Even if the Buffalo Bills have no interest in AJ McCarron, the ruling Thursday that makes the Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback an unrestricted free agent is a favorable development.
With McCarron free to test the open market next month, it’s possible a team ahead of the Bills in the draft order will convince themselves he can be their long-term answer at quarterback, thus leading them to pass over the position in the draft. Doing so would be one less team for the Bills to compete with.
Of course, it’s also possible the Bills have an interest in McCarron, who has spent the past four seasons as Andy Dalton’s backup in Cincinnati. That’s not without risk, though.
McCarron’s only significant playing time came at the end of 2015, when he replaced an injured Dalton in Week 14 and then started the final three games of the regular season (going 2-1) and the Bengals’ playoff game. Over that time, he went 99 of 156 for 1,044 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. McCarron drove the Bengals to the go-ahead points in the playoff game against the Steelers, but the Cincinnati defense imploded and Pittsburgh kicked a game-winning field goal.
It’s understandable if the name Rob Johnson is currently running through your mind, Bills fans.
The Bengals chose McCarron in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft out of Alabama. He spent a long portion of his rookie season on the non-football injury list, which was the root of his grievance. The Bengals did not activate him from the NFI list until Dec. 9 of his rookie year, which did not give McCarron enough time to earn an accrued season (six regular-season games on the 53-man roster). McCarron argued that he was healthy and should have been activated before that, a position that an arbiter agreed with. As a result, McCarron gets credit for an accrued season, which gives him four such years, the minimum required for a player to be an unrestricted free agent.
"It's just a blessing," McCarron told the Cincinnati Enquirer on Thursday. "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 will be interesting to see what McCarron's value is on the open market. The Cleveland Browns attempted to trade for him at the deadline in October, agreeing to send second- and third-round draft picks to Cincinnati, but a paperwork error meant the deal wasn't completed in time. The Browns are coached by Hue Jackson, who was McCarron's offensive coordinator with the Bengals for his first two seasons. Cleveland has more than $100 million in salary cap space, so they could acquire McCarron now without having to give up anything – provided the quarterback wants to go there.
Let's say he does sign in Cleveland – would the Browns then be willing to pass on a quarterback with the first and/or fourth picks in the draft? Would signing McCarron make the Browns more apt to trade down in the first round? Those are all questions that now factor into the scenario for the Bills and other quarterback-needy teams around the NFL.
Story topics: AJ McCarron