CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Andy Dalton threw his arms into the air as the football zipped through a tight window into the receiver’s arms during a red zone drill.
You could sense his excitement.
It was just a moment from a recent offseason workout. But it reminded anyone who saw it that the competitive spirit Dalton had in 2011 as a second-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals still exists as he begins his 13th season in the NFL, this one with the Carolina Panthers.
It was a reminder that the three-time Pro Bowl selection still has the talent to be a full-time starter, even though he accepts that his role is to help mentor Bryce Young, the No. 1 pick of the 2023 draft, become the Week 1 starter.
“I definitely think that I’m still one of the 32 [best] guys out there,” Dalton told ESPN.com. “But I know that’s not the position I’m in. My whole goal is to kind of be the example and … not necessarily set the standard but show how it’s supposed to be done.”
Plays like the one Dalton made in the red zone are a good example of why the 35-year-old might be the perfect mentor for Young.
“He’s practicing at a super-high level,” coach Frank Reich said of Dalton. “I don’t want to sell that short of how impressive he’s been on the field.
“But equally impressive is how he’s handled the role he’s in, knowing we drafted the No. 1 guy … how he’s helping him, but still competing with him, knowing what the plan is.”
The plan is to have Young ready to start the Sept. 10 opener at the Atlanta Falcons. The former Alabama star has done nothing to suggest that won’t happen, given the way he has progressed in Reich’s offense.
Dalton gets that, reminding us that he’s not here to “compete with Bryce” and that as soon as Young shows he’s ready, he’ll be named the starter. That’s why Young gets more repetitions in practice and spends as much time with the first team as Dalton, who is still listed first on the depth chart.
“But for me, personally, I’m going in with the mindset of I want to show everybody the type of player that I am,” said Dalton, who in March signed a two-year, $11 million deal with $8 million guaranteed.
In doing so, Dalton has shown the kind of person he is. He has put aside the ego that goes from wanting to be the starter and used that energy to help show Young what it takes to succeed.
“Bryce has learned from him, not just by listening to him in the meeting room but by watching him,” Reich said. “Anybody who talks to Bryce knows … he’s immediately intellectually your equal. But Andy has a lot of experience, and what I love about Andy is he’s not overdoing it.
“He has that perfect balance of just enough but not too much.”
The situation is similar to 2011, when the Panthers drafted Cam Newton with the top pick and signed five-year veteran Derek Anderson to be his backup, understanding that Anderson could start if needed.
“[Anderson] understands the situation and set of circumstances,’’ then-Carolina coach Ron Rivera said at the time. “But at the same time, I told Derek there’s no reason to accept a back seat.’’
Dalton is taking that approach.
“I don’t think saying I’m OK with [being the backup] is the right phrasing of it,’’ Dalton said. “There’s a reality of it. Regardless of the role that I’m in, I had been in a lot of different roles since my nine years in Cincinnati. But I’ve played everywhere that I’ve been.
“And I know what I’m capable of doing.’’
Dalton started 133 games in nine years with the Bengals, going 70-61-2. He went 50-26 and got Cincinnati to the playoffs his first five seasons, twice as division champion. His biggest downfall was going 0-4 in the playoffs, throwing one touchdown pass to six interceptions.
His 13 wins in relief the past three seasons with the Dallas Cowboys (4-5), Chicago Bears (3-3) and New Orleans Saints (6-8) is nearly as many as the 17 the Panthers had during that span with five different starting quarterbacks.
He ranked ninth in passer rating (95.2), 10th in completion percentage (66.7%) and 21st in Total QBR (50.7) last season with the Saints.
“There’s just a moment where you’re, ‘OK, I know the position that I’m gonna have to step into,'” Dalton said of being a backup or mentor. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I view myself that way.”
Young, for one, is “super grateful” to have Dalton.
“I’m asking a bunch of questions,” he said. “I’m watching him with the operation, how his feet are, how his eyes are. He comes back, he’ll talk to me, saying why he went there, why he went here.
“Really, how he carries himself, how he conducts himself. He’s clear with all his stuff.”
Quarterbacks coach Josh McCown said Dalton has been invaluable teaching Young things like huddle presence.
“Like, ‘Hey, think about the play before you go into the huddle, and say it with confidence,'” McCown said. “Andy puts into practice everything we talk about in the quarterback room. He puts meat on the bone.”
Dalton has embraced that role to a level where he feels “fulfillment” every time he helps Young.
“He is crazy talented, and he is doing everything the right way,” Dalton said. “And it’s fun to be a part of that and to see that and to help him become the player that I know he can be as well.”
At the same time, Dalton still believes he’s capable of helping Carolina win should he be called on. That’s why moments such as the red zone touchdown still energize him.
“Wanting the competition, wanting to be the guy out there that helps your team win, that’s never going to leave,” Dalton said. “And as soon as that does, I’m gonna stop playing.”
How Panthers’ Andy Dalton is embracing role as Bryce Young’s mentor – ESPN – Carolina Panthers Blog