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Arbitration ruling decides AJ McCarron will be an unrestricted free agent in 2018

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AJ McCarron will hit the free agent market in March and will be free to sign with the team of his choosing.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals now know the free agent status of AJ McCarron.

On Thursday, an independent arbitrator ruled that McCarron will be an unrestricted free agent in the 2018 free agency period, which begins in March. This was an unexpected ruling, as many felt McCarron’s case was unjust and that he would go on to become a restricted free agent this offseason.

The questioning of McCarron’s free agent status came from his rookie season, when he missed the majority of the year while recovering from a shoulder injury he suffered prior to joining the Bengals out of the University of Alabama. The Bengals placed him on the Non-Football Injury list prior to the start of the season as a result. The NFI list is used for non-football injuries as well as injuries that occur to players during college, away fro the NFL.

Here’s a look at the play that caused McCarron’s injury at Alabama.

Because McCarron missed all but three games of the season, he did not accrue a year of NFL service. To become an unrestricted free agent, players must accrue four full years of service before hitting the open market at the end of their rookie deal. One year of NFL service is six or more games spent on the active roster or on the Physically Unable to Perform or Injured Reserve lists.

That’s why McCarron was set to become a restricted free agent, but he filed a grievance in 2017 that argued he was unfairly placed on the NFI list. Since McCarron was successful in his grievance, he will hit the open market in March as an unrestricted free agent. To be clear, there’s no hard feelings between the Bengals and McCarron, but the quarterback would like a shot to actually start and play in the NFL, which he’s not getting with the Bengals and now will be able to get as he hits the free agent market.

According to Bengals.com, McCarron’s case was based on whether the Bengals properly used the NFI list and whether McCarron medically needed to be on it:

The case is apparently going to be decided on whether the Bengals used a proper medical basis to determine that McCarron suffered his shoulder injury elsewhere and was eligible for NFI. That would give McCarron only three accrued seasons, making him a restricted free agent. If the arbitrator rules the injury happened with the Bengals, McCarron’s rookie season reverts to the physically unable to perform list (PUP), giving him four accrued seasons and making him an unrestricted free agent.

“Anytime you come into a place where a guy is established like A.D., who’s led them to the playoffs however many times and they are paying him that much, it’s not going to happen,” McCarron said at the end of the 2017 season. “It’s just the way it goes. Like I said, I just want a chance to compete so I’m just waiting on that opportunity.”

The only time when McCarron has been able to start for the Bengals was in 2015 when Dalton went down with a thumb injury. In Dalton’s place, McCarron put up 895 yards, seven touchdowns, and three interceptions in four starts (five games). He also nearly led the Bengals to their first playoff win in over two decades.

That stretch was a big reason why NFL teams may be willing to pony up as high as a second-round selection for him. The Bengals have remained entrenched in their large asking price, which has been multiple high-round picks. Last season, the Bengals and Browns nearly struck a trade that would have sent McCarron to the Browns, reportedly for a second and third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Now, the Bengals will get a compensatory pick at most when they lose McCarron to free agency.

“It’s just a blessing,” McCarron told Cincinnati.com in an exclusive interview. “I was going to be blessed either way because you’re still in the league, you’re still being able to play the game for a living, but it’s just awesome just to be free now and to hopefully get that opportunity and be able to compete somewhere. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. I’m just super excited. Just really excited that I get that opportunity now and I just can’t wait to just showcase what I can do and show a team that I can lead a team and win ballgames.”

It’s also worth noting, the Bengals can appeal the arbitrator’s decision to a three-person appeals panel. So, this may not be over just yet, but it seems McCarron is about to hit the free agent market.

“It really was an honor to play for that organization and something that I’ll always remember and cherish for the remainder of my life,” he said. “It really is. It was an honor to play for them.”