Which teams have the best and worst backup quarterbacks? That’s a tricky question, as teams treat the backup quarterback position differently. For the Eagles, Bills, Jaguars, and Jets, the backup quarterback will be the loser in the training camp battle for the starting job. In Dallas, Detroit, and Indianapolis, the backup is a savvy veteran who can cover for the star quarterback in a pinch. Some teams have young quarterback-of-the-future types, the Patriots have a backup who doubles as trade bait (and a third-stringer who doubles as a tight end), and the Steelers are experimenting with a backup who doesn’t have an AARP card. There are also a number of teams hopelessly lost at the position, perhaps best described as “We learned nothing from watching the 2011 Colts.”
I’ve decided to group the 32 backup quarterbacks, the four eventual winners of the training camp battles, and four other notable backups into four separate categories: The Veterans (30+ years of age), The Quarterbacks of the Future, The Retreads (at least 25 but under 30), and What are they thinking? Within each category, I’ve listed the quarterbacks from best to worst. For each player, I’ve listed his age as of the opening day of the 2013 season, his draft status, and his number of career passes. The rankings are based on my subjective thoughts.
The Veterans (30+ years of age)
The top of this list consists of starting-caliber quarterbacks, assuming you define “starting-caliber” as a top-twenty quarterback on a good day. A team could survive starting them for four games and expect to go 2-2. Towards the bottom, you have players who could come off the bench and hold a second-half lead, but don’t expect them to start for more than a week.
1) Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles - Age: 33.2. Draft: Rd: 1, Pick 1 (2001). Career Passes: 2889
Assuming he loses the quarterback competition to Nick Foles, Vick immediately becomes the best backup quarterback in the league. Vick sports a career 56-44-1 record and posted an MVP-caliber season in 2010. Even in 2011, he ranked 8th in Net Yards per Attempt. He’s the only former number one overall pick on the list.
Orton (35-34) also has a career winning record, despite having played for Josh McDaniels. Orton threw for 9,213 yards and 50 touchdowns in 38 games from 2009 to 2011 while averaging 6.42 net yards per attempt. He had just 10 passes last year1 as Tony Romo’s backup, and Cowboys fans are hoping for a similar workload in 2013.
3) Shaun Hill, Detroit Lions - Age: 33.7. Draft: Undrafted. Career Passes: 954
For his career, Hill has averaged 5.88 NY/A and 5.67 ANY/A, making him close to a league average passer. That’s excellent, of course, for a backup. Hill has seemingly perfected the role of backup quarterback: he came off the bench against the Titans and delivered a remarkable comeback to force overtime last season. Against Tennessee, Hill went 10/13 for 172 yards and 2 touchdowns, which graded as one of the best games of the year…. despite the fact that he threw his first pass with 76 seconds left in the 4th quarter.
4) Matt Hasselbeck, Indianapolis Colts - Age: 37.9. Draft: Rd: 6, Pick 187 (1998). Career Passes: 5018
Hasselbeck is the oldest quarterback on this list by nearly four years. In his prime, he was a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback who took his team to the Super Bowl, and he owns an 80-72 career record. Even two years ago, Hasselbeck was an above-average starter. But he’ll be 38 in late September, and his only role this year should be as a sounding board for Andrew Luck.
5) Matt Cassel, Minnesota Vikings - Age: 31.3. Draft: Rd: 7, Pick 230 (2005). Career Passes: 2045
Cassel is nothing special, of course, but he got somewhat of a raw deal with the Chiefs. He’s probably not going to challenge Christian Ponder, but a team could survive with him as their quarterback for several games. Even after last year’s ugly 6 TD, 12 INT performance, he sports an impressive 82/57 career ratio. Cassel is also one of two odd members in the 400/50 club (the other is also on this list).
6) Jason Campbell, Cleveland Browns - Age: 31.7. Draft: Rd: 1, Pick 25 (2005). Career Passes: 2182
Campbell was a disaster last year, averaging 2.91 ANY/A on 57 pass plays for the Bears. To be fair, he was forced into action against two very good defenses (San Francisco and Houston), but it seems like we’re entering the decline portion of Campbell’s career. His 31-40 record may not be a fair representation of his abilities — Campbell has always finished around league average in ANY/A — but he’s on his fourth team of his career for a reason.
7) Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tennessee Titans - Age: 30.8. Draft: Rd: 7, Pick 250 (2005). Career Passes: 2249
Fitzpatrick is nothing more than a poor man’s Chad Pennington: he’s smart, can run an offense well, but is prone to bad interceptions and lacks the physical abilities to excel in the NFL. As he enters his thirties, Fitzpatrick isn’t likely to improve. A 23-41-1 career record has Fitzpatrick now on his fourth team, too. Unfortunately for Titans fans, he may be Tennessee’s best quarterback.
8) Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks - Age: 30.4. Draft: Rd: 2, Pick 64 (2006). Career Passes: 1053
Jackson has always been a mobile check-down artist, but he’s not accurate enough or fast enough to make the big plays. At 17-17, he’s a capable quarterback: he went 7-7 for the Seahawks in 2011, was on the Bills bench in 2012, and now returns to backup Russell Wilson. He could probably take this talented Seattle team to 9 or 10 wins, but Seahawks fans aren’t particularly interested in finding out if that’s the case.
9) Bruce Gradkowski, Pittsburgh Steelers - Age: 30.6. Draft: Rd: 6, Pick 194 (2006). Career Passes: 709
Gradkowski is gritty, which is pretty much the only nice thing anyone ever has to say about him. But he’s led a fourth-quarter comeback/game-winning drive in each of the last two years despite starting zero games over that time.2 In 2009, the Pittsburgh native threw for 308 yards and three 4th-quarter touchdowns to beat the defending champion Steelers, a loss that ended up costing Pittsburgh a playoff berth. When Ben Roethlisberger misses his usual game or two this year, Gradkowski should prove to be a capable backup.
10) Derek Anderson, Carolina Panthers - Age: 30.2. Draft: Rd: 6, Pick 213 (2005). Career Passes: 1440
Anderson just barely qualifies as “veteran backup” instead of “What were they thinking.” Capable backups to Cam Newton don’t exist in any tangible sense, but I read an interesting point in the 2013 Football Outsiders Almanac. Anderson, like Newton, is a high yards per completion passer: Newton led the league in that metric in 2012, Anderson did so in 2007, his only season of note. Anderson won’t ever succeed in a timing based offense that relies on quick reads and accurate throws, but he might be able to lead a second-half scoring drive for the Panthers. Anything more than that, and Carolina fans will quickly realize just how valuable Newton really is.
The Quarterbacks of the Future
These quarterbacks are all under 25 or were drafted in the last three years. We can’t use NFL production to rank them, so I’m going to order them based on my mythical trade value rankings.1) EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills - Age: 23.5. Draft: Rd: 1, Pick 16 (2013). Career Passes: 0
2) Geno Smith, New York Jets - Age: 22.9. Draft: Rd: 2, Pick 39 (2013). Career Passes: 0
There isn’t much to separate Manuel and Smith at this point. All we know is that one franchise definitely views Manuel as the better player. Of course, that organization is Buffalo, so take it for what it’s worth. Still, these are the two highest-drafted players in the Under-25 list (with one notable exception), so it makes sense to put them at the top.
3) Brock Osweiler, Denver Broncos - Age: 22.8. Draft: Rd: 2, Pick 57 (2012). Career Passes: 4
It seems like ages ago that every Pac-12 telecast included the phrase “Did you know that Brock Osweiler is 6’8?” Our collective minds were blown when the former Sun Devil clocked in at 6’7 at the combine. Denver drafted Miami (OH)’s Zac Dysert in the 7th round of the 2013 Draft, but it’s Osweiler who stands tall3 as the Quarterback of the Future in Denver. Peyton Manning may not have too many years left, but we probably won’t see much out of Osweiler until 2015 at the earliest. But that’s okay: this time in two years, Osweiler will still be younger than the current ages of the next two men on this list.
4) Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins - Age: 25. Draft: Rd: 4, Pick 102 (2012). Career Passes: 48
Cousins is a limited quarterback, but he’s got some good mentoring in the Shanahans. At his best, and with good coaching, Cousins could turn into a Jake Plummer type. Fortunately for him, Mike Shanahan was the man who got the most out of Plummer, and Cousins impressed enough in limited action last year that he might already fetch a second round pick on the open market.
5) Ryan Mallett, New England Patriots - Age: 25.3. Draft: Rd: 3, Pick 74 (2011). Career Passes: 4
In some corners, Mallett is the product of the Patriots Hype Machine (TM) that makes people think New England’s backup quarterback will be the next Tom Brady. After the success of Matt Cassel, Kevin O’Connell and Brian Hoyer became the sexy backups du jour. The difference with Mallett is that he’s off the charts in terms of height and arm strength, and was a first-round pick on some team’s boards. But the fact that the Patriots quietly tried to shop him in the off-season and found no bites is a sign that the rest of the league isn’t as high on the former Razorback as are some in the media.
6) Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars - Age: 23.9. Draft: Rd: 1, Pick 10 (2011). Career Passes: 691
It’s easy to be very down on Gabbert: despite being a top-ten pick, it may already be time for Jacksonville to move on from him. On the other hand, Gabbert doesn’t turn 24 until October, and he was better than Chad Henne after adjusting for strength of schedule. It will be interesting to see how Gabbert — if he wins the starting job — does after the team drafted Luke Joeckel with the second overall pick. Tony Khan, the team’s senior vice president of football technology and analytics, noted that Gabbert was in the top third of NFL quarterbacks when given at least 2.6 seconds to throw. Jacksonville’s offensive line was a disaster in 2012 (outside of left tackle Eugene Monroe), so you can understand why the team would want to give Gabbert one more year.
7) Tyler Wilson, Oakland Raiders - Age: 24.1. Draft: Rd: 4, Pick 112 (2013). Career Passes: 0
Wilson may have been a first round pick if he had left school a year earlier.4 As a junior, Wilson threw for 3,683 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions and the Razorbacks finished 11-2. Then, the Bobby Petrino scandal happened and Arkansas had a disastrous 4-8 season. Wilson’s stats didn’t decline nearly as much, but his stock still plummeted. Wilson won’t steal the job from Matt Flynn before week 1, but don’t be surprised if the Raiders give him a chance this year: he’s already two months older than Gabbert.
8) Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles - Age: 24.6. Draft: Rd: 3, Pick 88 (2012). Career Passes: 265
Other than interception rate, Foles was unimpressive as a rookie last year. And let’s be honest: a great interception rate doesn’t carry much weight when the quarterback averages 10.6 yards per completion and goes 1-5. Foles could turn into a good quarterback, and may even become the starter in Philadelphia this season. But I suspect his market value is a bit behind the first seven names on this list. Not to mention the Eagles third-string quarterback.
9) Ryan Nassib, New York Giants - Age: 23.5. Draft: Rd: 4, Pick 110 (2013). Career Passes: 0
Matt Waldman did a great writeup on Nassib here, so I don’t have much to add. I do find it ironic that Nassib, regarded as the most pro-ready quarterback in the draft, went to the team who has the quarterback with the longest active games started streak. Eli Manning will be only 33 in January, so it’s conceivable that Nassib finishes his rookie contract without a single start.
10) Terrelle Pryor, Oakland Raiders - Age: 24.2. Draft: Rd: 3, Supplemental Draft (2011). Career Passes: 30
If you watch Pryor’s touchdown catch against Texas in the Fiesta Bowl, it’s natural to wonder he if could succeed as a 6’6 goal-line threat. Pryor has been a target of fan abuse for years, much of it deserved, but he’s still an incredibly athletic quarterback who turned 24 only months ago. And I don’t know whether this is a good or bad thing, but according to Pryor, he finally learned how to throw a football this offseason.
11) Landry Jones, Pittsburgh Steelers - Age: 24.4. Draft: Rd: 4, Pick 115 (2013). Career Passes: 0
To harp on Pryor’s age, he’s younger than Pittsburgh’s rookie quarterback. Jones followed Sam Bradford at Oklahoma and put up ridiculous gross numbers, but much of that was a function of tempo and the supporting talent. In terms of strength-of-schedule adjusted ANY/A, Jones was not nearly as spectacular, and he peaked in 2010.
12) Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Age: 23.7. Draft: Rd: 3, Pick 73 (2013). Career Passes: 0
Mike Glennon led the NCAA in interceptions last year and ranked seventh in the ACC in yards per attempt. It appears as though the Bucs saw something in him, but I’m not sure what it was. I’m a Josh Freeman supporter, so I don’t expect Tampa Bay to get much out of this pick.
What’s the opposite of a “sweet spot”? These quarterbacks are all too young to be veteran backups but too old (with their history of production) to be legitimate quarterback-of-the-future candidates. There’s a good chance half of these guys will be out of the league within three years, but one of them might be able to land a big contract following a Ryan Fitzpatrick-like half-season of production. All are in the second half of their twenties.1) Mark Sanchez, New York Jets - Age: 26.8. Draft: Rd: 1, Pick 5 (2009). Career Passes: 1866
Sanchez isn’t actually a retread yet, of course, but he fits the definition quite well. The former USC star was never as good as his 33-29 record, but he could be one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL. That’s not what the Jets were hoping for when they selected him 5th overall, but he could have a career revival on another team.
2) Matt Moore, Miami Dolphins - Age: 29.1. Draft: Undrafted. Career Passes: 758
Moore has mucked up two chances to be the starter. In 2007 and 2009, he went 6-2 in eight December starts for the Panthers. In 2010, he was named the team’s starter and was disastrous. Moore played reasonably well off the bench for Miami in 2011, but couldn’t beat out Ryan Tannehill for the job in training camp last year.
3) Kevin Kolb, Buffalo Bills - Age: 29.0. Draft: Rd: 2, Pick 36 (2007). Career Passes: 755
In case you didn’t hear, Kolb suffered a minor injury in training camp after slipping on a rubber mat. It appears as though Kolb will fit in well in the AFC East.
4) Chad Henne, Jacksonville Jaguars - Age: 28.2. Draft: Rd: 2, Pick 57 (2008). Career Passes: 1373
Henne is big and has a big arm, and his Michigan pedigree made him an attractive prospect to some folks. But he’s just 14-23, has more interceptions than touchdowns, and has averaged only 5.86 NY/A for his career. Still, Henne had the top game of 2012, so I can’t rank him any lower than fourth.
5) Brian Hoyer, Cleveland Browns - Age: 27.9. Draft: Undrafted. Career Passes: 96
Hoyer is too old to be a quarterback of the future type — he turns 28 in October and hasn’t even thrown 100 passes in the NFL. He’s the number three quarterback in Cleveland right now, but he’s the youngest passer on the roster5 and may end up the starter before the season is over. The Patriots overplayed their hand when it came to Hoyer’s trade value, but that doesn’t mean he’s worthless. New England finally released him last August after turning down trade offers in prior years (the team also put a second-rounder tender on him earlier in 2012), and Hoyer got his first NFL start in week 17 against the 49ers.
In the 2010 preseason, Hoyer averaged 8.3 yards per attempt and threw 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. He also played well in the ’09 preseason, but that’s about the extent of information we have on Hoyer.
6) Drew Stanton, Arizona Cardinals - Age: 29.3. Draft: Rd: 2, Pick 43 (2007). Career Passes: 187
Stanton is the third and final Michigan State Spartan on the list, joining Kirk Cousins and Brian Hoyer. Perhaps Andrew Maxwell has what it takes to be an NFL backup quarterback! This now completes our tour of retread quarterbacks with AFC East ties.
7) T.J. Yates, Houston Texans - Age: 26.3. Draft: Rd: 5, Pick 152 (2011). Career Passes: 144
Yates is already 26 despite being drafted in 2011. He played admirably as a rookie, guiding the Texans to the playoffs and earning the first playoff win in franchise history. A week later, the clock struck midnight in Baltimore, and we haven’t seen much out of Yates since. He’s already 26, and no one is beating down Houston’s door to trade for him. Despite Matt Schaub’s struggles down the stretch last year, you didn’t hear folks clamoring for the team to switch to Yates. At this point, the former North Carolina quarterback seems likely to end his career as nothing more than the answer to a good trivia question.
8/9) John Skelton, Cincinnati Bengals - Age: 25.5. Draft: Rd: 5, Pick 155 (2010). Career Passes: 602
Josh Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals - Age: 27.3. Draft: Rd: 5, Pick 160 (2008). Career Passes: 177
Skelton was capital H horrible last year: he averaged just 3.10 ANY/A, and managed to produce an AV of -2! But with 17 career starts, I’ve kept him in this category and not the next one. The Cincinnati Enquirer has Josh Johnson leading Skelton in the backup quarterback competition, which wouldn’t be too surprising. Johnson, who played under Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego, is the higher upside player. The real answer to the quarterback battle: the Bengals better hope Andy Dalton stays healthy.
What Are They Thinking?
Nine teams appear willing to roll the dice on their starter’s health. In most cases, that’s because these teams have invested so much in the starter that management has chosen to stick their fingers in their ears and scream “I’m not listening” at the idea that quarterbacks are susceptible to injury. There are no rankings, because there are no winners here.
Tyrod Taylor, Baltimore Ravens - Age: 24.1. Draft: Rd: 6, Pick 180 (2011). Career Passes: 30
Here’s what Mike Tanier had to say about Taylor in the 2013 Football Outsiders Almanac: “The Ravens offense gets all read-optionish when Taylor enters the game, creating culture shock for defenses that game-planned to stop a sequoia. In the short term, the change-up can be effective, but it is hard to tell how the Ravens would adapt to a sustained Joe Flacco absence…. To get a quarterback more unlike Flacco than Taylor, the Ravens would have to sign a shortstop.”
Baltimore has no salary cap wiggle room, and Taylor is okay as a prospect, but it’s kind of crazy that the defending Super Bowl champion is simply crossing its fingers that the starting quarterback stays healthy.
Charlie Whitehurst, San Diego Chargers - Age: 31.1. Draft: Rd: 3, Pick 81 (2006). Career Passes: 155
Whitehurt is old enough to be a veteran, but with only 155 career pass attempts, he makes Michael Vick look like a known quantity. While New York and Pittsburgh dipped their toes into the draft to find potential replacements for the Class of 2004 quarterbacks, the Chargers seem content to let a declining Philip Rivers be backed up by one of the most nondescript backups in the league.
Colt McCoy, San Francisco 49ers - Age: 26. Draft: Rd: 3, Pick 85 (2010). Career Passes: 702Dominique Davis, Atlanta Falcons - Age: 24.1. Draft: Undrafted. Career Passes: 0
This is where things get really ugly. Matt Ryan has been durable throughout his career, although he suffered a shoulder injury at the end of the NFC Championship Game. This is even more egregious than the situation in San Francisco (although I’ll grant that Ryan seems like less of an injury risk): Tony Gonzalez didn’t come back to play with Davis, and Atlanta is walking the tightrope without a net at quarterback. Davis did set a record for consecutive completions in college, but it came against Navy.
Austin Davis, St. Louis Rams - Age: 24.3. Draft: Undrafted. Career Passes: 0
Sam Bradford may not be a franchise quarterback in terms of production, but he is in terms of salary. Davis was a star at Southern Mississippi, but this is another case of “what are they thinking?” Bradford has missed most of two of the last four seasons due to injury, but St. Louis has backed him up with just Davis and Kellen Clemens.
Graham Harrell, Green Bay Packers - Age: 28.3. Draft: Undrafted. Career Passes: 4
This one may take the cake: the dropoff from Aaron Rodgers to any backup quarterback is going to be enormous, but is Harrell even one of the top 75 quarterbacks in the NFL? Sure, he was a star at Texas Tech, but he is in a heated battle with B.J. Coleman for the backup quarterback job, which says all you need to know about Harrell. On second thought, here is all you need to know about Harrell: the Packers are working out Vince Young today. With news that right tackle Bryan Bulaga — who was shifting to the blind side this year — may be out for the season, things just got that much scarier in Green Bay.
Chase Daniel, Kansas City Chiefs - Age: 26.9. Draft: Undrafted. Career Passes: 9
Daniel was a hero at Missouri, but will be 27 in October, and has thrown just nine career passes after going undrafted. On the other hand, he backed up Drew Brees for years in New Orleans, so he should be comfortable once again backing up the best quarterback in the NFL. Behind Daniel is Ricky Stanzi and Tyler Bray (who is very young and very good at not getting sacked, but also very good at making everyone think he is undraftable). In other words, Kansas City better hope Alex Smith stays healthy or the 2013 Chiefs passing game may somehow be worse than last year’s edition.
Luke McCown, New Orleans Saints - Age: 32.2. Draft: Rd: 4, Pick 106 (2004). Career Passes: 316
McCown is currently battling with Seneca Wallace for the right to hold Drew Brees’ clipboard. Yes, the New Orleans star costs a zillion dollars and has been extremely durable, but this is another “Did you happen to watch the 2011 Colts” scenario.
Josh McCown, Chicago Bears - Age: 34.2. Draft: Rd: 3, Pick 81 (2002). Career Passes: 1113
The Brothers McCown round out the list. Jay Cutler is in a contract season, so we’ll see what general manager Phil Emery will do at the quarterback position. With your quarterback in a contract season, you generally want a potential quarterback-of-the-future type backing him up, so you at least get one year of risk-free evaluation. You could also go with a contingency-plan type, but a 34-year-old who has started just 11 games (going 3-8) since 2006 doesn’t make sense as a backup quarterback for any team.