This is the age of the young quarterback. Buoyed by the draft class of 2012, we have a surplus of promising young signal-callers. Around The League and "NFL Total Access" will count down the top 10 quarterbacks 25 or under during the next two weeks.
No. 9: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Why he's here
Dalton arrived as a ready-made starting NFL quarterback. He has taken nearly every snap for Cincinnati in two playoff seasons. But Dalton cracked the top 10 quarterbacks who are 25 or under list less for standout traits and more for keeping the Bengals alive in games by avoiding mistakes. He has thrown 35 red-zone touchdown passes in two years, with no interceptions.
Dalton is at his best when the Bengals spread opponents out in shotgun and he gets into a rhythm throwing quick passes like this bullet to Armon Binns. Not unlike Mark Sanchez, who also won a lot of starts in his first two years, Dalton is better at throwing between the hashmarks rather than to the outside.
It's not easy to step right into a professional locker room and take over as the leader of an offense that ranked 12th in points scored last year. (Although it's easier when A.J. Green steps in with you.) Dalton deserves credit for not losing games, but can he be the reason the Bengals win?
Why he's not higher
It's hard to overstate how much Dalton struggled late last year. The Bengals' offense didn't score a touchdown in the two biggest games of the season, at Pittsburgh in Week 16 and in the playoff loss to the Houston Texans. Dalton averaged just 5.58 yards per attempt in his last six starts. (For comparison, Blaine Gabbert and Jimmy Clausen were the only two players to have a lower YPA over a full season since 2010.)
There are many reasons why Dalton struggled for much of his second season, but it mostly comes back to his inability to hit vertical passes. Dalton infamously doesn't have a great arm, but his accuracy and timing seem more important here. On most of his deep throws, he doesn't give his receivers a chance.
It's not about the questionable receiver depth chart after Green. Whether Dalton put up good numbers in a game I watched or not, he missed too many throws that were there. So much of Cincinnati's offense is manufactured before the snap. Dalton often does a good job diagnosing and making snap decisions, but he struggles if the ball doesn't come out quickly.
Dalton's team success hid some personal stagnation in his second season. There still are legitimate questions about whether or not he can carry a team.
Dalton proved he can be a solid NFL starting quarterback. That alone isn't easy to find in the second round, and it's hard to imagine the Bengals starting another quarterback anytime soon. This is a crucial season for Dalton. Significant progress should result in long-term extension talks, although those are rarely smooth when Mike Brown is involved.
Another season of stasis would be problematic, and it's not all about the mid-level numbers. Dalton has an incredible quarterback tutor in Jay Gruden, who knows if Dalton is continuing to develop. Watching Dalton play his worst in the biggest game of his second season was troubling. FootballOutsiders charted Dalton as taking the most "coverage sacks" in the league. That means he's holding the ball too long, which shows up on tape all the time.
NFL Network's Mike Mayock does the analysis for me. Sometimes Dalton is too cautious, so afraid to make a mistake that he misses opportunities. Learning to let it fly has to be one of Dalton's big goals for 2013.
Dalton's five-year ceiling
The NFL is not too big for Dalton. He's confident he belongs and has a knack for making the big play when his team absolutely needs it. When the Bengals needed to close out the Cleveland Browns on third-and-long in Week 2, Dalton made one of his best throws of the game into a tight window. Game over.
After struggling all day against the Steelers in Week 16, Dalton was given the ball with under a minute to go in Pittsburgh territory. He responded with his best throw of the entire game.
That throw put Dalton's Bengals into the playoffs. But it's a funny thing about relying on making that one, clutch play to win a game. Dalton got his chance against Houston, but it sailed long.
Dalton has an opportunity to make a Pro Bowl or two and make more playoff appearances. But he still has a lot to work on before he's a top-shelf guy. At best, he could have a Jeff Garcia-like career. Something closer to Jim Harbaugh or Steve DeBerg seems more likely.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.