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Quarterback History On Side Of Burrow, Bengals As Offseason Kicks Off At Next Week's Scouting Combine

Joe Burrow throws in his second AFC title game last month.
Joe Burrow throws in his second AFC title game last month.

After moves in the last three offseasons have translated into back-to-back AFC title games, what can the Bengals front office do for an encore as it preps for next week's NFL scouting combine?

In the first three seasons of the 2020s, the Bengals have drafted a Super Bowl quarterback (Joe Burrow), a two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver (Ja'Marr Chase), a two-time 1,000-yard wide receiver (Tee Higgins), a record-breaking kicker (Evan McPherson) and a total of 13 starters and regulars on back-to-back division champions.

In this Bengals' version of the Roaring '20s, they have signed a Pro Bowl pass rusher (Trey Hendrickson), as well as arguably the NFL's best nickel cornerback (Mike Hilton) and the league's best nose tackle (DJ Reader) among the six free agents on a defense that have started most of the club's seven playoff games in the last two seasons they've hit the NFL's top ten in spending.

Only F. Scott Fitzgerald had a better '20s.

The book on the Bengals is that their encore and biggest move of this offseason is going to be wrapping up Burrow with a contract extension expected to be football's Great Gatsby deal.

All of which wouldn't surprise Leigh Steinberg, the godfather of super agents who has done a couple of these things repping several Hall of Fame quarterbacks and negotiated some of the richest deals in history with Bengals president Mike Brown and executive vice president Katie Blackburn. He doesn't have a dog in this fight, but he's been in plenty of them.

"Honestly, this appears to be a very happy marriage," says Steinberg, who began this decade with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes' 10-year, $450 million deal record-breaker.

"I don't think this is going to be a difficult contract. It may be complex, but not difficult. I'd imagine you won't hear anything about it until it's done."

Which is exactly what happened the last time the Bengals were looking at extending the contact of their last overall No. 1 selection quarterback who ended a post-season drought. Carson Palmer's record deal, reported at the top of the league when he signed a six-year extension averaging $16.1 million per year, dropped out of the sky on his 26th birthday during the final week of the 2005 regular season he led the Bengals to the AFC North title in his third year.

And Brown operated in the same fashion when he extended 26-year-old Norman Julius Esiason's contract early in his fourth season in 1987. Even though Esiason had yet to lead the Bengals to the playoffs, he became the first million-dollar-a-year Bengal at about $1.2 million per year, right there with Dan Marino's $1.45 million that reportedly topped the league in 1988, four years after he led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl.

Then a year after Esiason did lead the Bengals to a Super Bowl in 1988 during his MVP season, Brown quietly doubled Esiason's yearly salary with a secretive six-year extension at $16.8 million at the dawn of the '90s on Feb. 1, 1990, according to Spotrac.

The $2.8 million average beat the leading $2.55M of Joe Montana, the man who beat Esiason in the Super Bowl and soon saw his average sky to $3.25 million.

What's old is new again. Mahomes, 1-1 in two AFC title games against the 26-year-old Burrow, is currently the fifth highest paid quarterback in the perpetual escalation of salaries.

Cincinnati? It's where Super Bowl quarterbacks go to get paid. History gives a pretty good walk-through before the game.

"Mike has a soft spot for quarterbacks," says Steinberg, a week after helping Mahomes celebrate his Super Bowl MVP trophy.

"The NFL has become a quarterback-centric league and let's define that as someone a team can build around for 10 to 12 years and can win because of him," he says. "Someone who can compartmentalize in critical moments and block everything out and lead a team to that final drive for victory. That has become the MVP of the NFL and it's almost impossible to get through the playoffs and the Super Bowl without that player. Maybe there are seven or eight of those and Joe Burrow is clearly one of them. With him the Bengals will be contenders for many years to come."

Which is why Steinberg doesn't expect a hang-up here. He's talked football long enough with Brown to know that is exactly how he has seen the league even when the NFL was dominated by running backs and defense.

Steinberg actually represented the Bengals' back-to-back overall No. 1 picks that were non-QBs in defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson and running back Ki-Jana Carter. Both got into training camp relatively on time with record-breaking contracts as Steinberg notes the deals went smoothly for two Ohio guys.

The Ohio-bred Burrow's structure and money isn't going to look the same, but the concepts are intact.

"No one benefits more than the starting quarterback from being surrounded by a supporting cast of stars," Steinberg says. "There are a variety of constructions to get that done and it's something the quarterback needs to at least factor into his thinking. How is it possible to maximize the quarterback's contract while giving the Bengals the ability to put a viable roster together?"

The Bengals have been there, too. When Palmer signed his deal, it was hailed as a salary-cap saver that freed up room to keep the core of the division champs.

"That was my main concern, something that could help us out in the future," Palmer told the press then. "Hopefully we can keep those guys around. Hopefully some of those guys up front want to stick around for a while.

"We know what we've got and we can build around this core group of guys."

In the next year the Bengals extended Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson, Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson and Pro Bowl alternate left tackle Levi Jones with top-level contracts.

When Palmer spoke with NBC's Peter King a few weeks ago at the Super Bowl, he spoke admiringly of how the Bengals delved into free agency last season to sign three offensive line starters.

"(Burrow) has to be extremely excited about the future and signing a contract extension," Palmer said. "They went out and were aggressive and did it the right way and proved to Joe that it's a long-term place for him because they're willing and committed to win."

As the combine gets underway, so does the annual quarterback guess-fest. But rarely have the Bengals been without one in a league that always seems to be looking.

According to Elias, the Bengals are the only team in the last half century to draft four quarterbacks that made at least 97 starts for them. Add Burrow, and only eight teams have drafted five making at least 42 starts for them. And, only three teams in this century have drafted three quarterbacks who started at least two playoff games for them and we just saw them: Bengals, 49ers and Jaguars.

It's another reason why you'd expect Steinberg to say about a potential Burrow deal, "I expect probably for it to be smooth sailing."

The man who has negotiated a few surprises down through the decades says don't be surprised. He doesn't see these '20s ending with a market crash.

"These tend to be the easiest contracts to do because there's consensus about value of a player and census about the market," Steinberg says. "Most of these contracts are done behind the scenes without public scrutiny and announced in a positive and upbeat way. And that's the first you hear of it."