A lot has been made about the upcoming outcome of AJ McCarron’s grievance regarding his free agency designation. Whether the Bengals quarterback hits free agency as an unrestricted or restricted free agent will be up to an independent arbitrator at this point, and a ruling is expected to come down by Thursday. But how did we get here? Why is this such a special case that McCarron felt the need to fight it?
The start of the RFA vs UFA drama
It all started after the Bengals drafted McCarron in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He showed up to camp with a shoulder injury suffered in college, and he spent most of the season on the Non-Football Injury list. This list is reserved for NFL players who get injured away from the field or in college before entering the NFL. As a result, McCarron was only active and on the Bengals’ roster for the final three weeks of the season.
NFL free agency rules
By NFL rule, one year of experience is six or more games played or spent on the Physically Unable to Perform or Injured Reserve lists. As a result, McCarron’s three active games in 2014 did not make up a year of NFL experience. That meant McCarron would have only three years of service time at the time he hit free agency (March 2018). Players with only three years of service become restricted free agents under the current Collected Bargaining Agreement. This is a rarer occurrence than it used to be as all drafted rookies sign a four-year contract when entering the league.
Unrestricted free agency
Now you may be wondering what the major differences are between being a restricted or unrestricted free agent is. Unrestricted free agents are what most people think of when you hear free agency. Simply put when a player hits unrestricted free agency, the contract between that player and team has expired, and that player is free to field offers from whatever team he chooses. He can then decide the team he signs with. His original team gets nothing (other than a potential compensatory pick the following year) if he leaves. In McCarron’s case the Bengals would likely be rewarded with a fairly high compensatory pick next offseason (if he were an unrestricted free agent), but a late third or fourth round pick hardly compares to how the Bengals value the quarterback.
Restricted free agency
Being a restricted free agent is more complicated. If a player is a restricted free agent he must first wait for a designation (or tender) his original team places on him.
A tender is essentially a predetermined one-year contract, which a the team can offer to a restricted free agent. The numbers will 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.
The two likely options the Bengals would put on McCarron — should he be deemed a restricted free agent — are either a first or second round tender. Other NFL teams can then match that offer, giving the Bengals the draft pick and McCarron the contract money that came along with that tender level. Alternatively, a team could offer McCarron more money and potentially a long-term deal -- while still giving up the tender-level draft pick to the Bengals.
Right of first refusal
If McCarron were to accept an offer sheet from a new team, the Bengals would have the “right of first refusal.” This is a five-day period after a restricted free agent is granted an offer sheet in which his former team may match an offer and retain their player. Alternately, the Bengals could choose not to match the offer. If the Bengals don’t match the offer, McCarron would go on to sign with the team that offered him a deal. If the Bengals do match the offer, McCarron’s rights would revert to Cincinnati the day after the five-day “right of first refusal” period ends.
If no team matched the tender the Bengals placed on McCarron and the quarterback signed his restricted free agent offer sheet, he would have a one-year non-guaranteed contract with the Bengals. He would then go on to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason (March 2019).
What the Bengals are likely hoping for
The Bengals will most likely place a second round tender on McCarron (should he be ruled a restricted free agent) hoping for a team to try and sign him to a contract, while coughing up that second round pick to Cincinnati. That would be the ideal scenario for the Bengals. They want a team to come along and give them some sort of compensation for their backup quarterback.
If McCarron is ruled a restricted free agent by NFL arbitration, it would also be an option for the Bengals to trade him away. That nearly happened right before the trade deadline as the Browns were interested in his services. The Browns still could be a suitor for McCarron this offseason.
After the decision ultimately comes down from on whether McCarron is deemed an RFA or UFA, it will likely cause a domino effect decided by the quarterback market. The first domino that needs to fall is Kirk Cousins. He will be the top quarterback to hit free agency and it is likely that many quarterback-needy teams will flock to him.
If Cousins doesn’t sign with the Browns, then we should expect Cleveland head coach (and former Bengals offensive coordinator) Hue Jackson to come looking for McCarron. The Browns were already close to trading for McCarron during the season, but Cleveland messed up the paperwork (or whatever you want to believe). McCarron would probably be a temporary starter for the Browns since they would also likely draft a quarterback, but it’d be a good chance for him to show his ability. He could possibly parlay that into a more serious starting job elsewhere, or in Cleveland.
No matter where McCarron goes we have a hard time believing he is going to be any team’s full-time starter and face of their franchise immediately. He will be given every opportunity to start, but whatever team he goes to may draft a quarterback as well. That’s likely why the Bengals won’t risk putting a first round tender on McCarron. He may be worth giving up a second round pick for, but he’s not worth a first rounder at this point.
Obviously, McCarron won’t be finding a Jimmy Garoppolo type deal, but he could end up with Mike Glennon money (three-years, $45 million) considering he is likely going into an identical situation.
Here’s a look at some of the NFL’s top impending free agent quarterbacks for 2018 (via Spotrac):
You’d have to think the NFL will side with the Bengals when hearing McCarron’s case. If that happens, McCarron will likely get scooped up in restricted free agency. It isn’t the best situation for McCarron since he may miss out on an opportunity to join a team he’d rather play with if that team doesn’t want to part ways with a draft pick in order to sign him. He may also miss out on a higher contract value in unrestricted free agency. But, that is just how life goes sometimes in the NFL.
This story will add another chapter by Thursday, so buckle up and get ready for the ride!