AJ McCarron wins grievance, will be unrestricted free agent

AJ McCarron to become unrestricted free agent (1:34)

Dan Graziano joins SportsCenter to discuss the news that AJ McCarron won his grievance against the Bengals, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. (1:34)

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron got his wish.

He will be an unrestricted free agent on March 14 after an arbiter ruled Thursday in favor of the backup quarterback in his grievance against the Bengals.

"It's just a blessing," he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "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."

McCarron will also be eligible for back pay for the time he spent on the non-football injury (NFI) list, the arbiter ruled, a source told ESPN's Dan Graziano. The amount of money McCarron will receive isn't immediately known.

McCarron told the newspaper that he will "be open to everything" in free agency.

"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. ... Whoever gives me an opportunity. I'm not going to chase the huge contract and be put in a situation that I might not be one hundred 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," he told the Enquirer.

McCarron, 27, filed the grievance in November, arguing that the Bengals should have activated him from the NFI list during training camp in 2014, his rookie season. Instead, the Bengals kept him on the NFI list with a shoulder injury and didn't activate him until Dec. 9, and he wasn't credited for service time needed for an accrued season (six regular-season games are needed).

A player needs four years of service time to be an unrestricted free agent. For another team to sign a restricted free agent it must first sign the player to an offer sheet, which the player's existing team has five days to match.

Teams can restrict the movement of restricted free agents by using tenders associated with draft picks. It is expected that the Bengals would have assigned a first-round tender to McCarron if he had been a restricted free agent, so any team that signed him to an offer sheet that the Bengals chose not to match would have had to surrender a first-round draft pick to Cincinnati.

McCarron was taken by the Bengals in the fifth round (164th overall) of the 2014 draft out of Alabama, and emerged with shoulder tightness in May, which caused him to sit out of organized team activities. He did return to participate in minicamp before being placed on the NFI list before training camp. The NFI is for players who have injuries that occur away from the team, including college football injuries.

In McCarron's case, the Bengals exercised their full window available before putting him on the active roster, which affected not only his pay (players on NFI do not necessarily get paid their full salary), but also his accrued season. McCarron said during training camp in 2014 that his shoulder felt great, but he was not participating because it was the team's wish.

McCarron told the Enquirer that "it was never a personal issue at all" with the Bengals and he "absolutely loved" his time with the team. He told the newspaper it was "an honor to play for them."

McCarron has contended several times that he wants to be a starter, and initially thought he could be traded before the 2017 season. That didn't happen, but he was just minutes away from being traded to the Cleveland Browns later that fall. The deal to send a second- and third-round pick to the Bengals for him fell through when Cleveland missed its deadline to send in the paperwork.

McCarron has appeared in 11 NFL games, including three starts in which the Bengals went 2-1 at the end of the 2015 season when he replaced an injured Andy Dalton, who had a thumb injury. McCarron also started a playoff game that season, an 18-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers memorable because of back-to-back penalties late in the fourth quarter by the Bengals' Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones.

In his 11 regular-season games, McCarron has thrown for 920 yards with six touchdowns, two interceptions and one fumble lost, completing 64.7 percent of his pass attempts (86 of 133). In the playoff loss to the Steelers, he threw for 212 yards with one touchdown (a scoring pass to A.J. Green to put the Bengals up late), one interception and one fumble lost. He was 23-for-41 passing (56.1 percent).