AJ McCarron’s path to unrestricted free agency was far from conventional, but it will likely be a venture for the quarterback that ends up with a chance to compete for a starting role.
The Cincinnati Bengals backup was nearly traded in October, until the Cleveland Browns botched (possibly on purpose) the deal at the last minute. Then, less than a month from his trip into restricted free agency, McCarron won a grievance in February making him an unrestricted free agent.
Cincinnati argued that McCarron’s 2014 rookie year wasn’t an accrued season because he spent all but three games on the non-football injury (NFI) list. But an arbitrator agreed with the quarterback’s argument that he was healthy enough to come off the list in time for the season to count, but was stashed by the team anyway.
Now he’ll be free to sign with the highest bidder in free agency. Despite his limited sample size, there will be a buyer, although Kirk Cousins, Sam Bradford, Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, and even Mike Glennon all found landing spots first.
Why would teams be interested in McCarron?
McCarron, 27, has four starts in his NFL career: three in the regular season and one in the playoffs. But all of those appearances came at the end of the 2015 season when Andy Dalton suffered a broken thumb. McCarron wasn’t called into action at all in 2014 or 2016, and threw just 14 passes in 2017.
In that limited time of regular-season play, he completed 64.7 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and two interceptions. His career 93.6 passer rating would’ve landed 13th among the numbers put up by starting quarterbacks in 2017 — ahead of players like Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott, and Derek Carr.
A fifth-round pick in 2014, McCarron entered the NFL after leading the Alabama Crimson Tide to back-to-back BCS National Championship victories. Since then, he’s had four years of learning from Bengals coaches Hue Jackson, Ken Zampese, and Bill Lazor.
In his brief time on the field, McCarron has been relatively efficient and mistake free. With Kirk Cousins drawing the major attention in free agency, a team may be drawn to the idea that McCarron’s best is still ahead of him and he could quickly outplay his price tag.
Why should teams be wary of signing McCarron?
The majority of McCarron’s passes in the NFL so far came over his three starts at the end of the 2015 season. Over that stretch, the Bengals beat the 49ers and Ravens, each of whom finished 5-11, and lost in overtime to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Broncos.
McCarron completed 54 of his 83 passes (65.1 percent) over that stretch with four touchdowns and no interceptions. That may look impressive and was good enough for a 100.1 passer rating as a starter, but the problem was that the Bengals’ offense slowed to a crawl.
He averaged just 184 passing yards in those games, stalling an offense that averaged 376.9 yards in Dalton’s 13 starts. With McCarron at the helm for the final three games, Cincinnati averaged 276 yards and couldn’t top 300.
That continued into the postseason, where the Bengals lost 18-16 to the Steelers and were outgained 369 yards to 279.
Even during McCarron’s days at Alabama, he had a reputation as a game manager who leaned on a strong running game and an NFL-caliber cast around him. Hoping he can generate offense on his own and lead a team to points with his arm may be too much to ask.
McCarron’s going to get his shot to start
Shortly after the Browns’ attempt to trade for McCarron fell through, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported the team agreed to give up second- and third-round picks for the quarterback in the deal. It happened less than 24 hours after the 49ers sent a second-round pick to the Patriots for Jimmy Garoppolo.
The circumstances are a little different. The Patriots knew Garoppolo was months away from unrestricted free agency and keeping him was impossible, while the Bengals thought McCarron’s impending restricted free agency meant he’d be back in 2018. That made trading for McCarron a little more valuable.
Still, it’s clear that McCarron was held in high regard by the Browns.
So it shouldn’t be difficult for McCarron to find a decent contract in free agency and an opportunity to be a starting quarterback. Cleveland was considered the favorite for his services, but seemingly removed itself from the market by trading a third-round pick for Tyrod Taylor just before free agency.
That leaves the Bills among the few teams with a hole at quarterback. The Broncos would have made sense before it was reported that they’ll sign Case Keenum — McCarron is familiar with Denver’s head coach, Vance Joseph, who was the Bengals’ defensive backs coach from 2014-15.
Being a relatively inexperienced player who spent most of his early NFL career as a backup hasn’t stopped teams in the past. Two years ago, Brock Osweiler received a four-year, $72 million deal from the Texans and last year Mike Glennon got a three-year, $45 million contract from the Bears.
McCarron is set to be the next in that group of young backup quarterbacks to get a big contract in free agency, and — just like Osweiler and Glennon — it probably won’t be the best idea for whichever team signs on the dotted line.