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Best of the second-best: Ranking the NFL's backup quarterbacks

Some backup quarterbacks like Matt Hasselbeck and Derek Anderson may consider themselves to have the world's best job. But others like Johnny Manziel and now RG3 are clamoring for on-the-field action. We rank the quarterbacks most likely to get a shot. 

Last week, veteran quarterback Derek Anderson signed a two-year contract extension worth up to $5 million through 2017 to stay with the Panthers, for whom he has thrown 101 passes in 14 appearances over four seasons. Anderson led the Browns to their last winning season in 2007, and is almost certain to surpass 10,000 passing yards for his career the next time he starts a regular season game. But that milestone is not what he or the Panthers necessarily had in mind when they came to the negotiating table.

Cam Newton, the former No. 1 overall pick and beaming face of the Panthers franchise signed an extension of his own this summer, a deal worth upwards of $118.5 million with $60 million guaranteed through 2020. If everything breaks right for Carolina, Newton will stay healthy and successful, and Anderson won’t see the field.

That’s the nature of the job for the NFL’s backup quarterbacks, and Anderson is one of the lucky few who have found a measure of stability at a position often filled by unproven commodities or true journeymen. For certain types of players at certain points in their careers, the backup role happens to be a perfect arrangement: short on prestige and expectations while still no more than a freak injury or losing streak away from all the responsibilities of a franchise cornerstone.

Not all backup jobs are created equal, however, and that’s borne out by the diverse set of players holding down those 32 quasi-coveted spots as the 2015 NFL season opens. With the league’s quarterback competitions settled for Week 1, Jimmy Garoppolo’s showcase put on hold by the nullification of Tom Brady’s four-game suspension and a handful of teams crossing their fingers as they prepare to start injury-prone field generals, there’s no better time for a closer look at one of football’s most unique jobs.

What follows is an overview of the six different models of backup quarterback in the league today, with each team’s second-in-command sorted into the tier he fits best. The members of each group are ranked from the most to least desirable option.

Clipboard-holders to the stars

The rankings:

Kellen Clemens, Chargers
Jimmy Garoppolo, Patriots
Brock Osweiler, Broncos
Luke McCown, Saints
Scott Tolzien, Packers
Ryan Nassib, Giants
Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks
Sean Renfree, Falcons

It’s been an unseasonably eventful few weeks for this group of eight, who are set to spend the next five months in the shadow of the league’s elite, called upon only in dire emergencies. Brett Hundley capped off a strong preseason with a four-touchdown display in Green Bay’s exhibition finale, the type of performance that may cast the final year of Tolzien’s current contract in a different light. Renfree, the Duke product whom the Falcons took with the 249th pick in the 2013 draft, was left as the only backup standing in Atlanta after T.J. Yates and Rex Grossman failed to make the 53-man roster.

And then there is Garoppolo. After the prolonged tease of the Deflategate saga, he may ultimately follow the arc of numerous recent Patriots backups and attempt to make his mark elsewhere if Brady truly intends to play into his mid-40s.


The prototype: Nassib, who has thrown just five passes in two years as a pro. The Giants have never been the type of contender expected to run away and hide with a playoff berth in hand, so he can’t even be assured Week 17 action in place of Eli Manning.

The 2015 sleeper: Osweiler, the poster boy for the plight of the backup, should get ready to go find his helmet again. His moment draws nearer as Peyton Manning enters the twilight of his career.

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The rankings:

Drew Stanton, Cardinals
Mark Sanchez, Eagles
Chase Daniel, Chiefs
Case Keenum, Rams
A.J. McCarron, Bengals
Johnny Manziel, Browns
Jimmy Clausen/David Fales, Bears
Bryce Petty, Jets

Stationed behind injury risks and entrenched starters who have tested the patience of their fan bases, this group could be called upon to play at any moment. Fales takes Clausen’s place as the most popular man in Chicago while the latter recovers from a concussion and Jay Cutler continues to confound. Manziel doesn’t have the populist momentum he had at this point last year, but Josh McCown has never played a full 16-game season. The Jets are still well-positioned to bring Bryce Petty along slowly in his rookie season, but they’ll be holding their breath on every hit Ryan Fitzpatrick takes until Geno Smith returns from his broken jaw in a few weeks.

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The black sheep of this group is Daniel, who is no threat to take over for a healthy Alex Smith mid-season. While Smith is locked into the Kansas City job for the coming years, Daniel still deserves recognition for the serviceable performances he’s delivered when called upon in consecutive Week 17 matchups with the Chargers, including a 19–7 win last year that nearly lifted the Chiefs into the playoffs.

The prototype: Stanton, who got the Cardinals off to a strong start after Carson Palmer suffered a nerve contusion in his throwing shoulder, then kept them in the hunt when Palmer was lost for the year with a torn ACL until a knee injury of his own scuttled the Cardinals’ Super Bowl aspirations.

The 2015 sleeper: McCarron may graduate from preseason darling to a more serious challenger for playing time if the Bengals sour on the known quantity that is Andy Dalton.

Ex-starters who squandered their big breaks

The rankings:

Mike Glennon, Buccaneers
Matt Moore, Dolphins
Zach Mettenberger, Titans
Chad Henne, Jaguars
Shaun Hill, Vikings
Matt McGloin, Raiders
Brandon Weeden, Cowboys
Dan Orlovsky, Lions
Blaine Gabbert, 49ers

Mike Glennon as backup

The most common strain of backup quarterback, these former starters fell victim to bad timing, unlucky bounces and, in many cases, their own limited skills when they ran the show. It’s hard to believe Glennon and Mettenberger won’t ever get another shot after both showed flashes of competence only to be supplanted by the top two picks in the draft. McGloin may have only won one game when he got an extended look in his rookie season two years ago, but he’s been consistent enough to stick around and beat out free-agent signee Christian Ponder for Oakland’s backup job last month.

The prototype: Orlovsky, who found his way onto two of the worst teams of the past decade. He helped Indianapolis stave off history in 2011 with back-to-back dramatic wins in December of that Peyton-less year, a feat that never gets enough credit in the retelling of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. Somehow, he’s back for the second year of his second stint in Detroit, where he joins Calvin Johnson and guard Manny Ramirez as the only current Lions who were members of the winless ’08 squad.

The 2015 sleeper: Gabbert. Who knows exactly what’s in store for San Francisco this season? Would a Blaine Gabbert spot-start crack the top 10 most surprising things about the 49ers’ past year?

The RG3 phenomenon

The rankings:

Robert Griffin III, Redskins
Colt McCoy, Redskins

Griffin shouldn’t be a part of this article at all. His extensively-documented fall from grace goes far beyond the knee injury he aggravated on wild-card weekend in 2013, but that moment remains the dividing line between his Rookie of the Year campaign and the subsequent sideshow of infighting, frustrating play and puzzling press conferences that persist to this day.

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Among the group above who squandered their big opportunities, even fellow first-round picks Weeden and Gabbert didn’t earn anything near the savior’s welcome Griffin did in D.C., and no one took more heat in turn when the hype began to significantly outpace the numbers. Now there’s mild uncertainty as to whether Griffin or fellow backup Colt McCoy would be the first guy off the bench if anything were to happen to 2015 starter Kirk Cousins.

Griffin may be a unique case, but if he ends up spending the next act of his career as a wandering stopgap backup, it’s hard to believe he’d lack for suitors—as long as teams look past the chaos left in his wake as a product of some factors outside his control.

Losers of this summer’s quarterback competitions

The rankings:

Ryan Mallett, Texans
EJ Manuel, Bills

Coming off the draft, the league seemed to be headed for five or six legitimate QB battles, but the field thinned out over the summer as two top rookies were handed the keys right away and the Browns and Jets telegraphed their respective faith in Josh McCown and Geno Smith, for better or worse.

The prototype: Mallett, a Patriots backup before he was traded to Houston, had his fate broadcast to the nation on this season of Hard Knocks, but Brian Hoyer has been pulled in favor of the younger player waiting in the wings before.

The 2015 sleeper:Tyrod Taylor came from the back of the pack to win over the new regime in Buffalo, but Manuel temporarily staved off concerns about his future with a strong preseason in which he completed 20 of 30 passes for 358 yards and four touchdowns. The Bills saved roughly $4 million by cutting Matt Cassel and in the process left the door open for Manuel to play savior at some point later on this season if Taylor’s athleticism exposes him to one too many hits.

Veterans still hanging on

The rankings:

Matt Hasselbeck, Colts
Derek Anderson, Panthers
Michael Vick, Steelers
Matt Schaub, Ravens

Having a backup with big-game and playoff experience is quite the luxury, even if these four veterans are older, less crisp versions of the franchise leaders they once were—however briefly, in Anderson’s case. None of the starters in front of them are going anywhere, but lumping Hasselbeck or Schaub in on the same tier as the likes of Nassib and Renfree shortchanges the long careers that deserve to wind down on the sidelines of a contender.

The prototype: The battle-tested Hasselbeck was destined to spend his final years as a pro serving as a sounding board for a young star like Andrew Luck. Surely the symmetry of starting his career behind Brett Favre in his prime and potentially finishing it as Luck ascends to the NFL’s upper echelon is not lost on the 17-year veteran, who turns 40 later this month.

Hasselbeck as backup

The 2015 sleeper: The mantle of high-profile backup may have weighed on him in New York and nearly ended his career, but Vick made the most of his late-August shot at the Steelers when Bruce Gradkowski was placed on IR and in the process may have edged out Landry Jones for the duties of Big Ben’s immediate backup. His first completion in black and gold harkened back to his early-career magic, and what more can be asked of a backup quarterback than the outside chance he can be the hero on the field that he’s always been built up to be on the sidelines?