When the Panthers traded up to the first overall pick last week, they made it clear to themselves and the rest of the league that they would undoubtedly be selecting a rookie quarterback prospect in April.
Naturally, they also assured the free-agent market that they would be adding an experienced veteran quarterback in free agency to pair with the incoming rookie signal-caller.
On Tuesday, Andy Dalton was chosen for the role. And that was a smart decision on the part of the Panthers.
Panthers head coach Frank Reich has been in the role that Dalton will inherit this offseason. Reich served as a bridge starter during the franchise’s inaugural season before giving way to Kerry Collins. And while Dalton might lead the team for a shorter period than even Reich’s three-game stretch in 1995, his presence on the depth chart will have a huge impact on the future of the franchise.
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Last month at the NFL Scouting Combine, Reich made it what he was looking for in a veteran backup quarterback.
“First of all, you got to be able to play and win — that’s first and foremost,” Reich said. “A lot of guys will talk, if the starter’s out for three (games), can the backup win two out of the three? Is it a winning backup — can he play winning football? That’s what they’re here to do.
“And then secondarily, he needs to be the right guy to help a guy — not help coach a guy, there are coaches — but just the right chemistry in the room. There’s got to be the right chemistry. And the good thing is there’s a lot of guys out there like that.”
Dalton seemingly checks off every box on Reich’s list for the role.
Dalton can win games
While Dalton is more than three years removed from being a franchise starting quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, he still has played quite a bit during the past three seasons. From Dallas to Chicago to New Orleans, Dalton found his way onto the field as a replacement or bridge starter.
Since leaving Cincinnati, Dalton has appeared in 33 games. He has started 29 of those matchups and posted a 13-16 record. While that sample size isn’t anything to write home about, Dalton has been one of the better backups in the NFL since his step-back in league status. Last season, Dalton went 6-8 as a starter for a mediocre Saints team, and he received a strong 82.1 grade from Pro Football Focus during his performance throughout the season.
If the Panthers’ rookie quarterback isn’t ready to start on Week 1, Carolina could do much worse than Dalton at the top of the totem pole. In fact, Dalton has three more wins as a starter than Sam Darnold (10-19) over the past three seasons, so the 35-year-old is already an upgrade for Carolina — and he’s likely to spend most of the season as a backup.
If the rookie needs to miss the first three games of the season — like Collins did in 1995 — Dalton can fill the “two of three” win quota. While the Panthers won’t want Dalton starting into late November, he has the ability to lead an offense, make plays and avoid turnovers. That’s a winning combination for a bridge quarterback during a short stretch.
Dalton understands his place in the league
The Panthers needed a bridge/veteran backup quarterback that wouldn’t ruffle feathers. The rookie prospect is going to have enough pressure on him once he arrives as the top pick in April’s draft.
So, Dalton needs to serve as both competition and mentor. He’s also got to be cool with taking a back seat to the rookie at a moment’s notice. Luckily for the Panthers, they’ve seen how Dalton handles situations like the one he is about enter.
In 2021, Dalton was signed to be the veteran starter for the Bears. However, a little over a month later, the Bears traded up to select Justin Fields. Dalton started two games before he was leaped by Fields in the lineup. According to Fields, Dalton handled the benching with class.
“He just didn’t want it to be awkward,” Field said (via CHGO Sports’ Adam Hoge). “He didn’t want our relationship to change because of the situation.”
Former Bears head coach Matt Nagy backed that Fields statement by acknowledging that Dalton has the right temperament for the veteran backup spot.
“Some people don’t have this, Andy has it,” Nagy said (via NBC Sports). “When you are told that news, you are allowed to feel how you want to feel. Some people don’t have that next level where they can still be a great teammate and great person. Is it easy for him right now? No ... that’s normal. You are allowed to feel that way. One thing that he has earned from me and our coaches is a hell of a lot of respect, because that guy is a freaking stud. I’m so glad he is on our team and I appreciate the way he understood it and the way he handled it but he also cares immensely about this team and I appreciate that.”
Dalton is a leader. Sometimes, in order to be a good leader, a player needs to spend his time in the shadows. Dalton is comfortable in that area, even if his ambitions involve playing on Sundays. That humility and mindset will allow him to push the rookie without prodding the younger quarterback in an comfortable way that negatively impacts the team.
Dalton is comfortable with being a mentor
When Dalton was forced into the turnstile situation in Chicago, he continued to mentor Fields throughout his rookie campaign. Recently, Fields praised Dalton’s contributions to his on-field growth in an interview with Barstool Sports’ “Pardon My Take” podcast.
“Andy’s amazing,” Fields said (via Bears Wire). “I mean, even this year he was texting me after good games that I had and said, ‘I saw your game. Great job bro.’ Just his family, his wife, his kids. They’re amazing. Andy and Nick [Foles] they taught me a lot last year just with the life of being an NFL quarterback and he kind of took me under his wing. I’m definitely very appreciative of that and I wish Andy nothing but the best of luck.”
Dalton can also be that guy for CJ Stroud, Bryce Young, Anthony Richardson or Will Levis. After playing 12 years in the league, Dalton has plenty of experience and knowledge to lean on as a mentor.
In fact, Dalton has more NFL game experience and passing touchdowns than Reich and quarterbacks coach Josh McCown had in their careers combined. He has also thrown for 14,344 more yards than the two coaches combined.
While Reich and McCown are considered excellent quarterback minds, Dalton’s outlook on the game — from the sideline or practice field — will be invaluable to the rookie. Dalton, unlike McCown and Reich, knows what it’s like to be a rookie starting quarterback. He also knows what it’s like to be a longtime starting quarterback for an overlooked franchise.
With three Pro Bowls on his career achievement list, Dalton has immediate credibility. He can be a sounding board for the rookie, and show the youngster the ropes. Leading an NFL practice is much different than leading a college workout, and Dalton has likely mastered the setting.
Teaching the rookie by example can only help the coaching staff further its tutoring of the talented prospect. In that regard, Dalton could have a lasting impact on the Panthers for years to come.