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RFA or UFA: Bengals unsure of AJ McCarron’s free agent status in 2018

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AJ McCarron will become a free agent in 2018. Will he be a restricted or unrestricted free agent? The Bengals don’t seem to know.

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NFL: Miami Dolphins at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Andy Dalton may be the Bengals’ starting quarterback, but AJ McCarron is the one getting all the attention at the Scouting Combine.

That’s because McCarron is viewed as one of the biggest trade targets this offseason. We already know McCarron is at least open to being traded this offseason, though it remains to be seen if anyone will offer enough compensation to meet the Bengals’ demands.

The problem is, we may not know what a fair price is until McCarron’s contract status is resolved. During his meeting with the media at the Scouting Combine, Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin revealed that McCarron’s contract status is somewhat up in the air following the 2017 NFL season.

“There is some debate over whether he earned a season the first year,” Tobin told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “We want to be respectful of his position and ultimately it will be decided by somebody other than AJ and the Cincinnati Bengals as to what is correct and what is not and we’ll go forward on that.”

Our belief is that McCarron is classified as a third-year player, as he did not accrue a full NFL season in 2014 during his rookie year. 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, practice squad, or on Injured Reserve for six or more regular season games. Because McCarron didn’t spend enough time on the roster that year, the belief is that he is set to become a restricted free agent in 2018.

Per former sports agent and NFL contracts and salary cap expert Joel Corry, McCarron will in fact be a restricted free agent (RFA) in 2018.

That helps increase McCarron’s trade value, as he is effectively under contract for two more seasons. 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 rookie 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.

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.

But if it turns out McCarron is an unrestricted free agent next year, that would hurt his value and whatever compensation the Bengals could get for him, either via a trade or in free agency. If Mccarron is an unrestricted free agent in 2018, he would be allowed to sign with another NFL team and leave Cincinnati, while the Bengals would be left without a backup, and the most they could hope for is a compensatory pick in 2019.

It seems a bit strange that Tobin isn’t sure on McCarron’s contract status at this point. But, all signs point to him being a restricted free agent after the 2017 season.