A.J. McCarron is healthy enough to start developing.
The Bengals have yet to etch their 2015 plans into stone, but it looks like for now they're going to go with the same three quarterbacks and there's no doubt that Andy Dalton is leading the way.
So never mind the first round. Don't expect a quarterback taken in the other six rounds, either.
"He's our guy and we're not going to shy away from that," says Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson of Dalton and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese offers, "He was better with the intangibles this year and the ball was better coming out of his hand. You could see that right away when he came back from the last offseason."
The only uncertainty appears to be at the head of the class, where Jackson has reportedly interviewed for the Bills head coaching job. Jackson won't discuss the particulars, but it's clear he's also still thinking about what has to get done here. Although it hasn't been formally discussed yet, he'd like to see No. 2 quarterback Jason Campbell re-signed as No.3 AJ McCarron begins his year of development.
After the Bengals shut him down from his rookie training camp until basically Thanksgiving, McCarron, last year's fifth-round pick, overcame his shoulder problems and practiced for the final few weeks of the season. They apparently liked the way he threw it around the field before last Sunday's Wild Card Game before he was deactivated and he has told them it is the best his arm has felt in years.
"I thought Jason did a sensational job in the role we asked him to play," Jackson "AJ was finally getting healthy and looking like himself. I think all three of them need to have a great offseason and we'll see where it goes. I know Jason. I know what he brings to the table. You always like to have guys back that you've been around and know what you're trying to accomplish. We haven't had those discussions yet and we'll get into them as we go."
McCarron is literally a blank slate. He's still a rookie and a developmental project until they see what he's got this year in a No. 3 role.
"All you know about him is what you know from college and that's really good," Jackson says. "He's healthy. We'll learn more about him as we go."
The Bengals still haven't seen what he can do in their offense because he basically worked with the scout team the past month. Jackson says he's not looking to bring in a fourth guy because with an established starter it just takes snaps away from everybody else.
"You can see how quickly (McCarron) processes the game and that's encouraging," Zampese says. "AJ has to work on technique, getting the ball out, talking and communicating fast in our offense. I'm looking forward to seeing him with our plays against our defense."
As for his No. 1 guy, Zampese knows Dalton needs to perform better than a season where he's coming off a career-low 19 touchdown passes and a career-high interception percentage of 3.5. But he also believes Dalton showed more resiliency than ever.
"He handled the tough situations better. He bounced back better. The leadership of the group was better," Zampese says. "You don't hear anymore how he can't throw it long or that his arm strength stinks. Every time someone puts something out there in front of he, he dispels it. Winning a play-off game is what's left. Look at what he's accomplished in four years. He's had a year where he threw for 33 touchdowns. He's not a guy that can't throw the ball."
Jackson would like to see him throwing to more of the receivers he had gathered for him in the spring.
Starting wide receiver Marvin Jones, a 10-TD guy from last season, never played because of ankle surgery. Tyler Eifert, a 6-6 tight end who caught 39 balls as a starting rookie in '13, played just eight snaps of the season before he dislocated his elbow. Leading receiver A.J. Green didn't have a catch in six games because of injury, including the Wild Card Game, and the second leading receiver, tight end Jermaine Gresham (back) didn't play in Indy last Sunday either.
"If you take away the really good quarterbacks' top targets and say, 'Go win,' "It would be tough to do," Jackson says. "(Andrew) Luck didn't do well when he didn't have No. 13 (T.Y. Hilton) playing for him. Take away Peyton Manning's guys. Take away Tom Brady's guys. How good are they?
"I still think he had a successful season," Jackson says. "Not the season he or I wanted to have or what we anticipated having, but we also didn't anticipate a lot of the injuries and I'm not trying to make excuses. There were different circumstances that I think he grew from and we all grew from."
Despite the injuries, which even struck his offensive line (right tackle Andre Smith missed the last six games with torn triceps); Jackson got some key things accomplished. Dalton completed a career-high 64 percent of his passes and he got the ball out quickly enough that he helped the offensive line limit him to 21 sacks, down from 29.
The Bengals also placed sixth in rushing after four straight seasons they didn't finish higher than 18th. And Jones and Eifert have yet to line up with running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard.
"We wanted to run the ball better, we did that," Jackson said. We didn't do what we wanted in the turnover department. We have to do better there. We didn't throw as many touchdowns as I would have loved. We didn't have some guys that have scored touchdowns for us, but there are a lot of things we can do better. We have to develop our young players and get them better and I think we'll do so…It all comes back on my desk and we'll fix it."
Jackson is again going to emphasize the turnovers to Dalton. To him, that was the most disappointing part of the season. Dalton threw 17 interceptions after throwing 20 the year before and Jackson is going to continue to amplify decision-making.
Zampese also has a workout list for Dalton before the club gathers in May for on-field workouts.
"Footwork, moving around the pocket, sliding in the pocket, making the throws from the pocket. And the scramble drills where you can manufacture plays," Zampese says.
Jackson knows Dalton has to improve. The turnover theme is going to be pounded into not only him, but the rest of the offense. Again. And he hears the criticism. That Dalton has reached his ceiling and can't get any better. He doesn't buy it.
"I think he's poised to have a great year," Jackson says. "He's seen anything and everything that can happen in four years. He's been through the highs and lows. I've always said with no struggles there is no progress. People say, 'You guys have struggled enough.' OK, that's part of the process.
"I understand and respect the people who criticize the position and criticize maybe where he is, and the production from a year ago. That's fine," Jackson says. "But it's easy to put everything in a vacuum and say, 'It should be like this based on this.' If all the elements are right, I can see people saying that. But when they're not, it's hard to say."