Breaking down the Bengals' early four-man QB race

CINCINNATI -- When he was asked earlier this week about finally having AJ McCarron as a regular participant in on-field drills, Cincinnati Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese's face lit up.

It was "delayed gratification," he said.

"It's been so long," Zampese added. "I wanted him in our building so badly."

McCarron isn't the only one in the building now, though. Zampese, coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson have others to choose from. While there won't be a quarterback controversy at the top -- Andy Dalton isn't going anywhere as far as the position's hierarchy is concerned -- the race for the No. 2 backup job should be somewhat intense.

A second-year reserve and Alabama product, McCarron enters organized team activities (OTAs) later this month as the likely No. 2 behind Dalton. McCarron has simply been here slightly longer than the other two, although the others do have more time with Zampese and Jackson.

Josh Johnson was Dalton's top reserve in 2013 before spending all of last year in San Francisco. Johnson returned to Cincinnati via free agency this spring.

As for Terrelle Pryor, the fourth quarterback in the mix, the former Ohio State standout spent three seasons quarterbacking the Oakland Raiders, the same team Jackson coached for a season. The lone year that Jackson led Oakland, he selected Pryor in the supplemental draft, giving the embattled quarterback a shot. The two have deep respect for one another, and it showed when Jackson extended Pryor a second invitation to try out with the Bengals in two years.

While last year's tryout didn't work out, this one did.

Perhaps the most important reason for the Bengals to keep Pryor around was so they could let him showcase his desperate attitude to other veterans. Nearly an NFL journeyman, he hopes he finally has found a home.

In terms of the Bengals, this looks like part of their plan to ratchet up the competition around Dalton. While none of the three backups is legitimately favored to take the job of the $115 million starter, they still can raise the level of play underneath him.

"Terrelle has a presence. This is not his first rodeo," Lewis said at the start of Pryor's tryout during last week's rookie camp. "There's an urgency in his step. That's a good role model for these young guys to observe, and even for guys that have been around a couple of years here. ...He shows how important this is to him."

At this incredibly early offseason stage, it still appears that McCarron will hold down the No. 2 quarterback job, but who does No. 3 go to? Pryor certainly appears to be a better quarterback than Johnson and is versatile enough to play another position -- even if Pryor has repeatedly said he doesn't want to.

Here in May, it appears Johnson's job is most in jeopardy. But then the question becomes, how many signal-callers will the Bengals take into the regular season? They've been known to keep two on the active roster, although in the past two years a third has typically started the season on the physically unable to perform or non-football injury lists. At the end of last season, once McCarron had recovered from a shoulder issue, he was added to the 53-man roster with Dalton and Jason Campbell.

A Dalton-McCarron-Pryor lineup might not intimidate many defenses, but it may be the best the Bengals have had since Dalton became their starter five years ago.