Down
enlarge shrink
Eagles name Carson Wentz starting QB
0:51 | NFL
Eagles name Carson Wentz starting QB
Monday September 5th, 2016

During the 2015 season, a total of 72 quarterbacks threw passes, and many of the backup QBs called in to spell the game’s marquee names made a name for themselves along the way. Saints veteran Luke McCown starred in ubiquitous Verizon commercials highlighting the noble dreams of the lowly backup, then lived out that script when Drew Brees missed a start with a shoulder injury. The Bengals were forced to put their playoff fate in the hands of Andy Dalton’s understudy AJ McCarron and nearly pulled off a stunning wild-card comeback. After three years following Peyton Manning from the sidelines, Brock Osweiler parlayed his late-season relief performances into a giant contract with the Texans after Denver won it all.

This summer, five players from the ranks of last year’s Week 1 backup quarterbacks earned starting nods for their team’s 2016 season openers: Osweiler, Case Keenum, Robert Griffin III, Jimmy Garoppolo and Blaine Gabbert. Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott became the darling of the preseason even before he was thrust into a starting role by Tony Romo’s latest injury. And Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem brought unprecedented attention to the 49ers’ sidelines.

In short, backup QBs are on the upswing. Often regarded as long-term investments at best and nightmare scenarios at worst, the league’s backup quarterbacks demand fans’ non-stop attention as the 2016 season opens. And like all aspects of the NFL that demand attention, they must be ranked.

NFL
Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz face divergent paths ahead as rookie starting QBs

The hypothetical used to determine this year’s pecking order: The starting quarterback of a league-average team goes down with a freak injury, and early reports offer no sign of his imminent return. Who has both the short-term poise to steady the ship in a hurry and the intermediate-term potential to grow into the role? The 2016 rankings:

1. Drew Stanton, Cardinals
2. AJ McCarron, Bengals
3. Josh McCown, Browns
4. Geno Smith, Jets
5. Colt McCoy, Redskins
6. Colin Kaepernick, 49ers
7. Brian Hoyer, Bears
8. Luke McCown, Saints
9. Derek Anderson, Panthers
10. Mike Glennon, Bucs
11. Shaun Hill, Vikings
12. EJ Manuel, Bills
13. Mark Sanchez, Cowboys
14. Chase Daniel, Eagles
15. Nick Foles, Chiefs
16. Ryan Mallett, Ravens
17. Sean Mannion, Rams
18. Chad Henne, Jaguars
19. Landry Jones, Steelers
20. Kellen Clemens, Chargers
21. Matt Cassel, Titans
22. Paxton Lynch, Broncos
23. Matt Moore, Dolphins
24. Matt Schaub, Falcons
25. Scott Tolzien, Colts
26. Dan Orlovsky, Lions
27. Tom Savage, Texans
28. Brett Hundley, Packers
29. Jacoby Brissett, Patriots
30. Trevone Boykin, Seahawks
31. Matt McGloin, Raiders
32. Ryan Nassib, Giants

Not all backup quarterback jobs are created equal, of course. Below, an examination of the six different categories that house this year’s class of Week 1 QB2s.

NFL
Drew Brees Q&A: Saints quarterback on Tom Brady, Roger Goodell and more

Clipboard-holders to the stars

No QB competition here—everyone involved would prefer these backups only rarely buckle their chinstraps.

1. Drew Stanton, Cardinals
9. Derek Anderson, Panthers
10. Mike Glennon, Bucs
19. Landry Jones, Steelers
20. Kellen Clemens, Chargers
24. Matt Schaub, Falcons
25. Scott Tolzien, Colts
26. Dan Orlovsky, Lions
28. Brett Hundley, Packers
31. Matt McGloin, Raiders
32. Ryan Nassib, Giants

There are a wide range of career paths, playing styles and evaluations in this group, which has expanded last year’s definition of “star” to include the players backing up some less decorated starters who aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. (The lone possible exception is Matthew Stafford, who is playing out the last year of his contract, but Orlovsky only just held off rookie Jake Rudock for Detroit’s backup job and has thrown 40 passes in the last three years, so it’s hard to place him in a more exciting classification.)

Stanton produced the vine of the year last season during the Cardinals’ pivotal win in Seattle. When you combine that with his late-season on-field success after Carson Palmer’s torn ACL in 2014, it’s clear that no one has mastered the balance between constant readiness and sideline levity that the position demands quite like the 10-year veteran out of Michigan State. Add in the revelation this summer that the team is mulling giving Stanton a chance to start full-time when Palmer hangs ’em up, and you have this year’s No. 1 number-two QB.

NFL
Game 256: Which matchup will be flexed to prime time in Week 17?

At the other end of the spectrum is Nassib, who is coming off a shaky preseason he needed to use as a showcase to other teams in the final year of his rookie contract. He can’t do anything about Eli Manning’s perfect attendance, and he just finished the only month of the season that he can control by going 31 of 75 through the air (41.3%) for 379 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.

Hundley might be higher up the list if he hadn’t battled an ankle injury for most of August after ascending to the backup role. Jones and Schaub each won a game for the AFC North teams that employed them in 2015, but neither could keep the magic going for longer than 60 minutes. The constant floating of Mike Glennon’s name when the quarterback trade market heats up should tell you everything there is to know about the Bucs’ opinion of their standing contingency plan for an injury to Jameis Winston.

Backup plans to the backup plans

Injuries and suspensions this summer have put these QBs in spots they didn’t expect.

11. Shaun Hill, Vikings
13. Mark Sanchez, Cowboys
29. Jacoby Brissett, Patriots

The Vikings spent a little more than 72 hours with Shaun Hill as their 2016 starter before swinging a surprise trade for Sam Bradford over the weekend, but on a team with more measured expectations, Hill (career record as a starter: 16–18) would probably have been trusted to play out the string, as he did admirably in San Francisco (’08), Detroit (’10) and St. Louis (’14). As it is, Minnesota is thinking playoffs, even with the loss of Teddy Bridgewater. Hill may start Week 1 while Bradford gets acclimated, but he’ll be settled back in on the sidelines well before Week 17.

Sanchez’s training camp tells the story of his value at this stage in his career: The eighth-year pro wasn’t good enough to beat out rookie Trevor Siemian for the Broncos’ starting job, but he was signed as a safety net for Prescott almost immediately by Dallas once Denver cut him loose. That in-game experience, while it may not always show up in his in-game decision-making, separates him from many other wandering backups.

Fantasy
Bold predictions: Top running backs, breakthrough wide receivers and more

I’m bullish on the future for Brissett, who played with a natural calm in college and in spurts during the preseason. Still, it’s hard to imagine him taking on so much so soon.

Trending upwards

These backups have all seen their stock rise from this time a year ago—that is, as much as a backup QB’s stock can rise in limited playing time.

2. AJ McCarron, Bengals
8. Luke McCown, Saints
17. Sean Mannion, Rams
27. Tom Savage, Texans

McCarron almost beat the Steelers in the playoffs. McCown almost beat the Panthers in the regular season. Whichever accomplishment you think deserves more respect, both QBs in 2015 showed they can hold their own in big moments and won’t waste the advantages afforded to them by some rare in-house continuity.

Outplaying No. 1 pick Jared Goff for the backup job in Los Angeles is a nice feather in the cap for Mannion, who may see more time in his second season (he threw just seven passes as a rookie) if the Rams look competitive and Case Keenum can’t pull his weight. And Savage has gone from the punchline of the Texans’ four-headed quarterback situation to the clear-cut No. 2 behind Osweiler in his three years in Houston.

One play away

Injury worries for the starters leave these players constantly on call.

3. Josh McCown, Browns
12. EJ Manuel, Bills
14. Chase Daniel, Eagles
16. Ryan Mallett, Ravens
21. Matt Cassel, Titans

Over the weekend, Daniel came off this list and landed right back on it after the Eagles’ intention to start rookie Carson Wentz leaked out in the wake of the Sam Bradford trade. His uninspiring preseason aside, Daniel’s history with Doug Pederson is a better security blanket than most head coaches can claim to have.

NFL
Second Nature: Why NFL coaches are so prone to clock management blunders

The Browns’ offense should be one of the season’s most fascinating units, and it’s unlikely RG3 would get a quick hook in the opening weeks before his young weapons get a chance to settle into their roles and Josh Gordon returns from his four-game suspension. Still, McCown has seen more playing time in the last three seasons than almost anyone else on this list, which should be a comfort to Hue Jackson if the first-year coach has to turn to his bench. Cassel failed his extended audition with the Cowboys last fall but fell into a solid situation in Tennessee, where he can support Marcus Mariota and direct the Titans’ ground-first attack if the franchise QB gets banged up again.

Like Mariota, Tyrod Taylor opens himself up to a few extra hits per game with his ability to extend plays, making Manuel a vital backup who can approximate Taylor’s playing style over short stretches. Mallett came out of nowhere (nowhere being Houston’s 2015 quarterback depth chart, in this case) to beat the Steelers in Week 15 last season, showing the Ravens enough to keep him around behind Joe Flacco.

Cast-off starters casting a shadow

At least one of these seven names will be starting for someone (again) by Week 1 of the 2017 season.

4. Geno Smith, Jets
5. Colt McCoy, Redskins
6. Colin Kaepernick, 49ers
7. Brian Hoyer, Bears
15. Nick Foles, Chiefs
18. Chad Henne, Jaguars
23. Matt Moore, Dolphins

Smith played only one game in 2015 after an infamous sucker punch put his dreams of starting on hold, but he was actually pretty good in that losing effort against Oakland. The Jets will enter this season with four quarterbacks, but they certainly won’t enter 2017 with the same four, so Smith should be motivated to make the most of any cameos he lands this fall. Hoyer played his way into a decent spot in Chicago—if Jay Cutler goes down, there are weapons on the perimeter that can win the jump balls DeAndre Hopkins won for him in Houston.

Foles, Henne and Moore are known commodities on teams that are likely to ride their starters to the bitter end. Kaepernick is the exact opposite within Chip Kelly’s new offense, to which Blaine Gabbert got the keys for Week 1. Kelly has earned a reputation for needing more than one QB to survive a season, and Kaepernick’s 2016 debut will have the entire sport’s attention.

Rookies to watch

While Jared Goff continues to develop, these two could join Wentz and Prescott on the field at any time.

22. Paxton Lynch, Broncos
30. Trevone Boykin, Seahawks

Lynch may not have won Denver’s three-man competition this summer, but he got the next best thing when Sanchez was cut and will surely get a chance to show what he can do when (not if) the Broncos run out of leash with unheralded starter Siemian. Boykin’s place on this list is shaky—having the raw undrafted rookie out of TCU be the first man up in the event of an injury to Russell Wilson would be a big-time roll of the dice for a Seattle team that plans to play deep into January—but he is fun to watch even when things aren’t going perfectly. That’s about all neutral fans can ask for out of a backup.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.