Mallett, Mettenberger most promising among backup QBs called to action
The end of the NFL season always brings along with it an onslaught of backup and little-known players, usually (but not always) from teams outside the playoff picture.
Week 16 saw something of an explosion in that regard, especially at the quarterback position. Because of injury, six teams, counting the likely AFC South champion Houston Texans, were forced to dive into their QB depth chart. (Note: This does not count Johnny Manziel in Cleveland since he at least was in the mix earlier in the year.) Another, the Rams, made the switch away from their starter weeks ago.
How did the fallback options fare on Sunday? We break 'em down, ranked in order from least to most likely to earn a starting gig next season.
7. Matt Hasselbeck, Colts
Sunday's performance: 8-of-15 for 99 yards in an 18-12 win over Miami.
Hasselbeck left the game early with a shoulder injury, the latest in a long list of injuries for the veteran QB. He also has battled jaw, rib and back issues this season, and the Colts were unsure if he could start in a Week 5 game at Houston because of an illness that sent him to the emergency room days earlier.
2016 status: Unrestricted free agent.
Can he be a full-time starter?: Uh, no. Not anymore. Hasselbeck has given the Colts absolutely all he could this season, and he's barely survived. With his 41st birthday coming next September and free agency looming, Hasselbeck is a definite candidate for retirement.
6. Brandon Weeden, Texans
Sunday's performance: 15-of-24 for 200 yards and two touchdowns, plus the first rushing TD of his NFL career in a 34-6 win at Tennessee.
Well, how 'bout them apples? One week after coming off the bench to help Houston claim a massive victory over the Colts, Weeden helped bury the flailing Titans. His two TD passes came in rapid succession in the third quarter—the first a one-on-one ball for DeAndre Hopkins, the second a perfectly thrown fade under pressure to Nate Washington. Weeden could be starting a playoff game in two weeks.
2016 status: Unrestricted free agent.
Can he be a full-time starter?: Not unless there are no other options, as is the case right now. Weeden, 33 in October, flopped in Cleveland and could not find his footing in Dallas. The Texans only turned to him because both Brian Hoyer and T.J. Yates went down with injuries.
Give the former first-rounder credit for answering the bell. He may have salvaged his disappointing career over the past two weeks, at least playing himself into a backup role next season. The notion of him as more than that vanished long ago.
5. Kellen Moore, Cowboys
Sunday's performance: 13-of-31 for 186 yards and an interception in a 16-6 loss at Buffalo.
Not exactly ideal conditions for Moore's first career start—on the road in rainy, windy conditions, and without Dez Bryant. His numbers reflect those difficulties, too. The Cowboys actually scored on their opening drive, thanks in large part to a 27-yard connection from Moore to Brice Butler. But they mustered just three more points the rest of the day.
2016 status: Under contract at a $760K base salary. No guaranteed money.
Can he be a full-time starter?: Every football fan in Idaho, where Moore remains a living legend for his days at Boise State, would say yes. The jury is still very much out elsewhere. Moore's lack of arm strength continues to put him at a distinct disadvantage. The Cowboys, though, like the way he can process the game mentally, which was the main selling point Detroit's staff noted when keeping Moore around as a third QB for multiple seasons.
Odds are, Moore will have to survive in the NFL as a career backup. There could be an opening there in Dallas again next season.
4. Case Keenum, Rams
Sunday's performance: 14-of-23 for 103 yards and a touchdown in the Rams' 23-17 win at Seattle.
Keenum didn't turn it over, which was one of the biggest keys in St. Louis's stunning upset—one which completed a season sweep of the Seahawks. His 28-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Britt was a well-placed toss, leading Britt beyond cornerback Richard Sherman for the score. The Rams now have won three straight, all with Keenum as the starter.
2016 status: Restricted free agent. The Rams sent Houston a 2016 seventh-rounder for Keenum back in March. He may have played his way into a backup gig next season.
Can he be a full-time starter?: Doubtful. His role last year on the Texans and this year on the Rams—that of a fill-in capable of handling difficult spots—looks to be his sweet spot. That said (and the usual caveat about taking QB wins with a grain of salt applies), since losing all eight of his starts as a Texan in 2013, Keenum has a 5-1 record.
3. Blaine Gabbert, 49ers
Sunday's performance: 22-of-33 for 225 yards and two touchdowns in San Francisco's 32-17 loss at Detroit.
The latest in a growing number of steady performances for Gabbert, who has gone from forgotten member of the roster to possible piece of the 49ers' 2016 plans. The wheels fell off for San Francisco after halftime Sunday—the Lions scored all 12 of the game's points over the final two quarters. Gabbert found Vance McDonald and Torrey Smith for touchdown passes before that.
2016 status: Under contract for a cap hit of $2.25 million, plus a prorated roster bonus of $250K and additional pending bonuses (workout and roster) totaling $250K. The 49ers could save $2 million by cutting him before next season.
Can he be a full-time starter?: Wouldn't bet on it, but the mere fact that this is not a hard "no" represents significant progress. Gabbert's play has been a rare silver lining for the downtrodden 49ers this year. Even taking into account last week's three-INT showing against Cincinnati, this has been the best two-month stretch of Gabbert's career. He also is just 26 years old, so he falls well within range for when the lights can go on.
Banking on Gabbert as a No. 1 headed into the 2016 season still would be a concession on any team's part. If they cannot land their new franchise QB in the draft, though, the 49ers might consider it.
2. Zach Mettenberger, Titans
Sunday's performance: 27-of-51 for 234 yards, one TD and one INT in Tennessee's 34-6 loss to Houston.
Sunday was ugly for just about everyone in a Titans uniform, Mettenberger included. His touchdown pass, to Tre McBride, was of the garbage-time variety with Houston enjoying a five-score lead. Mettenberger threw for 70 yards on that final drive, accounting for almost 30% of his total for the afternoon.
2016 status: Under contract through 2017, with a cap hit of approximately $631K next year and $721K the following season, which would be the final year on Mettenberger's rookie deal. The Titans could cut him and save all but the $62,558 owed to him via his prorated signing bonus.
Can he be a full-time starter?: TBD, leaning toward no. The 2014 sixth-round pick has had a rough go of it thus far—he's now lost all nine of his starts. Tennessee drafted Marcus Mariota for a reason, after all. But there is still a little intrigue here, because of Mettenberger's size (6'5") and big arm. The Titans could try to unload him this off-season and bring in a veteran behind Mariota.
1. Ryan Mallett, Ravens
Sunday's performance: 28-of-41 for 274 yards and a touchdown in the Ravens' 20-17 shocker over Pittsburgh.
Out of nowhere, Mallett delivered a career-best passing performance. The fact that it came as Baltimore knocked arch-rival Pittsburgh to the brink of playoff elimination surely won't be lost on the fans or franchise. Mallett promised that he was a more mature player after arriving in Baltimore, and the organization backed his stance. He sure looked it Sunday, delivering a very measured outing. The 6'6" QB also unleashed his rocket arm a couple times, most notably on a line-drive deep ball to Chris Givens.
2016 status: Under contract for a $1.5 million base salary. No guaranteed money, but an additional $1 million is available via playing-time bonuses.
Can he be a full-time starter?: Yes, if Sunday was a sign of things to come. There is the alternate possibility that it was a mirage, given Mallett's rapid burnout with the Texans earlier this season. New England also traded him away for a conditional seventh-rounder so it could make room for Jimmy Garoppolo.
However, his impressive start Sunday showed off what some in the league believe he can be: a strong-armed QB with a little swagger. The contract is right in line with the going rate on backups, even if Mallett actually hits those added bonuses to get into the $2.5 million range. Joe Flacco just tore his ACL and MCL back in November, so Mallett provides a safety net if Flacco is unavailable at the start of the 2016 season.