The number of quarterbacks available for free agency this offseason grew by one on Thursday after an independent arbiter ruled in favor of AJ McCarron in his grievance against the Cincinnati Bengals.
McCarron, 27, filed the grievance in November, arguing that the Bengals should have activated him from the non-football injury (NFI) list during training camp in 2014, his rookie season. Instead, the Bengals kept him on the NFI list with a shoulder injury and didn’t activate him until Dec. 9, and he wasn’t credited for service time needed for an accrued season (six regular-season games are needed).
McCarron will now become an unrestricted free agent when the new league year begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 14.
“It’s just a blessing,” McCarron said via Cincinnati.com. “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.”
A player needs four years of service time to be an unrestricted free agent. For another team to sign a restricted free agent it must first sign the player to an offer sheet, which the player’s existing team has five days to match.
Teams can restrict the movement of restricted free agents by using tenders associated with draft picks. It is expected that the Bengals would have assigned a first-round tender to McCarron if he had been a restricted free agent, so any team that signed him to an offer sheet that the Bengals chose not to match would have had to surrender a first-round draft pick to Cincinnati.
But now McCarron will becomes one of the more attractive free agent quarterbacks on the market behind Drew Brees and Kirk Cousins.
He could be signed by any number of teams to start or compete to start, in 2018.
“We’re going to be open to everything,” McCarron said of his impending free agency. “I’m not the one — the people that know me and truly know me, and my family knows — it’s not about the money for me. I just love playing football. Making the money is great but I just want to play. Whoever gives me an opportunity. I’m not going to chase the huge contract and be put in a situation that I might not be one hundred percent comfortable with just because it’s a lot more money or whatever. I want to go somewhere where I can win and help the team win and we have a bright future together. I’m just super excited for this next chapter.”
McCarron was nearly traded to the Browns last season for second- and third-round picks, but the NFL denied the deal because Cleveland didn’t notify the league before the 4 p.m. ET deadline.
The Bengals selected McCarron, a former Alabama quarterback, in the fifth round (164th overall) of the 2014 draft. He has appeared in 11 NFL games, including three starts at the end of the 2015 season when he replaced an injured Andy Dalton.
“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.”