The derby to be Andy Dalton's backup promises to be a front-burner issue once the Bengals hit the field next month.
It is the most experienced quarterbacks room ever in head coach Marvin Lewis's tenure, which has been chaired by coach Ken Zampese all 11 seasons. While John Skelton (17) and Josh Johnson (five) bring a combined 22 NFL starts, Zac Robinson heads into his third year in the system.
Zampese is going to need a seating chart in the most competitive backup battle in the Lewis era. In four of the previous 10 seasons, the Bengals went into the season with a backup that had three NFL starts or less.
And one of those guys is going to go if the Bengals draft one next week. Whatever happens, the signing of Johnson and the waiver claim of Skelton put the Bengals in a much different situation than when they convened for the NFL Scouting Combine two months ago. They don't have to force it and draft a quarterback.
You can probably now put the QB situation in the same category as wide receiver and defensive tackle. Once the Bengals get into the second round, they'll be aware of "slides," and if the player has a high enough grade at a position they don't desperately need, they'll still take him.
After working with Johnson and Skelton for the first time on the field during Tuesday's local pro day for college prospects at Paul Brown Stadium, Zampese smiled when asked how he's going to mete out the snaps when the Bengals take the field in May for OTAs.
"Good question. We'll find out when we get there," Zampese said. "It's unchartered waters for us to have this many guys competing for spots. They all bring something different to the table. They run the gamut. They're all at different points in their careers."
Indeed, Zampese has at his ready a cross-section of NFL journeymen backup quarterbacks scratching for any shred of a shot.
The 6-5, 244-pound Skelton, 25, who couldn't keep the starting job in Arizona and is trying to learn the West Coast offense in his fourth season, is a huge pocket presence with a big arm, gamer demeanor and ponderous feet made expendable by, of all things, Arizona's trade for Carson Palmer.
The only other Bengals backups with more than 17 NFL starts in the past decade were Jon Kitna (who backed up Palmer with a 24-32 record in 2004 and 2005), Anthony Wright (who backed up Palmer in 2006 at 8-11) and Bruce Gradkowski, 6-14 under Dalton the past two seasons before signing with Pittsburgh last month.
The 6-2, 213-pound Johnson, who turns 27 next month, is as fast as Skelton is slow and has experience in Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's West Coast system from his rookie year in Tampa Bay. A career backup, Johnson was rushed into five starts for Josh Freeman before he was basically let go by his third coaching staff in five years.
But one thing about these guys, as they showed Tuesday, is they can wing it deep. Skelton has to work on his decision-making and Johnson has to work on his accuracy, but they can go long.
"They're pretty impressive that way; they've got two pretty strong arms," Zampese said.
And then there is the 6-3, 215-pound Robinson, 26, who has yet to appear in an NFL game. After the Patriots drafted him in the seventh round out of Oklahoma State in 2010, he bounced to Seattle and Detroit, and he's been here on the practice squad since he arrived the week of the 2011 opener.
"He's got experience in the system. He speaks the language. He has comfort that way," Zampese said. "He has some size, some arm talent, some speed. He's a mix of the other guys. What he doesn't have is their experience. He's getting better because he works at it. I love his commitment. It's important to him."
Zampese hopes to find out if that's enough in this preseason. For the second straight offseason Robinson worked out once a week at UCLA with Bruins offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.
"It was good to have someone in your ear talking to you about footwork and the other things," Robinson said. "I feel good about the offense. Last season was when I really started to feel comfortable. In the last training camp I got some reps under my belt. Obviously, it's tough when you're on the practice squad you don't get the offensive reps, but I feel good about it."
While Johnson is the athletic specimen, Skelton has the intriguing story. A fifth-round pick out of Fordham in 2010, the Cards nearly rode "Skeltonmania" into the playoffs the next year when he replaced the highly-paid Kevin Kolb with a 5-2 run. As Bengals fans well know, it very well could have been 6-1.
On Christmas Eve 2011, at PBS on fourth down from the Bengals 17 with 1:12 left, Skelton had wide receiver Early Doucet wide open for the tying touchdown. But somehow Doucet fell down in the end zone and the ball fell harmlessly to the ground and the Bengals won, 23-16, for the win that would eventually put them into the playoffs.
On Tuesday in the same end zone, Skelton was still shaking his head.
"Right below the 'L,' " he said, nodding to the word BENGALS, site of Early's late drop. "I admire the heck out of the Bengals defense. But they blew that coverage when they blitzed and let him run wide open."
As bad as Skelton was in that first half (five of 13 passes for 63 yards), he heated up to finish 23-of-44 for 297 yards. The game mirrors his career. Two years ago he looked to be a Ben Roethlisberger in the making, a big guy shrugging off rushers and making big throws downfield.
Last year Skelton went 1-5 as the starter, making him 8-9 for his career. He may not have been as freewheeling or as effective as the year before, but three other quarterbacks also struggled behind a shaky offensive line and non-existent running game. Skelton wasn't all that surprised when new Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians cut him loose.
"I've got no problem with Coach Arians having his own guys in there. I don't have any hard feelings to the Cardinals," Skelton said. "I feel like I'm getting a new start with fresh air. I feel like I've come full circle."
That's because before the draft in '10, Zampese visited Skelton at Fordham and Skelton felt enough interest that he thought the Bengals were one of the two or three teams that would take him.
"I got along well with (Zampese)," Skelton said. "We've had two meetings and I've already learned so much so soon. I'm excited about it. It's the last year of my contract, so if something works out longer with the Bengals, that's great. If not and I show I can get another opportunity elsewhere, that's great, too."
Zampese may not have the snaps figured out yet. But he likes the urgency he knows is going to be out there.
"All three guys are in the position having to fight for their NFL lives. We'll get the best out of all them for that reason," Zampese said. "That's great for us. I love that. Every day counts. I can't throw enough at them."