Bengals believe in Andy Dalton but are in market for a backup

With free agency approaching (March 14), we're analyzing the quarterback position for the Cincinnati Bengals:

2018 cap hits of top returnees:

Andy Dalton -- $16.3 million

Jeff Driskel -- $630,000

Pending free agents: AJ McCarron

Key stat: Andy Dalton has had mediocre seasons the past two years. He was sacked 80 times combined and in 2017 completed only 59.9 percent of his passes, which is his lowest percentage since his rookie season. The Bengals have hired a new offensive line coach and new quarterbacks coach in an attempt to turn around the offense.

Money matters: The Bengals got a very favorable deal when they signed Dalton to a six-year, $96 million extension in 2014, and they rank in the middle of the pack in quarterback spending in 2018. Because McCarron will be an unrestricted free agent, he will come off the books when the new league year starts. Although Dalton's $16.3 million cap hit leads the team in 2018, it will climb to $17.7 million at most in 2020, the final year of his contract. Dalton's contract is very manageable, and the Bengals could get out of it next season with no hit to their cap if they wanted to move on.

Big picture: The Bengals have had one of the most stable quarterback situations in the league since drafting Carson Palmer at No. 1 overall in 2003. When Palmer demanded to be traded in 2011, the Bengals took Dalton in the second round, and he has been the starter since day one. Although Bengals personnel director Duke Tobin said Dalton needs to be better than he was last season, he also stated his belief in Dalton when speaking to reporters at the NFL scouting combine on Feb. 28. The team hasn't made any secret that Dalton is their guy this season.

"We feel very good about Andy as our starting quarterback," Tobin said. "We've seen him play at the top of the league. We've got to support him better. He's got to do some things better. He knows that."

The game plan: The Bengals will most certainly be looking for a backup quarterback with McCarron poised to become an unrestricted free agent. They carried three quarterbacks on the roster in 2016 with the hopes that Driskel could succeed McCarron should he leave, but Driskel suffered two different injuries in 2017 that limited his practice time. He has yet to take an NFL snap and is rehabbing after suffering a broken arm at the end of the season. Tobin said the team will be exploring all avenues and didn't rule out finding a backup in either free agency or the draft.

"I think all options are on the table at that position," Tobin said. "We'll look at the unrestricted market ... we'll look at the college game. There will be a lot of options available to us. It could be that we sign a veteran and he's the guy, it could be that there's a competition for the second spot. We'll see as we go, but we're not restricting any options."