Andy Dalton and the Bengals are expected to get the word this week.
The AJ McCarron decision is due by Thursday, but no matter how the arbitrator rules the Bengals are keeping all their options on the table and among them is keeping their coveted backup quarterback of the last three seasons
McCarron has made his case in the hopes of being categorized as an unrestricted free agent. If he's ruled as a restricted free agent, the Bengals would be able tender him a one-year contract offer in order to reserve the right to match any offer when free agency starts March 14.
McCarron has filed a grievance challenging the Bengals' decision to put him on the non-football injury list for his rookie season of 2014. The NFI list is reserved for players who suffered an injury when they aren't with the team and that season doesn't count toward a year of becoming an unrestricted free agent.
The case is apparently going to be decided on whether the Bengals used a proper medical basis to determine that McCarron suffered his shoulder injury elsewhere and was eligible for NFI. That would give McCarron only three accrued seasons, making him a restricted free agent. If the arbitrator rules the injury happened with the Bengals, McCarron's rookie season reverts to the physically unable to perform list (PUP), giving him four accrued seasons and making him an unrestricted free agent.
It's been a pretty amicable disagreement. McCarron has told Bengals president Mike Brown how much he appreciated his effort to trade him last deadline day to Cleveland, a maneuver the Bengals had performed just once in their division in 50 years and not since 1972. Cleveland famously whiffed on the deal at the last minute and the Bengals lost a second- and third-rounder.
Andy Dalton is the unquestioned, clear-cut starter and while McCarron loves the Bengals, he has indicated he'd love even more to start elsewhere.
"Anytime you come into a place where a guy is established like A.D., who's led them to the playoffs however many times and they are paying him that much, it's not going to happen," McCarron said last month as he packed up his locker for what he hoped was the last time. "It's just the way it goes. Like I said, I just want a chance to compete so I'm just waiting on that opportunity."
Complicating matters is the unknown physical status of No. 3 quarterback Jeff Driskel. It's believed Driskel broke his non-throwing arm during the last week of practice and they're not sure when he'll be ready. That capped an extremely difficult year Driskel that began when he shattered his throwing hand in the pre-season finale and was on injured reserve most of the season.
So if McCarron heads into unrestricted free agency, the Bengals figure to go there, too, to possibly replace him. Indications are the Bengals are going to stay interested. McCarron knows the system, he's respected among his teammates and coaches, and even though he's got just four NFL starts, one of them was a near fourth-quarter comeback in the playoffs. If the value of a backup QB wasn't obvious then in that 2015 Wild Card Game against the Steelers, it certainly is now a week after one was named Super Bowl MVP.
Which is why the Bengals figure to be aggressive if McCarron is a restricted free agent. Given what they reportedly had on the table from Cleveland, it figures they would make him a tender offer worthy of a second-round pick in the $3.5-$4 million range. That means if the Bengals don't match an offer, they'd get a second-round pick as compensation. Another RFA option is they can trade him and they showed they're willing to trade McCarron if they think they get a good enough deal.
It's doubtful they'd let McCarron go if they didn't have a No. 2. Against that backdrop is the draft, as well as the free-agent market. The Bengals should have a pretty good idea what they've got before the draft starts April 26. But they don't know anything until the arbitrator rules this week.