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AJ McCarron’s free agency designation expected in February, per report

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Restricted free agent or unrestricted free agent? The Bengals won’t know the status of their backup quarterback for a few months.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest offseason storylines facing the Cincinnati Bengals is the status of backup quarterback AJ McCarron.

On Sunday, NFL Insider Jason La Canfora reported that a ruling on McCarron’s free agency status won’t be decided until February. The NFLPA is making the case that McCarron should be designated as an unrestricted free agent while the league itself (and the Bengals) are arguing that he should be a restricted free agent.

McCarron’s argument is that he was healthy enough his rookie season to come off the Non-Football Injury list during training camp, but the Bengals chose to leave him there. By leaving McCarron on the list for the length the Bengals did, it prevented him from having a season accrued on his contract. Players with three years or less of experience become restricted free agents when they hit the market following their rookie contract.

The pros and cons of each decision are fairly plain to see. If McCarron is ruled to be a restricted free agent, it allows the Bengals to place a high tender on him and likely retain his services for 2018. If someone signs McCarron to an offer sheet, the Bengals likely wouldn’t match it, but would be rewarded with a high draft pick in return.

Per SB Nation, here are the restricted free agent tender options:

Teams have four different tender options they can place on their restricted free agent that usually keeps those players from leaving.

First-round tender: Free agent can negotiate with other teams, but original team has option to match any deal and will receive a first-round selection if it opts not to match the deal.

Second-round tender: Free agent can negotiate with other teams, but original team has option to match any deal and will receive a second-round selection if it opts not to match the deal.

Original-round tender: Free agent can negotiate with other teams, but original team has option to match any deal and will receive a selection equal to the round the player was originally selected in if it opts not to match the deal.

Right of first refusal: Free agent can negotiate with other teams, but original team has option to match any deal. The team will not receive any compensation if it opts not to match another deal.

Conversely if McCarron is deemed an unrestricted free agent, it allows him to immediately hit the market with no real return for the Bengals outside of a potential compensatory pick in 2019 (likely a fourth or fifth-round pick).

While the Bengals clearly have a horse in this race and would like to maximize their return on McCarron, there’s really nothing they can do but wait. But with a decision not expected until February it won’t leave much time to adjust their plans accordingly before free agency begins in March.

However, the Bengals likely already know what they want to do with McCarron in either scenario, so it shouldn’t change much for the franchise going forward unless a new regime takes over after the season.