Despite the Bengals' 2-3 finish after a great 10-2 start to the season under Andy Dalton, AJ McCarron's performance at the end of the 2015 season has led to serious discussions about his very high trade value. McCarron has even discussed the idea of being traded, twice.
McCarron played well enough on his own that he proved he has what it takes to compete at the NFL level and has raised the curiosity of many teams searching for a quarterback in the process. For that reason, ESPN's Field Yates ranked him as the quarterback with the second highest trade value in the NFL, behind only Buccaneers backup quarterback Mike Glennon.
Few teams focus their efforts as much on the draft as the Bengals, and McCarron has two years remaining on his deal and enough positive tape available for teams to understand his upside. The Bengals used a fifth-round pick on McCarron in 2014. If they could flip him for a second- or third-rounder just two years later, that'd be a heckuva return on their investment.
The other quarterbacks who make Yates' list are Colin Kaepernick (ranked 3rd), Brian Hoyer (ranked 4th) and Zach Mettenberger (ranked 5th).
It takes a special kind of player to walk into a starting role, following a season-ending injury to a franchise quarterback who was in the middle of his best season in the NFL. For McCarron, Andy Dalton is that franchise quarterback, putting up 3,250 yards, 25 touchdowns, and seven interceptions in 12 full games and the first 10 minutes and 54 seconds of his 13th game.
However, it was with 5:06 left in the first quarter against the Steelers in Week 14 that Dalton fractured his thumb and McCarron took his first snap as a starting quarterback in the NFL. In Dalton's stead, he put up 895 yards, seven touchdowns, and three interceptions in nearly five games. In games in which Dalton took every meaningful snap, the team posted an incredible 10-2 record on the season. With McCarron taking the starting snaps, that record slipped to 2-2, including the playoffs. He also took the majority of the snaps in Week 14 following Dalton's injury, which resulted in a loss as well.
There's plenty of reasons why a blockbuster trade could be in the cards for McCarron and the Bengals. The most obvious one is that McCarron appears to have what it takes to succeed as an NFL starter. Unfortunately, he likely won't get that chance consistently as long as Dalton is in Cincinnati.
At the moment, Dalton is locked up via contract through 2020 and, based on his performance so far, has a good chance of sticking around for at least that long in the Queen City. Dalton's consistent improvement from year to year, and his incredible performance in 2015, means that a starting caliber backup quarterback, like McCarron is worth more to the team in trade value than sitting on the bench. At the same time, if Dalton were to be injured again, McCarron certainly is the man they'd want to fill in.
How much value does McCarron have?
McCarron could be worth anywhere from a first round pick to a conditional third round pick, depending on who you ask and how badly a potential suitor like the Broncos might want him. Peter King was recently on Mike & Mike to discuss quarterback trade values. In particular, King said he believes McCarron is worth as much as a first round pick.
"We all watched the Monday Night game in Denver," King said. " Where, if he doesn't mess up that snap at the end of the game, AJ McCarron could very well have beaten the Super Bowl champions on the road on Monday Night."
It's the value of McCarron's leaked potential that excites so many trade discussions. The Bengals are a team that love to make their waves in the draft, so receiving an extra early round pick or two could be something they at least entertain the idea of.
Likelihood of McCarron being traded: 30%
What many fail to take into account is that the Bengals don't typically trade away young potential stars. If anything, that increases McCarron's trade value all the more, just like it did when they robbed the Raiders of a 2011 first and conditional 2012 second round pick in exchange for Carson Palmer after his trade demand following the 2010 season.
If anyone was hoping that might be enough to convince the Bengals to pull the trigger, be aware that it's pretty unlikely. With two years left on his contract and fresh off an impressive run as the team's backup turned starter, his trade value has never been and likely never will be higher. At the same time, his value to the Bengals is also currently at it's peak.
It's been awhile since the team has had a reliable backup quarterback who is ready, willing, and talented enough to step in at a moment's notice to give the team a chance of winning in the absence of their starting quarterback. Dalton recently mentioned that he probably wouldn't have played the divisional round game had the Bengals beaten the Steelers. Imagine if that were to happen again next year. Bengals fans might not even get the chance to blame the loss on a freak accident like Jeremy Hill fumbling the ball away or Vontaze Burfict receiving an unnecessary roughness penalty with seconds left to play.
There's a greater chance, although still somewhat unlikely, that the Bengals might be willing to trade McCarron next year. The Bengals have really only had one season to appreciate having a backup quarterback with McCarron's talent level.
This possibility seems counter-intuitive, as McCarron is unlikely to have as much of an opportunity to showcase himself next season. But, Mike Glennon is at the top of Yates's list, despite not playing in 2015. So, Glennon is riding the wave of only having a year left on his contract and filling in as the Buccaneers' starter for much of 2013 and part of 2014.
McCarron could be in a similar position next year, but don't expect the Bengals to let him go now.