The NFL has set February 15 as the date of a hearing for AJ McCarron’s case against the Cincinnati Bengals. The 27-year-old quarterback filed a grievance against the Bengals pertaining to his contract. The hearing will determine if he becomes an unrestricted or restricted free agent.
McCarron was drafted by the Bengals during the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. While he did pass the post-draft examinations, Cincinnati placed the former Alabama quarterback on the Non-Football Injury list for most of the season. This designation is for players that endure injuries that they suffered away from the football field or while in college. McCarron suffered a shoulder injury in college and entered training camp with the Bengals with that injury still bothering him. During his rookie year, McCarron was only on the active roster for the final three weeks of the season.
The NFL rules define one year of experience in the league as six or more games played or spent on either the Physically Unable to Perform or Injured Reserve lists. According to that definition, McCarron’s rookie season did not qualify as a year of experience, resulting in the quarterback only having three years’ worth of experience at this time. McCarron’s deal with Cincinnati concluded at the end of the 2017 season, however, under the current collected bargaining agreement McCarron is a restricted free agent. McCarron believes he should be an unrestricted free agent.
As an unrestricted free agent, McCarron would be permitted to negotiate and sign a contract with any team he desires. The Bengals may only receive a potential compensatory pick next offseason if McCarron signs with another team. Other than that, McCarron would have the final decision. In this scenario, the Bengals would likely receive a late third or fourth round pick.
Restricted free agency has more limitations. A restricted free agent must receive a “tender” from their original team before listening to offers from another team. Typically, a tender is a predetermined one-year contract. In 2017 the three tender options for restricted free agents were first round, second round and low/original round, equating to $3.91 million, $2.746 million and $1.797 million respectively.
Those numbers will likely change for 2018, but essentially Cincinnati would select one of the options presented for McCarron if he would be determined a restricted free agent. Other teams are then permitted to match that offer by giving the Bengals the draft pick and McCarron the money for the level that Cincinnati selected, or teams have the option to offer McCarron more money. In turn, if McCarron were to accept the offer of another team, Cincinnati has the “right of first refusal,” meaning that they have five days that McCarron accepts an offer from another team that they can attempt to match the new team’s offer. If the Bengals match the offer, McCarron stays in Cincinnati, but if the Bengals do not match the offer then McCarron goes to the new team.
The Bengals are hoping that McCarron becomes a restricted free agent as that would give Cincinnati the best odds of retaining the young quarterback. A seemingly likely scenario seems to be that if the Cleveland Browns are unable to sign Kirk Cousins in free agency that they would then turn their sights towards McCarron. McCarron was already close to becoming a Brown during the 2017 season when Cleveland and Cincinnati agreed to terms of a trade but the Browns messed up the paperwork, resulting in the trade not being able to occur.