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Uncertain free agent status of A.J. McCarron and Teddy Bridgewater could impact Jets and other QB needy teams this offseason

Detroit Lions v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

This year’s free agent class at the quarterback is interesting. There are a number of young players available with varying degrees of upside.

A.J. McCarron and Teddy Bridgewater might be among them, but odd circumstances could limit their availability. Players with four years of service time in the NFL become unrestricted free agents once their contracts expire. McCarron and Bridgewater were both drafted in 2014, which made 2017 the fourth season for both in the NFL.

Injuries both players suffered earlier in their respective careers have complicated their free agency status, however.

SB Nation’s Bengals site Cincy Jungle spells out the complication for McCarron.

It all started after the Bengals drafted McCarron in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He showed up to camp with a shoulder injury suffered in college, and he spent most of the season on the Non-Football Injury list. This list is reserved for NFL players who get injured away from the field or in college before entering the NFL. As a result, McCarron was only active and on the Bengals’ roster for the final three weeks of the season.

By NFL rule, one year of experience is six or more games played or spent on the Physically Unable to Perform or Injured Reserve lists. As a result, McCarron’s three active games in 2014 did not make up a year of NFL experience. That meant McCarron would have only three years of service time at the time he hit free agency (March 2018). Players with only three years of service become restricted free agents under the current Collected Bargaining Agreement.

McCarron has filed a grievance requesting to become an unrestricted free agent. A ruling is expected sometime this week.

If he wins, McCarron will become an unrestricted free agent. If he loses, he likely will be a restricted free agent. This would allow the Bengals the right to retain McCarron by matching any contract offer another team made him.

With the Bengals seemingly committed to Andy Dalton as their quarterback, it is unlikely they would match a contract of any substance simply to retain a backup quarterback. Restricted free agency comes with more strings attached, though.

By offering McCarron a fairly inexpensive one year contract, the Bengals could become entitled to a first round Draft pick as compensation if another team signed him, and they did not match the offer.

Would another team be willing to give up a first round pick AND sign McCarron to a decently sized deal?

The Bengals could also agree to trade McCarron for a lesser return and get something back for him rather than let him leave in a year for nothing. In any event, a ruling that McCarron is a restricted free agent would make obtaining him a much more difficult venture than if he is simply ruled an unrestricted free agent.

As a low round Draft pick, the early career injury that put McCarron on the NFI list early in his career flew under the radar of most NFL fans. That was not true of the catastrophic knee injury Bridgewater suffered in the summer of 2016. It kept him out all of 2016 and led him to start 2017 on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. As Mike Florio noted last year, that could impact Bridgewater’s eligibility for free agency this coming spring.

Florio did a good job outlining the complexities here.

As PFT first explained in May, the Collective Bargaining Agreement states in clear and obvious terms that a contract tolls for any player who, in the last year of his deal, is physically unable to perform through the sixth game of the regular season. Bridgewater, who was on the PUP list to start the season, ultimately was physically unable to perform through Minnesota’s sixth game.

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“We know the rule very well,” Spielman said last May. “We’ve talked to the Management Council, we understand everything that’s involved with it, but again it’s something from a contractual standpoint that I’d rather not comment on. But there are specific rules there, and we’re quite aware of what the rules are.”

If the Vikings are “quite aware” of the rule, they’re the only ones; despite the plain language of the CBA, some believe that the contract for a player like Bridgewater would toll for a year only if he had missed the entire season. Because he didn’t miss the full season, but did miss six games, a squabble could be looming over whether he’s free to leave — or whether the Vikings can keep him for another year at a base salary of $1.354 million.

The Vikings have yet to indicate one way or another whether they are going to attempt to toll Bridgewater’s contract. If they do, we could be heading for another grievance, and his availability might come into question.

You might read this and say, “Who cares? The Jets aren’t going to be interested in either of these guys.”

You might be right. You might be wrong. Even if the Jets wouldn’t be focused on these two, these situations will have an impact. Another quarterback needy team might be interested in McCarron and/or Bridgewater. If those players are not available, the Jets could find themselves with increased competition for a quarterback they do want.

Either way, these two scenarios are worth watching.