Bengals' Andy Dalton tops among peer QBs

CINCINNATI -- Perhaps that headline comes as little surprise to some. To others, there may be some unease about such a bold proclamation about a player only three years into his career.

But the simple fact remains: In a very short time, Andy Dalton hasn't only been a good quarterback, he's been the best of his entire QB-heavy draft class.

Yes, Colin Kaepernick, taken one spot behind Dalton in the second round of the 2011 draft, has been to a Super Bowl and nearly won it. But consider that Kaepernick came into a low-pressure situation last season of being a second-year backup who was called into action simply because San Francisco's starter went down with a concussion. Expectations weren't high for Kaepernick at the time. They didn't need to be. When he first burst onto the scene in November, the 49ers had hoped he would be only a stopgap until Alex Smith recovered. One San Francisco Chronicle columnist said Smith's injury hurt the 49ers and that Kaepernick couldn't be expected to have the type of "efficient quarterbacking we've seen from Smith this season."

Few could foresee the meteoric heights Kaepernick would ultimately ascend to.

Since day one in Cincinnati, "expectations" might as well have been Dalton's middle name. He has been hounded by them since he was drafted.

Before he even stepped foot inside Paul Brown Stadium, Dalton was viewed as the player who would make Bengals fans forget about the team's disappointing 4-12 showing in 2010. It was their hope that he wouldn't be much like his often-embattled predecessor, Carson Palmer. After leading TCU to an undefeated season, a Rose Bowl win and a No. 2 national ranking, Dalton was supposed to carry the Bengals organization to similar success.

So far, so good. No, there hasn't been a trip to the Super Bowl yet, but Dalton has led the Bengals to back-to-back playoff berths for the first time in 30 years. If they return this postseason, it'll be the first time in team history that they have been to three straight postseasons. Considering the pressure that was on Dalton from the get-go, it is fair to say he has been the best quarterback of the 2011 class.

Why do I bring this up? Because my colleague down in Jacksonville, Fla., ESPN.com's Mike DiRocco, broached the topic in a blog post Monday night. As the Jaguars continue muddling through the rough early days under Blaine Gabbert, DiRocco set out to see how the quarterback stacked up with others from his draft class. DiRocco agrees that Dalton, the fourth quarterback taken that year, heads the list. He writes:

Dalton is by far the most successful quarterback of the group, having started every game the past two seasons and leading the Bengals to a 19-13 record and two playoff berths. Each season has ended with playoff losses to Houston, but it was the first time since 1981-82 the franchise has made back-to-back playoff appearances. Career stats: 629-1,044-29, 7,067 yards, 47 TDs.

That draft class was headed by top overall pick Cam Newton. In two years in Carolina, he has established himself as one of the league's premier dual-threat quarterbacks, but playing in a division that includes the Falcons and Saints hasn't made it easy for Newton to reach the postseason, let alone have any success in it. Then again, with perennial powers Pittsburgh and Baltimore sharing a division with the Bengals, Dalton hasn't had a cakewalk taking Cincinnati past Week 17, either.

In all, 11 quarterbacks were drafted in 2011. Interestingly, according to multiple reports, the last one taken, Greg McElroy, could be on his way to Cincinnati as a practice squad player. Here's what DiRocco wrote about the former seventh-rounder, who was let go by the Jets earlier this week:

The former Alabama standout started one game for the New York Jets last season, going 14-for-24 for 185 yards with one interception in a 27-17 loss to San Diego. He was released earlier this week. Career numbers: 19-31-1, 214 yards, 1 TD.