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More-polished Dalton clear leader of rookie QB class

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Andy Dalton's poise and resilience are two of the qualities setting him apart from the rookie pack. (US Presswire)  
Andy Dalton's poise and resilience are two of the qualities setting him apart from the rookie pack. (US Presswire)  

There were six quarterbacks taken with the first 36 picks of this year's draft, including Cam Newton at No. 1, and I can see all but maybe one starting at some point this season. What I can't see is all but maybe one having immediate success, and I'll tell you whom I like there.

It's not Newton, and it's not Jake Locker, the first two quarterbacks off the board. It's Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, and I'll tell you why: Because he will start from Day 1, he has a decent supporting cast and he looks as if he played the position -- no coincidence since scouts believed he and Florida State's Christian Ponder were the most ready to step into an NFL huddle.

Now, let's make something clear: None of these guys are ready to step into an NFL huddle after six weeks of practice, and Ponder won't. He'll sit behind Donovan McNabb and wait his turn. But Dalton plays now, and while there will be the usual shortcomings associated with a baptism by fire, the early signs are encouraging.

I go back to that preseason face-off last week vs. Carolina and Newton, where Dalton won by a TKO. He was poised, confident and accurate in the pocket -- everything Newton was not as he and the Panthers self-destructed.

Dalton led the Bengals to scores on four of six possessions and never looked better than on a last-minute drive at the end of the first half where he hit his first four passes to set up Mike Nugent's 55-yard field goal.

"I thought he did things well," coach Marvin Lewis said then. "He really just settled down and played with ease."

Yeah, well, Newton did not. That doesn't mean he didn't have his moments. But they were few, and he looked a lot better running than throwing.

Afterward, an AFC coach told me he believes the guy will have trouble adapting to the pro game because that's not how he's designed. If you draft him, he said, you tailor your offense around his immense talents, much as Auburn did, and have him make plays on the run.

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The Panthers tried to protect him by re-signing a raft of key players, including offensive linemen and running back DeAngelo Williams, as well as taking wide receiver Steve Smith off the trade market. But Smith is of no value if Newton can't find him, and he tried eight times last week, hitting him once.

I know preseason games don't mean much, and I never pay attention to who's winning or losing. But I do pay attention to who's developing, and Newton is not. Not now he's not. In his last two games he's 13 for 33 for 141 yards, with no touchdowns and no interceptions. But there are no interceptions in there, either, and that's a start.

I mean, at least he's not committing fatal mistakes. Nevertheless, the learning curve looks steep, and Carolina would be smart to sit him -- at least at the beginning.

I know that's not likely. I mean, how do you sell Jimmy Clausen to fans? But, if nothing else, Clausen looks like a quarterback. Newton looks lost. So give him time to give him a chance.

Dalton won't have that luxury, but, as I said, he's more ready to step into a pro offense than Newton. Nowhere was that more apparent last week than when he was getting pressure, with Dalton checking down to receivers drifting under coverage. Yeah, it was a meaningless game, but he looked as if he knew what he was doing.

"You might have just seen the two worst teams play," a scout told me afterward.

Maybe, but one of them has a rookie quarterback who looks like he can be something immediately, and it's not Carolina. I don't know about the long-term consequences, and, frankly, I don't care. What matters to me is who makes it this season, and I can't see Locker and the Titans doing anything but floundering with Chris Johnson missing all of camp, and I can't see Blaine Gabbert doing much of anything with Jacksonville, either.

What I can see is Dalton making an impression, partly because he has two decent running backs (Cedric Benson and the lightning-quick Bernard Scott) and a group of impressive young receivers -- led by rookie A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. Mostly, though, it's because he will play.

"He's really, really accurate," said an AFC coach who scouted Dalton this spring, "and he throws a catchable ball. He really cares about his location, where you will see some guys who, if they get the ball in the vicinity of their receivers, that's OK. Not Dalton. That's not acceptable to him.

"He sets a very high standard for himself, and he's very much resilient. Even when things weren't going that well in the Jets' game (a 27-7 loss), it was never like the wheels came off, where he hit a defensive back in the chest. It was like he made his mind up that he was in the NFL."

That doesn't mean there aren't issues. He doesn't move in the pocket as well as you'd like, he plays behind an ordinary offensive line and his team, frankly, should be one of the bottom feeders this season. But Dalton will start, and he will gain a ton of experience.

Naturally, there will be ups and downs, but what I like about him is that when he faced Carolina in a season dress rehearsal where it was important he played well, he did. In fact, he outplayed Newton, and it wasn't close.

He finished with a passer rating of 107.5, a dramatic jump from his previous week's 16.4 vs. the Jets, and maybe that says more about the competition, I don't know. What I do know is that Andy Dalton looked so good no one asked why somebody -- in this case, Bruce Gradkowski -- doesn't start over the rookie.

You don't hear that anywhere else.


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