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AJ McCarron contract status may be unknown until 2018

Don’t expect AJ McCarron to be traded if his contract status isn’t resolved until next year.

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Wild Card Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

AJ McCarron continues to be the Bengals quarterback getting all of the attention this offseason. That’s because McCarron is viewed as one of the biggest trade targets heading into the 2017 NFL Draft and 2017 season, but it looks like a deal is highly unlikely to get done now.

That’s because there is no clear-cut value for McCarron until his contract status is resolved, and that may not come until 2018. It may take league arbitration for it to be decided whether McCarron will be a restricted free agent or unrestricted free agent in 2018.

This actually jives with what the Bengals have been saying all along. During his meeting with the media at the Scouting Combine earlier this offseason, Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin revealed that McCarron’s contract status is 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.”

The belief is McCarron is classified as a third-year player in 2017, 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, there’s some belief that he is set to become a restricted free agent in 2018.

If that’s the case, it increases 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. Such 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 quarterback, and the most they could hope for is a compensatory pick in 2019.

All of this means McCarron is probably sticking with the Bengals this year unless the contact issue is resolved sooner than anticipated.