A.J. McCarron was ruled an unrestricted free agent Thursday.
An arbitrator's decision at the close of business Thursday to make Bengals back-up quarterback Andy Dalton an unrestricted free doesn't appear to change their off-season plans.
They're still looking for a No. 2 QB.
Even if the decision went the club's way and McCarron was deemed a restricted free agent, there was a more than decent shot the Bengals weren't going to have him anyway for the upcoming season either via a trade or letting him sign elsewhere in exchange for compensation and they've already been perusing options in free agency and the draft.
McCarron filed the grievance because the Bengals put him on the non-football injury list (NFI) his rookie year of 2014, which left him a year shy of unrestricted free agency. ProFootballTalk.com, citing a copy of the decision, said "the arbitrator ultimately concluded that McCarron did not receive a medical examination before being placed on the NFI list, and that the evidence does not firmly establish that McCarron would have failed the exam. Indeed, by (Bengals) Dr. (Marc) Galloway's admission, McCarron would have passed it."
The decision, according to PFT, quoted Galloway as saying he didn't feel it was in McCarron's long-term interest to throw as early as September. The NFI list is reserved for players that are injured while not with the team and when McCarron first arrived after he was drafted for rookie minicamp in May of 2014, he didn't practice regularly because of tightness in his shoulder.
"The Bengals are aware of the ruling and, while the team disagrees with the decision, it will move forward and respect the outcome," the club said in a statement shortly after the ruling came down.
PFT also reported the NFL agreed with the Bengals and the league's management council represented them in the grievance.
But it was an amicable grievance. A relieved McCarron from Mobile, Ala., profusely thanked the Bengals after being apprised he won.
"First and foremost I'm extremely thankful to the Brown family for believing in me," McCarron said. "Coach (Marvin) Lewis and all the coaches that were there when they drafted me, I can't thank them enough. A lot teams passed on me before I went in the fifth round. I've got a lot of precious memories from my four years there."
Only a last-minute gaffe by Cleveland at the trading deadline back on Oct. 31 prevented the Bengals from getting a second-rounder and third-rounder for McCarron, so if the Bengals won the case and he was a restricted free agent they probably would have tendered him a one-year deal in the $3.5 million-$4 million range, which would have netted a second-rounder if the Bengals chose not to match.
That's the tough part of the decision for the Bengals. No compensation. But they're in the market, anyway.
Complicating matters is that Jeff Driskel, last season's No. 3 quarterback, doesn't appear ready just yet to step into the back-up role after breaking his non-throwing arm in the last week of practice back in December. Some team insiders believe he's among the most athletic quarterbacks they've had, but he suffered two major injuries last season involving broken bones and it's not clear when he'll be ready.
So with McCarron now in the UFA pool, the Bengals are no doubt diving in, too. One name that makes sense is Matt Barkley, late of Arizona. He's one of three quarterbacks the Bengals brought in for an emergency workout last October when McCarron surfaced with a sore Achilles.
Barkley is a better fit than the other two quarterbacks that came in for that workout, Matt McGloin and T.J. Yates. Barkley, who turns 28 in the first week of the season, is a fourth-round pick of the Eagles in 2013 when Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor had Barkley as Philadelphia's quarterbacks coach.
Barkley had been cut by the 49ers in the preseason and re-joined the Cardinals late last season and didn't take a snap all year. He had his most extensive action in the pros in 2016 when he made his only six starts and went 1-5 for the Bears with eight touchdown passes and 14 interceptions while completing 59.7 percent of his 216 passes for 7.5 yards per throw.
Another option on the UFA market is potentially Mike Glennon, reportedly about to be released.
McCarron, best known for coming closer than Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton at getting the Bengals a post-season victory, made his only four starts when he replaced Dalton (throwing thumb) in the final three games of the 2015 season before leading a 16-point fourth-quarter comeback in the Wild Card Game against Pittsburgh. If not for a Jeremy Hill fumble with 1:23 left, McCarron would have been the least experienced quarterback to win a play-off game in more than 30 years.
"That's got to be the highlight," McCarron said. "That was an awesome moment when we took the lead."