton for what he has done while giving Cincinnati an out if it needs one.

"Andy Dalton: $19 million quarterback" looks slightly ludicrous on the surface. All things considered, it might not be as out there as it seems.

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