Andy Dalton's departure from the Cincinnati Bengals -- whether via trade or release -- seemed so inevitable that, before the final game last season, he talked about how he hoped to be remembered in the city for which he played since 2011. When no trade materialized -- he was set to count for $17.7 million against the salary cap in 2020 -- and the Bengals selected Joe Burrow with the first overall draft pick a week ago, it was clear Dalton would soon become a free agent.
Dalton, who was released Thursday, leaves town holding many franchise records, including for passing touchdowns (204). The former second-round pick, along with ex-coach Marvin Lewis, helped hoist the Bengals out of a seemingly perpetual franchise basement, making five playoff appearances. They lost in the wild-card round each time, but in a brutally difficult AFC North division, Dalton's record was solid, particularly given the Bengals' long history of non-competitiveness.
At age 32, Dalton should certainly be able to play for quite a few more years. But where? That's the next big question in an offseason that has already seen astounding quarterback upheaval. Here are five possible landing spots to keep an eye on:
1) Jacksonville Jaguars: If you like puzzles, this is the one where the most pieces seem to fit together for Dalton. His former offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Jay Gruden, is now occupying that role in Jacksonville, and they enjoyed considerable success in their three years together (2011-13). The Bengals went to the playoffs in each of those three years, and in their final season together, the offense finished sixth in scoring and Dalton threw 33 touchdown passes against 20 interceptions. The Jaguars shipped Nick Foles out and have said all the right things in support of second-year pro Gardner Minshew, but at the very least, Dalton would provide a very strong backup option to Minshew and -- more likely -- very strong competition for the starting job. Side note: Dalton also has the right temperament to be the face of a franchise that is clearly in transition.
2) New England Patriots: Deep breaths, Patriots fans. The Red Rifle isn't Tom Brady, but nobody is. Dalton is reliable, with considerable starting experience (he was 70-61-2 as a starter for the Bengals) and, on paper anyway, is better than the current top two quarterbacks on the roster. Jarrett Stidham has no experience as a starter (although the Patriots have seen him in practice for a year), and Brian Hoyer is 16-22 as a starter for his career. And Dalton could come cheap. Jameis Winstonjust signed in New Orleans for $1.1 million plus incentives. There is a big caveat here, though: Stidham and Hoyer already know the Patriots' offense, and that could be a significant factor, considering nobody knows when teams will be able to get on the field again as the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.
3) Denver Broncos: Second-year pro Drew Lock is the starter, but in March, the Broncos signed another former Bengal, Jeff Driskel, to back him up. Driskel has made eight career starts, going 1-7. There isn't much question who would give the Broncos a better chance to win if Lock is out of the game. And Dalton would be an excellent mentor for a young quarterback.
4) New York Jets: Another on the "Dalton would be an excellent mentor for a young quarterback" list. Third-year pro Sam Darnold is, obviously, the starter, but the Jets need him to make a jump this season. If Dalton were willing to give up on being a full-time starter, he would be an outstanding help for Darnold, the same way Josh McCown was in 2018, Darnold's rookie season. And last season, the Jets saw the value of having a viable backup -- the wheels fell off for them early in 2019, when Darnold had mononucleosis, Trevor Siemian also got hurt and Luke Falk had to start. The Jets lost all three games Darnold was out. Darnold's current backup is David Fales, who was on the roster as Darnold's backup after the early-season debacle last year, appearing in two games but throwing no passes. The Jets also added to their QB room in last week's draft, selecting FIU's James Morgan in the fourth round.
5) A coast-to-coast bunch of teams that need backups: How about the Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans or Atlanta Falcons? All of these scenarios, like with the Jets and Broncos, would be predicated on Dalton not being wed to the opportunity to compete for a starting job. And Dalton obviously doesn't play the same style of game as, say, Russell Wilson. But Dalton would be, by far, the most reliable and most experienced backup option for teams that have playoff-caliber rosters and would -- they hope -- need the backup only to hold the fort. Consider this ... Blake Bortles? Geno Smith? Logan Woodside? You wouldn't rather have Dalton?
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @JudyBattista.