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Path to the Passer: Appearances aside, new Bills QB AJ McCarron has 'an edge to him'

This is the next in a series of in-depth features on quarterback options for the Bills.

It might not be so obvious from his aw-shucks, folksy demeanor, but there's no mistaking that AJ McCarron is comfortable in the skin of everything that goes with being a quarterback.

Calling the shots and taking them. Being the face of his team and one of its primary leaders.

A glimpse of that came through Thursday, when the Buffalo Bills introduced their new class of free-agent signings to the media. While the rest either wore Bills sweatshirts, hats and other team gear, McCarron, 27, showed up in a classic gray suit, with a crisp white shirt and red power tie. He was more subtle in displaying his newfound Bills allegiance, which came in the form of a pin on his left lapel.

McCarron looked like a young executive, like a man who isn't afraid to take charge of any situation. He gave the clear impression that he's right at home in the role of football's on-field CEO.

According to those who have watched McCarron from close range, it is far more of who he is than appearances and that disarming Southern drawl might otherwise indicate.

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Those back-to-back BCS national championships he won at the University of Alabama aren't just nice bullet points on a resume.

"AJ's got a lot of confidence in his ability," Phil Savage said by phone.

Savage is the former general manager of the Cleveland Browns and director of player personnel for the Baltimore Ravens. He covered McCarron's college career as a broadcast analyst for the Crimson Tide Sports Network. He's also the executive director of the Senior Bowl college all-star game, which is played each year in Mobile, Ala., which happens to be McCarron's hometown and Savage's as well.

"He'll walk in there and his attitude, I'm sure, will be, 'OK, I've got a two-year contract. I'm going to prove to you guys it should be six or eight,'" Savage said of the deal McCarron signed Wednesday. "I think it remains to be seen if that can really happen, but I do think that he'll embrace this challenge, knowing that not only is it a chance to star in the league for the Bills, but in many ways it's an audition to the rest of the league."

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"I actually spoke to (Browns coach) Hue Jackson (who worked with McCarron at the Bengals' offensive coordinator) the night before we signed him, texted with two other coaches of his that I know, and the one word that they told me about AJ that got me fired up was 'competitor,'" Bills GM Brandon Beane told reporters Friday. "I love that. This guy has an edge to him."

How could he not?

After all that heady success at Alabama, McCarron found himself a fifth-round draft pick parked on the Cincinnati Bengals' bench behind Andy Dalton. McCarron has started only three regular-season games and a wild-card playoff encounter against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals tried trading him to the Browns last season, but the deal fell through because of a technical blunder by the Browns at the trade deadline.

With Dalton entrenched as a starter, McCarron fought for and won the ability to become an unrestricted free agent so he could have the chance to make a larger impact on another team. Yet, after a flurry of free-agent quarterback movement, he ended up being one of the last of the so-called attractive options to sign. And he ended up with the Bills, who two days earlier traded up to the 12th pick of the draft, presumably to better position themselves to select their long-term QB.

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Immediately after McCarron's signing was announced, the label of "bridge quarterback" was attached to him. As in the bridge between the Bills and the time when USC's Sam Darnold or UCLA's Josh Rosen or Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield or Wyoming's Josh Allen will be the starter. McCarron's deal, which will pay him $10 million over two seasons and could provide an additional $6.5 million depending on how much he plays, is structured in a way that reinforces the notion that he is a mere placeholder.

Beane tried to shoot that down. McCarron dismissed it as well. He says he won't allow someone else's label to define him while making it clear he intends to be a team player and support Nathan Peterman and whoever else enters the Bills' QB picture.

"I think you always help a younger guy along," McCarron said. "I have never been the type to not do that. I think karma is a son-of-a-gun and it can come back to bite you. If I am better than the other guy, then I just trust in my talents and go out and play my game. If it doesn’t work out, then you learn to be a great teammate, be a part of the team."

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Still, Savage expects the modest expectations to serve as fuel for McCarron to show he intends to write a new chapter to his career -- one that doesn't have him residing in anyone's shadow.

"He won't like that 'bridge' term at all, in my mind. He'll think that he's going in there to win the job and ultimately keep it," Savage said. "I think a lot of people cast him as a game manager at Alabama because that team was so good during the time he was there. But AJ made a lot of plays, a lot of throws. He was definitely a level or two above just being a guy that drove the bus. I mean, he made some plays for Alabama."

"If I'm AJ McCarron, I'm going, 'Man, I've got me a chance here. That's all I want is a chance,'" CBS NFL studio analyst and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms said. "And now that can work in many ways. Maybe the Bills do not get the quarterback and can't get, through the draft, what they want, if that's what they're going to do. That's always a possibility. And even if they do, (McCarron) knows that no rookie's going to come in and pick up the offense and know how to be a pro quarterback as good as he's going to be, especially early in the year. So that gives him the opportunity to get on the field to showcase, do all that. Who knows where it goes from there?"

As far as Simms is concerned, he could go somewhere, even if that place is with a third NFL team.

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He has seen enough in McCarron's small body of work to recognize that he has more to offer than being an understudy.

"When I saw him play those games with the Bengals, he was a little more athletic and just had a bigger presence on the field than I expected," Simms said. "I don't know why it caught me off-guard, but maybe I just underestimated what he did at Alabama because every time they threw the ball, they saw one coverage because (opponents) were too worried about the running game. And he's going to see one thing and took advantage of that.

"But I think his presence, his athletic ability kind of caught me by surprise a little bit. He's kind of built for Buffalo. Big (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), strong. And, also, I think his arm was better than I expected once I saw him in the pros. But I didn't see that until that run (of games he started) because I didn't get a chance. It seemed like every time I was down there (in McCarron's rookie season), he didn't even practice or anything the first year. So I couldn't judge him then, but during those games I could see why people think he can be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

"And it looks like he probably is going to have a chance to do that."

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