Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert accounted for nearly half of Andy Dalton's touchdown passes last season.
Andy Dalton is back to zipping the ball. He's got no restrictions with his throwing thumb; he's got one visit under his belt to passing specialist Dr. Tom House last month, and after watching two of his most established targets leave via free agency he got one back with a Super Bowl ring and knows Pro Bowlers A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert are already here.
"It would be tougher if it was my first or second year, but this is year six," Dalton says Monday from Dallas of his revamped receiving corps. "It's easier for me now than early on in my career. That is going to be fun. We've got these guys from the start; we've got to get them exactly where we want them to be.
"I have to make sure they know what I want them to do on certain things and make sure they're in the right spots," he says. "You don't want to have any fall off at all. You want to get better. That's what we're shooting for. We're shooting to keep improving. It all starts when we get back."
The two guys who lockered next to him and meant so much to the passing game won't be here two weeks from Monday when the Bengals gather for off-season workouts. Wide receiver Marvin Jones turned down at least the same $40 million to go to Detroit and Mohamed Sanu got No. 2 money in Atlanta when a No. 4 role loomed in Cincinnati.
It's not an easy loss. But Dalton has been here before.
In his second season, wide receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell also left in free agency after a rookie year Dalton found them for 31 percent of his yards and 35 percent of his touchdown passes. But Dalton responded in 2012 by leading the Bengals to 10 wins and a Wild Card spot during a season he improved in every category and that included raising his passer rating seven points.
This past season Jones and Sanu represented 28 percent of Dalton's yards and 16 percent of his touchdowns and in the wake of their losses the Bengals signed Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell, a versatile, proven veteran they didn't have on the other side of A.J. Green in 2012.
"We lost a couple of guys and brought in some new guys. It's part of it," Dalton says. "When you play longer you're not going to have the same guys all the time. It comes down to the work we put in in the offseason and making sure everybody is the same page and we feel comfortable in everything we're doing."
Dalton welcomed LaFell, his fellow Houstonian, over the phone and calls him "a great pickup." He wanted to make sure he talked to him right away to let him know how glad he was to have him here and to extend an offer to throw if he was ever back home in Houston or if LaFell was ever near Dallas, where Dalton now lives.
But since the Bengals are back at Paul Brown Stadium in just two more weeks, the logistics may have to wait and they'll end up throwing here for the first time.
"Brandon fits our system and what we're trying to do," Dalton says. "Not only has he played both (outside and the slot), he's been on good teams and he's got a lot of experience. It's really a great signing by us.
"If we can get James Wright healthy and Brandon Tate has been in the system a long time, we've got guys that understand what we're doing," Dalton says. "And if we get a guy or two in the draft, we'll have guys that fit what we're doing. We have to make sure they pick up the offense and are confident in what we're doing."
That's how Dalton got Jones and Sanu in 2012. In the draft. Sanu arrived in the third round and Jones came two rounds later. They left four years later considerably wealthier with a combined $75 million in total deals.
And, a heck of a lot more promised targets. Last season Green and Eifert repped 75 percent of Dalton's touchdown passes and nearly half of his yards.
"That's the luxury we have. We lost those guys, but we've got A.J. and Tyler, plus Gio (Bernard) coming out of the backfield," Dalton says. "They made the best decision for them and their families and at the end of the day I'm happy for them. With the success we had here and the things they were able to accomplish, they got rewarded with the contracts they got. .. Knowing them the last four years and the friendships we made, I'm happy they're getting the opportunity they're getting."
Dalton may be in Year Six, but he's in Year Two of the intensive leadership program former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson demanded of him. With Jackson starting his own off-season program in Cleveland Monday as the head coach, Dalton expects to do more of the same under new coordinator Ken Zampese.
"I'm just trying to find different ways in different areas to keep pushing myself and pushing all the other guys," Dalton says.
He thinks he's got a pretty good sense of where his team's head is after the bitter Wild Card loss to Pittsburgh. He knows how he'll handle it when they're back on the 18th.
"It's obviously on everybody's mind. The way the game ended is not how you want any game to end," Dalton says. "It's going to make us hungry, make us want to get back there and prove we can win once we get to the playoffs. But there's a long road ahead even before we get back there.
"I think everybody understands it," he says. "I don't think anything really needs to be said. I think enough has been said. Marvin (Lewis) has done a good job of handling all that. What happened happened. We're not going to let it happen again."