Dalton's time with receivers is 'everything'

CINCINNATI -- You want one reason why the Cincinnati Bengals felt compelled to lock up quarterback Andy Dalton long term?

Look no further than the men catching passes from him.

If it wasn't for the time Dalton has spent growing and learning alongside the team's similarly young wideouts, the organization might have been compelled to wait a little longer to re-sign the 26-year-old quarterback. Or, at the very least, it may have offered him a less favorable deal than the one he is reported to have signed as part of his six-year extension.

ESPN Insiders Adam Schefter and Adam Caplan reported via a source that he had been inked to a deal worth up to as much as $115 million total.

As much as the deal was about Dalton getting paid at an amount and structure comparable to quarterbacks at his experience and success level, it also was about giving money to a player whose development will be enhanced for some time by the players and scheme around him.

Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said it best Monday afternoon when he remarked that the time Dalton has spent with his receivers the last three years has meant "everything."

"It's hard to just slap a couple of guys together and coach some routes and think it's all going to happen," Zampese said. "These guys have done it in the heat of it together. They grew up together here with us and this verbiage."

The receivers have done it, all right. But if the Bengals want Dalton to start a new trend of winning playoff games, they better make sure to keep the receivers in a spot where they can keep doing it.

Under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Dalton ought to be less pressed to perform than he was in his first three seasons. He'll also have receivers he's truly comfortable with, and running backs who are expected to shoulder more of the load than they did in the past. Gone are the days when Dalton will throw 50 passes or more a game. Now, he might be lucky if he averages 30 attempts.

So far, it appears Jackson's tweaks have paid off. Dalton looked "sensational" to him during Saturday's scrimmage and the rest of camp. Dalton's receivers have been running crisp routes and have hauled in their share of deep balls; passes he struggled throwing consistently last season.

He's been making them look good, and they've been doing the same for him. That's all the more reason to try to keep this passing/pass-catching unit in place for years to come.

"When you see the ball hit a guy in the face, you've probably seen the ball do that more now than in the three years that we've been working with this group of guys," Zampese said.

Come to think of it, Dalton hasn't made many of his receivers stretch for too many passes so far. More times than not, passes have been caught in stride, giving the receiver ample opportunities to gain additional yards downfield. What Dalton has been showing stands in stark contrast to what he had shown before. According to a study conducted by Football Outsiders, his top two receivers' catch radii last season were some of the worst in the league the last three years.

The improvements have been noted. Which means it really isn't a stretch to suggest that although it's early in training camp, Dalton right now is playing some of the best ball of his career.

"Coach Jackson's brought an urgency to the group and it's been beneficial to all of us. Especially Andy," Zampese said.

What else has been beneficial to Dalton? "Trust," Zampese said.

"We're quickening up his drop and getting the ball out sooner so they're not as far down the field when he is releasing it, and we're trusting," Zampese added. "We're trusting that the receiver will be there. Throw it early."

Backup quarterback Jason Campbell, one of the first Bengals to learn of Dalton's extension, said the time Dalton and his receivers have had together these last few seasons is evident.

"You can look across the field and say, 'Hey, I've been throwing to this guy for three years or this guy for four years.' Then you get into the middle of a game and you see something in the chemistry of playing together," said Campbell, a veteran who is in his fifth locker room. "Things just happen. If you don't know a guy, he doesn't know what you're going to do."

Dalton knows his receivers now. Of the seven who seem to have the best chance of making the 53-man roster, all but two have played with Dalton since 2012. James Wright is a rookie this season, and Cobi Hamilton is entering his second season with the organization.

After drafting a number of solid playmakers in recent years, the Bengals now have put themselves in the unenviable spot of needing to make tough roster moves in coming seasons. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard will be negotiating longer term deals in the next two seasons. But now Dalton's deal, combined with Geno Atkins' and Carlos Dunlap's last year, could make it that much more difficult for the Bengals to retain them all.

The Bengals will have to at least try, though. After all, those guys are his "everything."