A favorite may have emerged in the Browns’ offseason search for a veteran quarterback.
Bengals backup AJ McCarron won a grievance Thursday, making him an unrestricted free agent when the new league year starts March 14. He petitioned that his shortened rookie season count toward free agency, arguing the Bengals shouldn’t have placed him on the non-football injury list.
An arbitrator agreed with him. He would’ve been a restricted free agent if the Bengals had won.
The Browns tried to acquire McCarron, 27, at the trade deadline Oct. 31, but the deal embarrassingly wasn’t executed in time and McCarron remained with the Bengals.
“It’s just a blessing,” McCarron told the Cincinnati Enquirer on Thursday. “I was going to be blessed either way because you’re still in the league, you’re still being able to play the game for a living, but it’s just awesome just to be free now and to hopefully get that opportunity and be able to compete somewhere.
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted. I’m just super excited. 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.”
Browns coach Hue Jackson is a big fan of McCarron after serving as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator for McCarron’s first two years in the league. Ken Zampese, hired by Jackson as quarterbacks coach last month, was McCarron’s quarterbacks coach for two years in Cincinnati and then coordinator for a season-plus.
The Browns played in Cincinnati less than a month after the failed trade, and Jackson introduced McCarron to owner Jimmy Haslam on the field before the game.
“I think people make too much of that because of all the things that went on with the trade,” Jackson said after the game of the conversation. “And to me, that was the thing that broke the ice, I think you can put a name with a face now and go from there.”
McCarron (6-foot-3, 220) was a fifth-round pick of the Bengals in 2014 after winning a pair of national titles in three years as a starter at Alabama. He’s been stuck behind Andy Dalton, with his only starts coming at the end of 2015 when Dalton was injured.
McCarron went 2-2, including a playoff loss to Pittsburgh in which he led a fourth-quarter comeback before his teammates melted down. He’s completed 109 of 174 passes (62.6 percent) for 1,132 yards, seven touchdowns, three interceptions, 16 sacks and a 87.6 rating.
Kansas City’s Alex Smith was at the top of Cleveland’s wish list after the season, but the Chiefs turned down its trade offer and agreed to send him to Washington.
Kirk Cousins is expected to become a free agent and command $100 million guaranteed over the first three seasons of his contract. The Browns have the money to pay him with a league-high $110 million in salary cap space expected — and left tackle Joe Thomas made a sales pitch to Cousins on Twitter on Thursday — but seem to prefer the idea of pairing a less-expensive veteran with a rookie quarterback drafted No. 1.
The plan would be to start the veteran and try to win games in 2018 after going 0-16 last season.
In addition to McCarron, Minnesota’s Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater, Philadelphia’s Nick Foles and Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor could be possibilities if they become available.
Jackson’s appreciation for and belief in McCarron is well-known, but new general manager John Dorsey controls the roster, doesn’t have the same history with McCarron and may rank the options differently.
The Broncos, Jets, Cardinals, Bills and Vikings are expected to be in the market for quarterbacks.
“We’re going to be open to everything,” McCarron said. “I’m not the one — the people that know me and truly know me, and my family knows — it’s not about the money for me. I just love playing football. Making the money is great but I just want to play. That’s what I grew up on. That’s what you’re raised on. Like here in the south, you’re raised to love football. It’s not about money. I just want to play.”
The Browns could provide that opportunity in 2018, but McCarron might not want to join a team that plans to draft a quarterback with the top pick. If McCarron struggled early, the calls would grow loud for the rookie to play.
Another team could commit to him as a long-term starter.
“Whoever gives me an opportunity,’’ McCarron said. “I’m not going to chase the huge contract and be put in a situation that I might not be 100 percent comfortable with just because it’s a lot more money or whatever. I want to go somewhere where I can win and help the team win and we have a bright future together. I’m just super excited for this next chapter.”