While the offseason spotlight shines on Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, there's another intriguing trade target flying under the quarterback radar.
AJ McCarron has made it clear that he wants a chance to play, and the Bengals are expected to test the trade market for Andy Dalton's understudy over the next month.
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah recently polled five NFL personnel executives about this year's quarterback options. McCarron actually rated higher than Garoppolo.
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"I wouldn't feel good about making a major commitment to any of these quarterbacks," one executive explained. "If I had to choose one, I would go after McCarron. Ideally, you get him for a late second- or early third-round pick. Then, if it doesn't work out, you draft a QB in 2018."
Another executive said he would target McCarron over Garoppolo if his team couldn't land a proven quarterback.
The obvious small sample-size caveats apply here. That said, the results still come as a surprise considering Garoppolo's substantial edge in draft pedigree (second round vs. fifth round) and limited game film.
One point in McCarron's favor? Because he spent the majority of his rookie season on the non-football injury (NFI) list, he won't reach unrestricted free agency for two more years. Garoppolo's rookie contract, on the other hand, expires after next season.
If the Patriots set an exorbitant price tag for Garoppolo, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported earlier this month, a franchise such as the Browns might explore McCarron as a fallback option. Cleveland coach Hue Jackson oversaw the former Alabama star's development in Cincinnati and called plays when McCarron stood in for an injured Dalton to close out the 2015 season.
Over that five-game span, McCarron completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,044 yards (6.7 YPA) with a 7:3 TD-to-INT ratio and an 89.8 passer rating. NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks has noted that scouts were impressed with his poise in the pocket as well as his ability to make "big boy" throws between the numbers at intermediate range.
It should be pointed out, though, that McCarron's effectiveness waned after showing initial promise. He failed to convert a single third down in the regular-season finale versus the Ravens and was shut out for three quarters in the rain as the Bengals lost a memorable playoff bout with the Steelers.
Throughout last offseason, coach Marvin Lewis revealed in January, no team reached out to inquire as to McCarron's availability. Were the Bengals to engage in 2016 trade talks, they would have demanded a first-round draft pick in any compensation package, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported last week.
Lewis was reluctant to deal McCarron at the time, he explained, "because he's exactly what we look for to be a replacement quarterback if we needed it."
Although McCarron never got off the bench in 2016, director of player personnel Duke Tobin insisted late last month that Dalton's backup has become "an extremely valuable piece of our team."
Is that stance in lock-step with McCarron's league-wide value? His draft pedigree, skill set and track record suggest he's a luxury-model backup quarterback likely to be exposed as a substandard starter if granted the opportunity.
If the Bengals hold tight to their alleged first-round demands, McCarron will be trapped in Cincinnati for another year while Garoppolo and Romo take the reins in new offenses.