The future of Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron remains in question, but we now know when McCarron’s free agency case will be decided by arbitration.
McCarron says his case will be decided by an NFL arbitrator on Thursday, February 15, 2018.
McCarron is arguing he should be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) in 2018 while the Bengals believe by NFL rule he should be a restricted free agent (RFA). An RFA is any veteran player with three accrued seasons, but with less than four, at the conclusion of the player's rookie contract. Unrestricted free agents (drafted players—typically—who stay with the team that drafted them for four years) enter free agency with four years of NFL experience.
The Bengals’ argument
The Bengals’ belief is McCarron should be is classified as a fourth-year player in 2018, as he did not accrue a full NFL season in 2014 during his rookie year. When the Bengals originally drafted him in 2014, he entered the NFL with a arm/shoulder issue that led to him beginning the year on NFI (the Non-Football Injury list), where he remained until Week 14 of the season. This prevented him from accruing a year of NFL experience as the NFL deems one year of experience as six games on an NFL roster, or six games spent on Injured/Reserve or the Physically Unable to Perform list. The NFI list does not count toward accruing a season.
As such, McCarron’s rookie year, spent mostly on NFI and then three weeks on the roster should not count as an accrued season.
But, McCarron believes his rookie year should count toward accruing an NFL season because he says he was healthy enough to play and the Bengals just stashed him on NFI list regardless. He does not believe the Bengals fairly used the NFI designation when placing him on the list for the large majority of the season.
Why it matters
McCarron would benefit financially by being an unrestricted free agent and controlling his own destiny. As a restricted free agent, the Bengals will maintain some control over McCarron’s future and how much he can make in 2018. The Bengals could also opt to trade McCarron if he becomes a restricted free agent.
Restricted free agent rules
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. That last option will not happen with McCarron, who the Bengals will either try to keep or get something in return for.
A tender is essentially a predetermined one-year contract, which a the team can offer to an RFA. The numbers will likely change for 2018, but in the 2017 offseason, there were three options for RFAs.
- First round tender: $3.91 million
- Second round tender: $2.746 million
- Low/original round tender: $1.797 million.
McCarron was a fifth round draft pick.
If McCarron proves to be an RFA after the arbitration period, the Bengals would select a tender for him and NFL teams would have the opportunity to match the tender and in exchange, give the Bengals the draft pick corresponding with the tender.
So, the maximum McCarron can make in 2018 if he’s an RFA (and is not traded) would be about $4 million. If he’s a UFA, he’ll be able to see what NFL teams will offer him for a long-term or short-term prove-it deal, and there’s a great chance the amount would be more than $4 million for one year.
This is why McCarron will try to do whatever he can to prove he should be a UFA.
We now know his ruling will come February 15 and the decision will majorly impact the Bengals’ offseason.