Overpaying for AJ McCarron Would Mark a New Low in NFL QB Desperation

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystFebruary 19, 2018

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 19:  Quarterback AJ McCarron #5 of the Cincinnati Bengals throws as he warms up before a game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on November 19, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Step right up, one and all, because AJ McCarron is here to inject some unwise quarterback spending into free agency. Which means he's about to make sure all is right in the NFL universe and a sense of normalcy has been restored.

It just wouldn't be free agency without a young, unproven quarterback vacuuming up a desperate team's money. That quarterback was the Chicago Bears' Mike Glennon in 2017. In 2016, Brock Osweiler started his journey toward becoming a free-agent bust for the Houston Texans.

Now, it's McCarron, who was declared an unrestricted free agent when he won his grievance against the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport was the first to report the result of McCarron's case, and he added that the 27-year-old is "gonna get paid a lot" as part of an unusually intriguing class of free-agent quarterbacks.

And he's right, which means McCarron could be the latest quarterback to become a walking, breathing, throwing money pit. In that sense, the 2018 free-agency period will feel a little too familiar.

The difference is at least there was a faint source of optimism prior to the flops by Glennon and Osweiler.

Mike Glennon averaged only six yards per attempt in his four starts for the Bears in 2017.
Mike Glennon averaged only six yards per attempt in his four starts for the Bears in 2017.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Like McCarron will, Glennon had a gap of a couple of years since his last start when the Bears signed him, and over the 2015 and 2016 seasons, he attempted just 11 passes. But prior to that, Glennon, who was also 27 when he hit the open market, had started 18 games over two years.

If you squinted just right while looking at his 2013 and 2014 seasons, it was possible to see a shred of potential. It was not anywhere near enough potential to justify $18.5 million in guaranteed money, but he met a minimum level of hope.

At the time, the Bears could look at Glennon's 2013 rookie season on a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team starved for supporting talent and see a quarterback who finished with a solid touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19-to-9. He performed that well even while facing relentless pressure, which resulted in 40 sacks over 13 games.

Giving Glennon anything that approached starting quarterback money was a laughable mistake and a decision set to be abandoned after one season. Jeff Dickerson of ESPN.com noted Wednesday the "writing is clearly on the wall" for the Bears to release Glennon.

But at least there was something to latch on to with him. Osweiler's case study in burnt money provides a much closer parallel to what the McCarron experience could be like.

Osweiler appeared in eight games for the 2015 Denver Broncos, starting seven. He attempted 275 passes, more than double McCarron's career regular-season total (133). While he struggled then, Osweiler hadn't reached full-blown disaster territory yet. He posted a respectable passer rating of 86.4 and averaged 260.1 passing yards per start.

Osweiler's time as a competent starter for the Broncos was brief.
Osweiler's time as a competent starter for the Broncos was brief.Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

He still didn't do nearly enough to earn the $37 million in guaranteed money the Texans gave him. Osweiler was benched in Week 17 in favor of a 39-year-old Peyton Manning, who took over for the Broncos' playoff run, but the former Arizona State standout spent nearly half a season as a starter.

Unlike McCarron's will be—he hasn't started a game since January 2016—Osweiler's time as a starter was fresh when the Texans signed him. McCarron attempted a mere 14 passes during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. All of them came in garbage time. But he'll still be highly coveted on the free-agent market. And one quarterback-needy team in particular is surely salivating.

That team's head coach logged some hard cardio when he ran across the field to warmly embrace McCarron in 2017.

Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson knows McCarron well. He was the Bengals' offensive coordinator during the 2014 and 2015 seasons and oversaw McCarron's early development.

Jackson guided McCarron to his brief success over three starts and seven appearances in the 2015 season. That run was highlighted by six touchdowns and only two interceptions and a passer rating of 97.1. But in the wild-card round, McCarron averaged only 5.2 yards per attempt against the in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also averaged fewer than six yards per attempt in two of his three regular-season starts (5.7 against the Broncos in Week 16 and 5.9 against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17).

But Jackson became so enamored with McCarron that, incredibly, he was ready to sacrifice second- and third-round picks for him at the 2017 trade deadline. The Browns, however, failed to file the proper paperwork before the 4 p.m. ET deadline, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.

Now, there's another chance for a Jackson-McCarron bear hug.

Jackson's team entered the offseason with enough available cap space (a projected $110.7 million, per Spotrac) to purchase a small planet somewhere in the solar system. That figure leads the league by a country mile, as the second-place New York Jets have $79.3 million available.

But being able to throw your money around in free agency doesn't excuse wasteful spending. Smart teams always make sure there's money in the banana stand for next year, and committing a dime to McCarron beyond 2018 would be reckless.

No team should do that. The level of quarterback desperation has reached such a fever pitch, however, that it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if McCarron's value was driven comically high on the open market.

The Browns will likely lead the bidding, but new general manager John Dorsey should approach the rebuilding of his team's quarterback depth chart with clear eyes. There's nothing wrong with pursuing McCarron, but he should do so only at a certain price point and with a certain role in mind. The Browns should bow out once McCarron's ask goes past—or even close to—Glennon's haul in 2017.

McCarron is the best bridge option available at a position with a usually bare free-agency cupboard. That's the most optimistic view possible, as he should land behind the much more experienced Case Keenum and Sam Bradford on any wishlist.

McCarron is familiar with Jackson's offense, which likely makes him more appealing to the Browns than other teams. He can be a perfectly adequate temporary starter while a Sam Darnold or Josh Allen adjusts to the NFL. He is not a quick and easy fix that would allow the Browns to pass on a top passer in the first round, as some have suggested, including NFL Media's Bucky Brooks.

The only way forward for teams that go after McCarron would be to sign him to a tolerable contract and draft their franchise signal-caller. There are multiple quarterback-challenged squads with top-10 picks positioned to do just that.

But an overpayment for McCarron feels inevitable because dreaming on youthful quarterback promise can too often carry more weight than concrete production.

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