Dalton has anchored Cincinnati’s offense for essentially the entire decade. But as he approaches his ninth season in the NFL, his long-term outlook is uncertain.
Dalton, who will be 32 in October, is entering the final two years of a contract extension worth up to $115 million he signed in 2014. Dead money is no longer attached to the deal, meaning the Bengals could cut him at any time and not take a salary-cap hit.
And for the first time in his pro career, he’s playing for a coach other than Marvin Lewis, who was fired after 16 seasons with the Bengals.
But Dalton insists he doesn’t feel any added weight to perform this season.
"I don’t feel like there’s any extra pressure," Dalton said. "I feel like for me and this team, I think we have high expectations for ourselves. I’m not worried about any other added pressure or anything. I’m just worried about winning."
Dalton is coming off an injury-shortened 2018 season. The former TCU standout missed the final five games of the season after he hurt his thumb while trying to recover a fumble. It was one of many things that went wrong for the Bengals, who have missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. After starting 2018 with a 4-1 record, Cincinnati lost nine of its final 11 games to finish 6-10.
The Bengals replaced Lewis with 36-year-old Zac Taylor, who spent the previous two years as an offensive assistant under the Rams’ Sean McVay. Taylor, who will also be Cincinnati’s playcaller, could boost Dalton’s production.
Since he entered the league in 2011, Dalton is in the middle of the pack in several key categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Dalton is 28th out of 42 quarterbacks in Total QBR and 24th in completion percentage. But he’s also 10th in passing yards (28,100) and passing touchdowns (188).
Given Dalton’s 11-game season in 2018, the shortest of his NFL career, he was eager for this season to get started. When Taylor was hired and started to implement his new offense, Dalton didn’t waste time immersing himself in the playbook.
"Even during OTAs, we’re out here running around with our heads cut off for the first week and he’s knows what’s going on and where people line up and things like that," tight end C.J. Uzomah said of Dalton. "That’s his leadership quality. I think that’s something that’s very admirable about him."
With two games remaining in the preseason, including Thursday’s visit from the New York Giants, Dalton said he feels comfortable with Taylor’s new system. He understands how the Bengals will be attacking defenses in the regular season.
That feeling runs both ways. Taylor said Dalton’s ability to read a defense at the line of scrimmage makes the coach feel better about playcalls that might appear unsuccessful before the snap.
It’s one of the reasons Dalton has impressed Taylor, which is important given the context.
The Bengals drafted NC State’s Ryan Finley with a fourth-round pick, the highest Cincinnati has used on a quarterback since Dalton was selected in the second round. And if Dalton and the Bengals struggle this season and have a high draft pick in 2020, they could be in the running for prospects such as Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon’s Justin Herbert.
But halfway through the preseason, Taylor sounds pleased with Dalton.
"I’m very happy that he’s our quarterback," Taylor said.
Taylor has limited Dalton’s usage in the first two preseason games, with the first-team offense playing only four drives. Dalton is 12-of-18 passing for 116 yards and has led one scoring drive. Last week against Washington, he led the Bengals to the 11-yard line before a deflected pass turned into a pick-six.
But the coaching staff is pleased with the way Dalton stacks up with its key measurements: decision-making, timing and accuracy. And preseason games are not a good depiction of what the Bengals will actually look like in the regular season because of how plain the offense looks in these contests.
"The tempo and the manner of speed that we want on the ball, on the line of scrimmage, moving the team, I think that’s probably a little bit unique and something he’s excited about," offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said.
Callahan said the new tempo and time Dalton will have before plays should cater to one of his biggest strengths, pre-snap recognition. That bodes well for Dalton as he enters a pivotal season. If he has a strong year and the Bengals make progress under their new coach, Dalton could make his case for a contract extension this offseason.
For now, Dalton said he’s focused on turning the Bengals into winners again.
"Personally, it’s all about winning," he said. "At this point, it’s making sure I know exactly what Zac’s doing.
"I feel like I’m to that point. Once we get into these games, it’s about making plays when they present themselves."