Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron won a grievance with the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday that allows him to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.
So far, McCarron has served as Andy Dalton’s backup in Cincinnati. But the national championship-winning quarterback hopes to accomplish more than that.
“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,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
The news gives way to an intriguing question: Where will McCarron land?
Quality NFL quarterbacks are tough to find, and more than half the league probably would like to see its quarterback situation improve. But how many teams would see an improvement with McCarron behind center?
The sample size is small, but he has been decent when called upon. He’s 2-1 as a starter in four seasons with the Bengals, with all three of those starts coming in 2015. In 11 career appearances, McCarron has completed 65 percent of his passes for 6 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He’s thrown for 920 yards, nearly all of which came in seven appearances in 2015. In two of his four NFL seasons (2014, 2016) McCarron didn’t take a single snap.
Still, the 27-year-old could provide value to a team that needs a starting quarterback — especially if that team is looking to take a raw prospect such as Sam Darnold or Josh Allen in the draft this year.
Here are five potential landing spots for McCarron:
5. New York Jets
The New York Jets haven’t exactly been a model NFL franchise recently, but they are in play for McCarron. Their No. 1 target likely is Kirk Cousins, but McCarron could end up being their guy. The Jets also have the No. 6 pick in the draft and seem likely to pick one of the top four quarterbacks. If they go that route, McCarron could serve as a short-term bridge while the Jets develop their quarterback of the future.
This wouldn’t be ideal for McCarron. Dealing with the New York media would be a downside, and the Jets don’t have other complimentary pieces that would make him successful.
4. Cleveland Browns
The Browns are in perpetual need of a quarterback, and McCarron could be their guy if they decide to address other needs with their first-round draft picks. Cleveland has the No. 1 and No. 4 overall selections, and it’s likely to take a quarterback with one of those picks. That wouldn’t necessarily rule out McCarron, whom they almost acquired in a trade last year. The talent on the Browns roster is improving, and McCarron probably wouldn’t mind facing the Bengals twice per season.
3. Denver Broncos
Denver was horrific at quarterback in 2017, and fixing that position is priority No. 1 for John Elway and the Broncos front office. Denver has been linked to other free agents such as Cousins and Case Keenum, but McCarron could be a cheaper option while Denver develops a potential franchise quarterback from the draft. Denver has the No. 5 pick and has been linked to Allen and Baker Mayfield.
It’s possible all three of the Broncos quarterbacks who saw action last season — Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler — will be off the roster by the time the 2018 season rolls around. If the Broncos are ready to move on from that trifecta, picking up McCarron to be the primary starter next season would be a solid move. And for McCarron, going to a franchise that has a winning history and a solid defense would be beneficial.
2. Buffalo Bills
For some reason, the Buffalo Bills are looking for a quarterback again. They seem likely to release Tyrod Taylor ahead of free agency, rather than pay him $18 million in 2018. And behind Taylor, who consistently puts up decent numbers and led the Bills to the playoffs last season, is Nathan Peterman, who did neither of those things.
The Bills don’t have a high pick in the draft, but they could take a prospect such as Mason Rudolph or Lamar Jackson in the early rounds. Regardless, McCarron would be a great pickup for the Bills as they look to build toward another playoff appearance.
1. Arizona Cardinals
Arizona is hitting the reset button after Carson Palmer announced his retirement. The Cardinals have known this day was coming — Palmer was often injured — but now they need a reliable quarterback of the future. Arizona is a stable organization with one of the NFL’s most-respected superstars in receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and would be a great spot for McCarron.
The Cardinals figure to take a quarterback in the draft as well, but they have other needs. If they decide to take a project quarterback late in the draft, McCaron could be just what they need.