The Bengals are an organization that likes to build their team through the draft. They keep their own players by resigning many of the players they draft, and accumulate supplemental draft picks for the players they don’t resign. They also tend to avoid free agency as a means to fill their roster, which could jeopardize the supplemental picks they can acquire. In this environment, the most obvious career path for AJ McCarron would be to sit behind Andy Dalton as the team’s backup quarterback, and then sign elsewhere as a free agent when his rookie deal expires in 2018. This scenario would give the Bengals a decent, although unused, backup quarterback, and a beloved supplemental draft pick.
But what if the Bengals were suddenly transformed into a forward thinking team, and McCarron was a potential trade piece available to use in filling some of the holes on the team? What if, instead of waiting for a supplemental fourth or fifth round pick, the Bengals decided to pursue a first, second, or third round pick via a trade? In this alternate reality, where would McCarron’s trade value sit, and does Brock Osweiler’s horrible 2016 season with the Texans affect it?
Last season McCarron stepped up as Andy Dalton’s backup, and was fairly effective in small doses, passing for six touchdowns to only two interceptions, with a completion percentage above 66 percent. These are solid numbers in a league where some teams are always looking for a starting quarterback. McCarron will be a free agent after the 2017 season, so the time to trade him would be before 2017 ends, if the Bengals were to look for more than a potential mid to late round supplemental pick.
Osweiler, like McCarron spent the majority of his career behind an established starter. Osweiler only attempted 30 passes in his first three seasons, before injuries to Peyton Manning in 2015 led to Osweiler’s emergence as an NFL starter. Behind a solid running game and a great defense, Osweiler game-managed his way to 10 touchdowns in nine games, with only six interceptions. He averaged less than 220 yards per game, but in a league desperate for starting quarterbacks, his nine-game audition was enough to garner interest as a full-time starter. The Broncos intended to make him their starter this season until the Houston Texans swooped in and threw a four year, $72 million contract at Osweiler.
Osweiler landed in a solid situation with a great wide receiver (DeAndre Hopkins) to throw to. The team also invested a third round pick in 2015 on a wide receiver (Jaelen Strong), plus a pair of early picks in 2016 on even more wide receivers (Will Fuller and Braxton Miller). With young, talented wide receivers, a good running back (Lamar Miller), and a very winnable division without any elite defenses, Osweiler had a lot going for him.
Unfortunately for the Texans, Osweiler transformed the Texans’ offense into one of the worst in the NFL and has rendered Hopkins all but useless, which you could have thought was impossible coming into the season. With so much money invested into Osweiler, the Texans waited until Week 15 before finally benching him in favor of unheralded backup Tom Savage. Savage made the Jaguars look like the Jaguars, compiling 260 yards in his first action since his rookie season in 2014. The dismal failures of Osweiler this season serve as a cautionary tale for teams looking to convert another team’s seemingly successful backup into a full-time starter.
Four years ago, Matt Flynn tried to provide a cautionary tale for the Texans, who refused to learn from history. Flynn spent four seasons as Aaron Rodgers’ backup in Green Bay. In his final season, he cranked out a 124.8 passer rating thanks to a franchise record game with 480 yards and six touchdowns in Week 5 against the Detroit Lions. The Seattle Seahawks signed Flynn to a $20.5 million deal for three seasons, with the intention of him being their starter. He lost the job to Russell Wilson, and was unceremoniously traded to the Raiders the following seasons for late round draft picks.
In 2010, Kevin Kolb’s mediocre season with the Philadelphia Eagles made him a hot commodity on the trade market. Ultimately, the Eagles were able to unload Kolb on the Arizona Cardinals for both a second round pick and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Rodgers-Cromartie went on to start at cornerback for the past six years since the trade, accumulating 14 interceptions and a Pro Bowl appearance. Kolb was signed by the Cardinals to the tune of $63 million for five years, although he only played two of those, with Osweiler-like results.
With the failures of Kolb, Flynn, and now Osweiler to transition from backup quarterbacks into starters on new teams, would a team be willing to give the Bengals much in return for McCarron in a trade, if the Bengals were to entertain such offers?
Looking at the most recent quarterback trade, the Minnesota Vikings recently traded a first round pick and a fourth round pick for Sam Bradford. But Bradford was an established, although often injured and ineffective, starter. That would seem like too much of a return for McCarron. Considering a trade that is similar to a McCarron situation, where a backup was traded to his new team as a starter, we have the Kolb example above, where the Eagles received a second round pick and a good player for Kolb. Another trade took place in 2009 when the Kansas City Chiefs gave up a second round pick for Matt Cassel. But in that trade, the Patriots, who traded away Cassel, had to throw in Mike Vrabel. In both trades, the team giving up the quarterback received a second round pick, and additional players were added to make the trades seem “even”. In that regard, it would seem that a second round pick would be fair compensation for McCarron, with perhaps an extra piece going one way or another.
Ultimately, the failure of players like Kolb or Osweiler may dissuade teams from offering a second rounder for McCarron, given the lack of production for the team who traded for the quarterback. But the Bengals would likely insist on at least a second round pick, knowing if they don’t get a trade they like with a high enough pick in 2017, there could be a mid-to-late round compensatory pick waiting for them in 2018.