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At Quarterback, a New Backup Plan in the NFL

The latest lesson in the NFL: Whether you have your franchise passer or your search is ongoing, you’re going to need more than one quarterback

Two years ago, the Eagles decided they were not going to get beaten because of the QB position. They extended Sam Bradford’s contract at two years, $36 million; signed Chase Daniel to a three-year, $21 million deal; and traded up twice in the first round to draft Carson Wentz.

“We were going to have three guys that we thought had the ability to be starters and winners,” says GM Howie Roseman. “When you put your head on your pillow at night, that’s something that gives us some comfort.”

Six months after re-signing Bradford, they traded him to Minnesota. A year after signing Daniel, they decided to upgrade the backup QB spot and—despite eating several million in cash and cap—released him and inked Nick Foles to a two-year, $11 million deal.

We all know how it worked out. Wentz emerged as an MVP candidate in his second season, and when Wentz got injured, Foles emerged as a Super Bowl MVP. The same season, in the same conference, the Vikings reached the NFC championship with Case Keenum, their $2 million backup who stepped in when Bradford’s knee problems flared up early last fall. The success of Foles and Keenum might very well have lifted the value of the backup quarterback to new heights.

“Quite possibly,” says Chargers GM Tom Telesco. “They’re hard to find, and they’re an asset.”

“Every case is different,” says Buccaneers GM Jason Licht. “If you think the player is a very good player, and has potential and ability to start and carry your team when your starter is down, yeah, [Foles and Keenum’s success] might drive the price up a little bit.”

“A critical position,” says new Titans head coach Mike Vrabel.

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It’s something to keep in mind as the roster-building process accelerates this week with the start of free agency—particularly for teams looking to fix their quarterback situations like the Eagles were two years ago.

Kirk Cousins is the linchpin of the quarterback market—because of the salary cap space required to accommodate his contract, the teams contending for his services might be frozen until he makes his decision. To be in the sweepstakes, teams such as the Vikings, Broncos, Cardinals and Jets have carved out space for a price tag expected to surpass the $27.5 million per year Jimmy Garoppolo just received in his deal with the 49ers.

How the teams who lose out on the Cousins sweepstakes address the position might very well be in the manner of the Eagles—spread the money that would have been committed to Cousins over multiple players. Keenum will earn a starter’s salary (reportedly in Denver) after the Vikings decided not to franchise-tag him. Other players in line for bigger paydays than you might expect: AJ McCarron, who has thrown fewer than 200 career passes in the NFL; Josh McCown, the 38-year-old veteran journeyman; and Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater, both of whom have health concerns. Buffalo traded Tyrod Taylor (and his $16 million salary for 2018) to Cleveland last week for the 65th pick—but the Browns are still expected to draft a quarterback with either the No. 1 or 4 overall pick.

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Right now, the Eagles have their franchise QB in Carson Wentz; a Super Bowl MVP backing him up in Foles; and a young developmental QB in Nate Sudfeld. It’s possible the Eagles take advantage of Foles’ ascending stock and trade him this year (though the price tag has likely risen above the first- and fourth-rounder they got in the Bradford trade). But the point is, Philadelphia’s strength-in-numbers approach to the position—with the added bonus of insurance for a potentially season-wrecking injury like Wentz’s—is likely to be copied around the NFL.

In fact, it already has been. Last winter, the Bears signed Mike Glennon, then traded up to the second overall pick to draft Mitchell Trubisky, slotted into a four-year, $29 million rookie deal. Two weeks ago Glennon was released, his “three-year, $45 million” contract becoming, in actuality, a one-year, $18.5 million pact.

The top of the quarterback market has become a game of who signs last, with the going rate for veteran franchise QBs now approaching $30 million per year. That’s why teams with young starters playing on relatively inexpensive rookie deals are in something of a team-building sweet spot, with the salary cap flexibility to build a championship roster. The Ravens did it with Joe Flacco in 2012, the Seahawks did it with Russell Wilson in 2013, and the Eagles did it last year. And it’s why the Rams, with Jared Goff on his rookie deal, are going all-in.

Each of those teams made a string of smart decisions along the way. But one of the prevailing lessons from the reigning Super Bowl champions, for franchises like the Browns and Bills and Jets who are in seemingly endless searches for their next quarterback: They used resources on more than just one player.

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