The Bengals were fairly set at quarterback just two seasons ago. Andy Dalton was coming off one of the best seasons of his career, and A.J. McCarron had shown promise filling in for Dalton when the starter was hurt in 2015.
They also made the rare move of claiming Jeff Driskel off waivers and keeping him on the active roster as insurance in case they fielded a trade for McCarron.
Now things seem a bit more uncertain. McCarron recently won a grievance against the Bengals that will allow him to become a free agent when the new league year opens in March, while Driskel's 2017 season was lost to injury. Driskel broke his thumb in the preseason and never had a chance to come back after breaking his arm in the final week of practice. A source said Driskel will be 100 percent for OTAs. However, he still has yet to complete a pass in a regular-season game.
The Bengals were bracing for the McCarron ruling and weren't surprised to hear it didn't go their way, but now they have some decisions to make. They could look for a veteran to replace McCarron, or they could go the other direction and take a quarterback in the first round of the draft.
It would be a definite departure from how the Bengals usually operate, and it would be surprising after standing behind Dalton. Unless he gets hurt, it doesn't seem any change will be happening this year.
The Bengals stood behind Dalton despite struggles for the past two seasons, but if they did want to look to the future, his contract gives them an opening as early as next year.
Dalton has three years remaining on the extension he signed in 2014, and starting in 2019, the prorated portion of the $12 million signing bonus he received will be off the books. That means they'll have no dead money or financial implications should they choose to part ways next season.
This particular draft is loaded with quarterbacks who could go early, including UCLA's Josh Rosen, Southern California's Sam Darnold, Wyoming's Josh Allen, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Louisville's Lamar Jackson. The Bengals don't make many in-draft trades, but they would probably be able to move up to snag a quarterback if they had one they loved.
It would be a good situation for a young quarterback. The Bengals tend to take their time with their first-round picks as a general rule, and since 2011, only A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert had significant rookie seasons. There would be no pressure to take over right away with Dalton still there.
Still, the idea seems unlikely. The Bengals haven't shown any signs of giving up on Dalton and instead have tried to fix his supporting cast.
They recently hired former Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, whose departure didn't sit well with Aaron Rodgers. They also seem to be following through on an attempt to fix the offensive line, essentially swapping longtime coach Paul Alexander for former Cowboys offensive line coach Frank Pollack. Bill Lazor, who took over for the fired Ken Zampese last year, will be given his chance to fix the league's worst offense.
If the Bengals are fully behind Dalton, the more likely scenario would be to eye a backup in the middle or later rounds if they don't sign a veteran.
Either way, it'll be a big year for him. Dalton hasn't been the same since former Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson left after the 2015. It didn't help that several key Bengals players left in free agency, including receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu and offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler.
The struggles with the offense haven't been all on Dalton, but this will undoubtedly be a big season for him, regardless of whether they take a quarterback high in the draft.
Lazor has talked about getting Dalton out of his comfort zone and being open to change in all areas.
"You have to be realistic. What we did last year did not work,” Lazor told the team website. “You can’t be afraid to let go of things that did not work. As a whole, it’s been a downward trend. If that means you blow it up, then you blow it up. That’s a decision we’ll make. I’m not afraid to blow the whole thing up."
If the Bengals can't get Dalton back on track along with the rest of the offense this season, they'll certainly be having the quarterback conversation again next offseason.