Andy Dalton may be the Bengals’ starting quarterback, but AJ McCarron is the one who will be getting all the attention this offseason.
We already know McCarron is at least open to being traded this offseason, and Marvin Lewis has said that interested parties should contact Mike Brown. There’s a good reason for that. When Dalton went down late in the 2015 season, McCarron came in and helped the Bengals finish 12-4, win the AFC North, and effectively win a playoff game before others gave it away.
That brief stretch of games in which we saw McCarron was enough that his stock is quite high for NFL teams looking for a new quarterback. Part of that is because many quarterbacks set to be available this offseason don’t exactly move the needle.
Other quarterbacks that could be up for grabs this offseason include Tony Romo, Jimmy Garoppolo, Mike Glennon, Jay Cutler, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Nick Foles and Brian Hoyer.
Teams in win-now mode will prefer guys like Romo, but most teams in need of a quarterback are in the midst of a bigger rebuild, which could allow Cincinnati to claim a nice pick or two in exchange for McCarron.
It also helps that McCarron is effectively under contract for two more seasons. Everyone knows that the former fifth-round pick is set to become a free agent in 2018, but what you may not have realized is McCarron is actually going to be a restricted free agent in 2018.
Let’s back up to define what a restricted free agent is. A restricted free agent (RFA) is any veteran player with three accrued seasons, but with less than four, at the conclusion of the player's expiring contract. Players are free to negotiate and sign an offer sheet with a new team, subject to the right of first refusal from the original team, who may make a qualifying offer on or before the first date of the restricted free agent signing period, which is at any point before the start of the new league year.
A team has two options with restricted free agents on their roster: 1) come to terms with a normal, long-term deal with the player, or 2) place a "tender" or "qualifying offer" on the player, per MassLive. Technically, a third option also exists in which the team does not extend a qualifying offer, in which case the RFA player becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent at the start of the new league year. A tender is essentially a predetermined one-year contract, which a the team can offer to an RFA. The numbers will likely change for 2017, but in the 2016 offseason, there were three options for RFAs (dollar amounts from OverTheCap):
- First round tender: 1 year, about $3.582 million
- Second round tender: 1 year, about $2.516 million
- Right of first refusal/Original round tender: 1 year, about $1.647 million
That’s big, because it means whichever NFL team has McCarron on their roster next year could use a first-round tender on him, meaning that any team that signs him to an offer sheet must give them a first-round pick in addition to the contract they sign McCarron to.
No one is likely doing that, meaning whoever has McCarron entering the 2017 season will very likely have him in 2018 as well.
But why is McCarron a restricted free agent? When the Bengals originally drafted him in 2014, he had a previous arm/shoulder issue that led to him beginning the year on NFI (the Non-Football Injury list), where he remained until Week 14, preventing him from accruing a season of free agency. An accrued season in the NFL means being on the roster, or on Injured Reserve for six or more regular season games.
Because McCarron will enter free agency in 2018 without four accrued seasons in the NFL, he cannot enter unrestricted free agency. He instead will be a restricted free agent, thus increasing his value this offseason.
And as the above list of other current NFL quarterbacks who could be on the market shows, it’s likely to be a fairly barren market for quarterbacks in the coming offseason, making young backups like McCarron very attractive targets for teams wanting a new signal caller.
But are the Bengals willing to part ways with their backup quarterback?
There’s the thought that McCarron may sign a big deal as a free agent in 2018 that would net the Bengals a nice compensatory pick...in 2019. That’s a long way off, though, and most of the current roster outside of Dalton and A.J. Green could be gone by then, especially if we’re talking about the pick actually developing and becoming a solid contributor, which may not be until 2021-2022.
In other words, if the Bengals want to get the most value out of McCarron, while adding to their current roster, which clearly has the potential to contend with the right additions and head coach, trading McCarron this offseason and getting a pick or player in his place now opposed to in 2019, seems like the smart play.
That’s why we should expect the Bengals to deal McCarron sometime between now and the end of the 2017 NFL Draft.