Ranking the NFL's 32 backup QB situations

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The NFL has enough trouble finding 32 quarterbacks competent enough to be entrusted with steering a team through an entire regular season; the idea that QBs No. 33-64 even approach the required skill level is fanciful at best. And yet, every season at least one team watches its fortunes swing on an untimely injury to the starting QB (see: Raiders, Oakland in 2016) and how the rest of the roster responds to the next man up. That constant threat of crisis is what makes the backup QB an endless source of intrigue, and that intrigue is what drives our third annual foray into evaluating which teams have the best backup QB situations.

In previous years, we’ve assembled these rankings at the tail-end of the preseason, when depth charts have solidified and the quarterback market is quiet. This post-draft look at the backup landscape embraces the uncertainty tied to several teams’ QB situations and groups together all the players potentially in the mix for each No. 2 job.

A reminder of the hypothetical used to determine this year’s standings: The starting quarterback goes down with a freak injury, and early reports offer no sign of his imminent return. Which team’s next man up has both the short-term poise to steady the ship in a hurry and the intermediate-term potential to grow into the role?

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1. Jimmy Garoppolo, Patriots
2. Matt Moore, Dolphins
3. Trevor Siemian/Paxton Lynch, Broncos
4. Colt McCoy, Redskins
5. Deshaun Watson, Texans
6. AJ McCarron, Bengals
7. T.J. Yates/Cardale Jones/Nathan Peterman, Bills
8. Mitchell Trubisky/Mike Glennon, Bears
9. Chad Henne, Jaguars
10. Geno Smith, Giants
11. Drew Stanton, Cardinals
12. Kevin Hogan/Brock Osweiler/DeShone Kizer, Browns
13. Chase Daniel, Saints
14. Derek Anderson, Panthers
15. Nick Foles, Eagles
16. Ryan Mallett, Ravens
17. Case Keenum, Vikings
18. Matt Barkley/CJ Beathard, 49ers
19. Bryce Petty/Christian Hackenberg, Jets – special Jets category
20. Landry Jones/Josh Dobbs, Steelers
21. Trevone Boykin, Seahawks
22. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
23. Matt Cassel, Titans
24. Kellen Clemens, Chargers
25. Connor Cook/EJ Manuel, Raiders
26. Matt Schaub, Falcons
27. Brett Hundley, Packers
28. Kellen Moore, Cowboys
29. Scott Tolzien, Colts
30. Sean Mannion, Rams
31. Jake Rudock/Brad Kaaya, Lions
32. Ryan Griffin, Buccaneers

Not all backup quarterback situations are created equal, of course. Below, an examination of the various narrative threads many teams’ No. 2 options have in common.

2018’s most talked-about backups

Whether their teams face a critical decision about the future of the QB ahead of them on the depth chart or about their own deal next spring, these backups may end up being compelling storylines in their own right this season. Patron saint: Mike Glennon.

1. Jimmy Garoppolo, Patriots
4. Colt McCoy, Redskins
6. AJ McCarron, Bengals
9. Chad Henne, Jaguars
11. Drew Stanton, Cardinals
17. Case Keenum, Vikings
27. Brett Hundley, Packers

Four touchdowns, no interceptions, a 71.19% completion rate and 8.41 yards per attempt in two starts (with one cut short by a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder)—that’s the maddeningly small sample size that could hijack the 2018 off-season, assuming Tom Brady plays all 16 games this fall and the Patriots let Garoppolo hit free agency. All things considered, Garoppolo was nearly perfect in those two tight wins over the Cardinals and Dolphins last season, even if you want to grade his performance on a curve given how efficiently the Patriots set up their QBs for success. It has never approached the level of the Garoppolo buzz, but McCarron’s name continues to surface in trade rumors—like the Patriots, the Bengals are in no hurry to ship off their reliable No. 2.

Barring world-beating seasons and/or deep playoff runs, Kirk Cousins and Blake Bortles could be heading elsewhere after this year, as the Redskins and Jaguars appear ready for another spin of the quarterback wheel. McCoy and Henne could be in position to assume bridge starter duties if their teams switch gears.

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Case Keenum is the second of three 2016 Week 1 starters to land on this year’s backup rankings. With Teddy Bridgewater’s recovery timeline as murky as ever and Sam Bradford’s health at the mercy of an O-line that didn’t get worse this off-season but may not have gotten all that much better, Keenum could be in line for a spot start or two.

The Packers have reached decision time with Hundley, who appeared to take a step forward last season but will spend his entire rookie contract holding tablets for Aaron Rodgers if he stays in Green Bay. Next year is the final season of his rookie deal, making him an intriguing X-factor in next spring’s trade market.

Veterans who have worked their way into plum jobs

It’s a cushy gig holding a clipboard for one of the NFL’s entrenched franchise quarterbacks, but with their full-time starter days almost surely behind them, these journeymen shouldn’t mind a little stability. Patron saint: Matt Schaub.

2. Matt Moore, Dolphins
13. Chase Daniel, Saints
14. Derek Anderson, Panthers
15. Nick Foles, Eagles
16. Ryan Mallett, Ravens
23. Matt Cassel, Titans
24. Kellen Clemens, Chargers
26. Matt Schaub, Falcons
28. Kellen Moore, Cowboys
29. Scott Tolzien, Colts

When Ryan Tannehill went down with a torn ACL in Week 14 of the 2017 NFL season, Moore was forced to take the reins of the playoff-bound Dolphins (a position both McCarron and Stanton have been dealt in the past two years). His performance for the rest of that season—a career-best 63.2%, eight touchdowns and three picks—was impressive enough to make him the biggest year-over-year riser in these rankings, and combined with the positive steps Ryan Tannehill took when healthy, the Dolphins have to be pleased with what Adam Gase has accomplished in their QB room just one year in.

Daniel’s Eagles career lasted one pass (a 16-yard completion after Carson Wentz was shaken up in Week 16)—now he’s back to where his career started in New Orleans, a more than serviceable veteran option in the event age and injury catch up to Drew Brees at any point. Cassel and Clemens may only have a few years left between them, but they’re the perfect fits in case of emergency in Tennessee and Los Angeles, with plenty of weapons at their disposal in case they need to keep the pedal down in a playoff race.

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Cam Newton’s injury-riddled 2016 brought Anderson’s decline into focus. After throwing five touchdowns and no picks in two spot starts three years ago, he looked like a 33-year-old backup when he saw extended time in two October losses to divisional rivals.

Remember when Foles was 14–4 as a starter over two seasons and made a Pro Bowl? Remember when Tolzien started a Thanksgiving Day game last season? (Yeah, we don’t either.)

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Rookies being brought along slowly—for now

Their coaches talk a big game about the first-year learning curve, but come August at least one of the teams who spent a 2017 draft pick on the position will be faced with a convincing case for giving the rookie early playing time. Patron saint: Dak Prescott.

5. Deshaun Watson, Texans
8. Mitchell Trubisky/Mike Glennon, Bears
12. Kevin Hogan/Brock Osweiler/DeShone Kizer, Browns
18. Matt Barkley/CJ Beathard, 49ers
20. Landry Jones/Josh Dobbs, Steelers
22. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
31. Jake Rudock/Brad Kaaya, Lions

As we sit here mid-May, Watson seems like the clear frontrunner to be the first rookie QB to see the field in 2017, even though the Texans wasted no time supporting Tom Savage as the starter in the aftermath of the draft. It would be a fireable offense for Bill O’Brien to put the offense in Brandon Weeden’s hands mid-season instead if the AFC South was up for grabs and Savage was forced to the sideline by injury or ineffectiveness.

The Bears have been just as firm that Glennon will be their starter, but Trubisky is too competitive and cost too much draft capital not to make a race of it over the summer. Both players have extensive, well-documented backup experience, and whoever loses out on the job will not represent much of a drop-off if the season goes south and Chicago begins to clamor for a shake-up.

Remember when everyone was calling the Brock Osweiler trade a “salary dump” that had little chance of impacting Cleveland’s lineup? It’s been two months and he hasn’t been cut loose, meaning second-round pick Kizer could be in for an especially crowded competition during his first training camp. As is Browns tradition, whoever wins that backup job won’t be too much of a step down from de facto incumbent Cody Kessler.

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Barkley and Jones are similar known quantities on very, very dissimilar teams, but being a known quantity should be enough to keep mid-rounders C.J. Beathard and Josh Dobbs off the field. Barkley’s 8:14 touchdown-to-interception ratio doesn’t quite do justice to the relatively good vibes he generated in Chicago one-score losses to the Titans, Lions and Packers. The Steelers have Jones under contract for the next two years, but Dobbs has a good chance to accelerate Jones’s departure and become the immediate successor to Ben Roethlisberger soon if Pittsburgh falls in love with his makeup the way draft analysts did.

The Lions see something in Rudock—they signed the Michigan product off the practice squad in November to keep him away from the Bears—but for the price of a sixth-round pick, Kaaya is a worthy long-term project who at least looks the part. The impending extension for Matthew Stafford should give both youngsters plenty of much-needed time to marinate.

Let’s, uh ... let’s just hope everyone stays healthy

Not everyone can have a perfect Plan B. Patron saint: Matt McGloin.

21. Trevone Boykin, Seahawks
25. Connor Cook/EJ Manuel, Raiders
30. Sean Mannion, Rams
32. Ryan Griffin, Buccaneers

Griffin hasn’t collected a stat in four years as a pro, and Jameis Winston hasn’t missed a game since September 2014, when he was serving a suspension during his final year at Florida State. There are no sure things in the NFL when it comes to injuries, but the Bucs are making a relatively safe bet in leaving the cupboard pretty bare behind their sturdy franchise QB. Of these four names, Mannion appears to be the most likely one to see time this year, in the event the Rams’ offensive line leaves Jared Goff constantly under siege and shaken up.

After making the 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent, Boykin was solid if unspectacular in three meaningful appearances as a rookie (two of which came during Seattle blowouts). He was arrested twice in the month leading up to the draft, but the Seahawks still stood pat with their quarterback group. Who knows when Cook will get another chance to play, but at least he’ll be able to take comfort in the knowledge that nothing will ever be worse than the conditions of his first career start: a road playoff loss at the hands of one of the league’s best defenses, with the starting left tackle sidelined by injury and less than seven days to prepare. There are worse emergency policies out there than EJ Manuel ... right?

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