Ranking AJ McCarron landing spots: Browns get a second chance at quarterback

Bengals backup quarterback -- excuse me, former Bengals backup quarterback -- AJ McCarron got some great personal news on Thursday night, when he found out he won his grievance against the Bengals, a decision that will make him a free agent once the new league year begins.

McCarron, who famously once likened himself to Tom Brady, was slated to be a restricted free agent, but it was ruled he should have received full credit for his 2014 rookie season (he wasn't activated until December) so now he gets some salary paid back and will hit the open market, assuming the Bengals do not franchise tag him this month. 

The former Alabama quarterback had some interesting quotes to Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer after finding out about the news, saying he "loved my time" with the Bengals (indicating it will be in the past) and noting "it's not about money" and he is "not going to chase the huge contract." 

"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. 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."

We'll see about that! He may not have to: considering the only guys in front of him on the free agency quarterback rankings are Kirk Cousins and Drew Brees, there is a pretty good chance he will get paid a large sum of money given all the quarterback-needy teams out there. 

Worst case: he's going to get some Mike Glennon-level money, earning in the range of $20 million guaranteed. He might not need it, he might not want it, but he's going to get it.

Who will give it to him? Let's rank the possibilities. 

1. Cleveland Browns

This is a fascinating scenario to watch, because the Browns clearly are big fans of McCarron, having tried to trade for the quarterback at the deadline last year but failing to because the Browns can't ever have kind of nice things. (The Browns were going to give up a second- and third-round pick to the Bengals for McCarron but didn't alert the league in time of the deal.)

However, that was both before John Dorsey was hired as GM and before the Browns secured the No. 1 overall pick in a loaded quarterback draft class. Would McCarron be interested in being a Glennon-like quarterback for the Browns? Hue Jackson, Cleveland's head coach, is his former offensive coordinator. His other former offensive coordinator, Ken Zampese, was hired this offseason as the Browns quarterbacks coach. Working with a group of coaches he knows would obviously be an appealing factor. The Browns probably aren't winning a bunch of games, but Jackson and Dorsey could guarantee him playing time and still take a quarterback (Josh Allen?) first overall. McCarron would get a chance to showcase his skillset as a full-time starter, potentially hit free agency again and the Browns would get a familiar talent to bridge them to the player they take No. 1 overall. 

It's also entirely possible McCarron has not interest in being a bridge guy. He might see himself as a "win-now" starter who should get paid for the long haul. If that's the case, the Browns would pose a serious risk for him. He can sign in free agency and get a bunch of money, but as the Glennon deal taught us, nothing is guaranteed. Even if the Browns promised him playing time, they could draft someone with the top pick, start the season 0-5 and bench McCarron. That would be a suboptimal way to use newfound free agency. At that point McCarron would just be another name on the back of the jersey

2. Jacksonville Jaguars 

If you were going to recreate a team that was close to McCarron's college team, Alabama, and make it a pro-style team, the Jaguars would probably be the closest approximation. Jacksonville is a defense-heavy team capable of making a playoff run based on pass rush and the secondary alone. The core pieces of Jacksonville's defense aren't going anywhere (whereas Bama just reloads on five-star recruits each year). The Jags want to run the heck out of the ball, just like the Crimson Tide, and even have an SEC back in Leonard Fournette in the backfield. Cam Robinson, their top young offensive lineman, even played at Alabama.

The Jags are a quarterback away from being a really serious Super Bowl threat; we don't know exactly how much of an upgrade McCarron will be, but we do know he would be an upgrade over Blake Bortles. If he is serious about taking less money, moving to Florida would help him out from a tax standpoint. The Jags already picked up Bortles's fifth-year option but assuming he clears everything from a physical perspective, they can still cut him ahead of the new league year (those options are guaranteed for injury only, not performance).

Jacksonville could legitimately believe it can win a Super Bowl with Bortles. They weren't far off in 2017 and the Eagles won it all with Nick Foles under center as a backup. But upgrading the quarterback position even slightly would make them very dangerous.

3. Minnesota Vikings 

Almost went T-2 for the Vikes and Jaguars, but it feels like Minnesota is going to find a way to do something with its trio of free-agent quarterbacks, even though Jacksonville has more tied to its current quarterbacks.

There is a very good chance Case Keenum gets hit with the transition tag or even works out a deal with the Vikings that is friendly for both sides. McCarron is not an upgrade over 2017 Case Keenum, but he might be an upgrade over 2016 Case Keenum. Again, we don't know anything for sure on the former Bengals backup, having only seen him play in a handful of games. (CBS NFL editor Brett Anderson helpfully pointed out Foles threw more touchdown passes against the Pats and Vikings in the playoffs this year than McCarron has his in his whole career. The sample size is small.)

But the Vikings fit the same sort of bill as the Jaguars. They are built on defense and prefer to run the ball. Minnesota has a big advantage over the Jaguars too, because the skill position guys are better overall. Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph is an underrated group of pass catchers. Dalvin Cook will be back from his ACL tear and Latavius Murray did an admirable job filling in. The offensive line needs work, but the Vikings have a cushy spot for any interested quarterbacks. 

4. Arizona Cardinals

This could be manna from the football heavens for GM Steve Keim and new coach Steve Wilks. The Cardinals have a serious need for a quarterback, probably do not want to start a young guy in Week 1 if they can avoid it and do not have the cap space to financially compete with the Browns and Jets if Kirk Cousins wants to max out his earning potential. Cousins, like McCarron, has also said he isn't as worried about money as he is about winning, but the price tag on McCarron is simply going to be smaller.

The Cardinals have a similar setup to Jacksonville and Minnesota: their defense was better than people think last year and should be stout next year with Wilks in to run an aggressive attack. The offensive line isn't great, but they have David Johnson in the backfield and Larry Fitzgerald catching passes. It's a better situation than you might be led to believe for a prospective quarterback, and McCarron could see this as a strong opportunity to play and win early.

5. Denver Broncos

Another situation where there's a very good defense and a good run game, talent at the skill position but a void at quarterback. The only question is how many of the guys involved on those sides of the ball will be around. Aqib Talib is a strong candidate to be released and C.J. Anderson could be cut as well. There were rumblings about Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders possibly being shown the door too, but those got walked back pretty quickly (probably because losing both those guys would make the Broncos much less attractive to free agent quarterbacks).

There's still plenty on offense and defense to make this a dangerous team, and John Elway's made it pretty clear he will be aggressive at the quarterback position in free agency. If he can't land Cousins, McCarron could make for a very nice consolation prize and likely make the Broncos competitive again pretty quickly. 

6. Buffalo Bills 

The Bills could end up parting ways with Tyrod Taylor, who seems like a strong bet to be released this offseason. Assuming that happens, Buffalo will need to fill the void, unless it wants to roll with just Nathan Peterman (they should not do that). 

McCarron might make a lot of sense as a guy who has experience. And the coaching staff could be a fit, with recently hired offensive coordinator Brian Daboll having come from Alabama. That's not to say he and McCarron have some deep-seated connection, but it's very possible McCarron could communicate with Daboll through Nick Saban about whether the two would work well together, and vice versa.

The Bills aren't loaded with weapons, but have a nice offensive line and LeSean McCoy in the backfield. Sean McDermott is capable of getting the defense to play above its head, and this team went to the playoffs just last year.

7. New York Jets

Maybe I'm just overlooking the Jets because of the obvious infatuation with Cousins coming out of New York. This team would make sense if McCarron simply wants to get paid and play, although clearly there is an early ceiling with this squad and minimal talent at the skill positions as of now.

The Jets play in the Patriots' division, which makes life difficult! (So do the Bills, obviously.) If the musical chairs shake out a certain way and the McCarron is left standing with the Jets as the only seat, it wouldn't be surprising at all to see him go to New York. 

8. Miami Dolphins

The Fins are probably rolling with Ryan Tannehill again, and don't bank on McCarron taking a job somewhere against an established veteran. But if for some reason Miami decides to go in a different direction and release Tannehill -- they would save $15 million in cap space and could fill the void with a veteran and supplement it with a draft pick -- McCarron could make sense. He's athletic enough and can play downhill without making mistakes to fit in with Adam Gase's offense. Lot of dominos have to fall for this to happen though.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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