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NFL Backup Quarterback Situations, Ranked: From the Jets to the Best

With Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Foles, and Sam Darnold all missing time, and now Eli Manning hitting the bench in favor of Daniel Jones, which teams have the best—or worst—circumstances when it comes to their second-string QB?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The Ringer’s weekly NFL rankings, where we’ll break down the good, the bad, and the absurd of the 2019 season. Every Tuesday, we’ll have a ranking of the moments, players, or story lines that are driving the conversation around the league. This week, we’re going through each franchise’s backup quarterback situation to determine which are messes—and which could save their teams.

In Ron Jaworski’s 2010 book, Games That Changed the Game, the former quarterback and then–ESPN analyst details a time when he and Jon Gruden visited Colts practice before calling one of their games. There, Gruden noticed that Peyton Manning was taking virtually every rep, and he asked offensive coordinator Tom Moore about it.

“Fellas,” Moore told them, “if ‘18’ goes down, we’re fucked. And we don’t practice fucked.”

While the Eagles’ recent Super Bowl run with Nick Foles may cast some doubt on the widespread applicability of Moore’s statement, his logic is still true for most teams. And through just two weeks this season, we’ve already seen that situation become a reality for the Saints, Steelers, Jaguars, and Jets. With Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Foles, Sam Darnold, and Trevor Siemian each sidelined for at least the next few weeks, their teams’ preseason aspirations have already taken a dramatic hit. And that doesn’t even include the Colts, whose Super Bowl hopes essentially went down the toilet the moment Andrew Luck announced his retirement just before the season, or the Giants, who just promoted Daniel Jones and made Eli Manning their new backup:

This quarterback carousel brings up a question: How prepared is each NFL franchise for their starting QB to go down? In the words of Moore, how fucked would they be if they need to go to their backup?

To find out, let’s dig into all 32 teams’ backup quarterback situations entering Week 3—excluding Teddy Bridgewater, Mason Rudolph, Gardner Minshew II, and potentially Luke Falk, who are all slated to become at least temporary starters for their teams. Obviously, ranking so many quarterbacks who have barely played is a virtually impossible task—but that won’t stop us. Here are all 32 backup quarterbacks, ranked and organized into tiers:

The Jets

32. Le’Veon Bell in the Wildcat? Adam Gase Himself?

The poor Jets. Siemian’s ankle injury has thrust Falk, the former sixth-round pick who had never entered a game before Monday, into the de facto starting role in New York. The Jets will likely sign someone soon as they wait for Sam Darnold’s return from mono, but for now, there’s really not another backup option on the roster. Falk was on the practice squad before being called up this week. There are no other QBs on that squad.

The Zero Pass Attempts Club

31. Tim Boyle, Packers

In three years at UConn, Boyle tossed just one touchdown and a whopping 13 interceptions on 275 attempted passes. He averaged 4.5 yards per attempt and a measly 49.5 yards per game. He then transferred to Eastern Kentucky for a season, where he threw 11 touchdowns and another 13 interceptions on 327 attempts.

30. Brandon Allen, Broncos

29. Devlin Hodges, Steelers

Allen is a former sixth-round pick who has bounced around the league but never entered an NFL game. Hodges signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent this year and will now be thrust into the backup role after Roethlisberger’s injury—at least until Pittsburgh signs someone else (and it’s already looking). The Samford product is the all-time FCS passing leader—that has to count for something. But both of these guys find themselves in this position due to injuries (the Broncos’ Drew Lock and the Steelers’ Roethlisberger), so it’s hard to fault their respective teams for being so thin entering Week 3.

The Guys Who Have Hardly Touched an NFL Football

28. Cooper Rush, Cowboys

Rush has thrown three passes in his NFL career. One of them was caught for 2 yards. All three of those pass attempts came in 2017.

27. Joshua Dobbs, Jaguars

It was terribly unlucky timing for the Steelers to trade Dobbs to the Jaguars last week now that Roethlisberger has gone down. A former fourth-round pick out of Tennessee, Dobbs was the QB3 on the Steelers depth chart after Rudolph beat him out for the backup spot this offseason. Now he’ll be backing up fill-in starter Minshew until at least Week 11, when Foles may be able to return from his clavicle injury.

26. Kyle Allen, Panthers

Allen started a meaningless Week 17 contest last year, the only significant action of his rookie season. Playing against the Saints’ second-stringers in that game, Allen looked pretty solid, completing 16 of 27 passes for 228 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks. He also rushed five times for 19 yards and another score, leading Carolina to a 33-14 win. That came one week after Taylor Heinicke started for the Panthers in Week 16 and threw three interceptions before injuring his elbow. Those two contests—which Cam Newton missed after being shut down for the season with a shoulder injury—were crucial for the Panthers’ backup QB battle: Allen had entered 2018 as the Panthers’ fourth-stringer, but his Week 17 audition was good enough to earn him the backup job this season. That could soon become a starting role:

The Young Passers Who Have Failed to Live Up to Their Promise

25. Brett Hundley, Cardinals

Hundley started nine games for Green Bay in 2017, and let’s just say there’s a reason the Packers moved on from him that offseason. His adjusted net yards per attempt (a stat much like passer rating that takes into account yards, touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks) of 3.71 is the fourth-worst mark of this decade.

24. Josh Rosen, Dolphins

Poor Rosen was traded from the worst team in the league in 2018 to the worst team in the league in 2019. Rosen has certainly failed to perform thus far—his 7-of-18 for 97 yards and an interception on Sunday against the Patriots was awful, but also so typical for him that it barely registered for NFL fans outside of Miami.

Rosen deserves some benefit of the doubt, given the situations he has been put into. The Cardinals had by far the worst offense in the league last season, and the Dolphins are on track to be the worst team of all time:

But Rosen still couldn’t beat out Ryan Fitzpatrick for the starting job in training camp. Rosen hasn’t gotten a fair shake in the NFL, and that’s a shame—but he also might just be bad.

The Replacement-Level Career Backups

23. Josh Johnson, Lions

22. Matt Barkley, Bills

21. Sean Mannion, Vikings

20. Drew Stanton, Browns

19. Geno Smith, Seahawks

These guys are all boring, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency NFL quarterbacks. They’ve all been in the league since at least 2015, yet have failed to make much of a mark: Every single one has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in their career.

The Mizzou Tier

18. Chase Daniel, Bears

17. Blaine Gabbert, Buccaneers

Gabbert has technically thrown more touchdowns (48) than interceptions (47) through his eight years in the league, as has Daniel (four to three) so that separates them from the previous category of guys. But that hardly makes either of them convincing backups. Before last season, Daniel had thrown just one touchdown pass in 57 appearances, and Gabbert has an incredibly low career-adjusted net yards per attempt (4.27). He’s on his fifth NFL team for a reason.

The Fourth-Round Rookies

16. Ryan Finley, Bengals

15. Jarrett Stidham, Patriots

Finley and Stidham were both solid college starters who were taken in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL draft. That’s pretty much all that can be said about them at this point. There’s a certain thrill that comes with the unknown of having a rookie backup, but neither Finley nor Stidham has the promise of a Dwayne Haskins (more on him in a minute).

Was a Big Deal for One Season

14. A.J. McCarron, Texans

The Browns once nearly sent second- and third-round picks to Cincinnati for McCarron ahead of the 2017 trade deadline, but they messed up the paperwork and the deal didn’t go through. This came months after the Broncos reportedly tried to trade for McCarron in the offseason. This interest all seems to stem from the brief three-game stint McCarron spent as Cincinnati’s starter in 2015, during which he completed 79 of 119 passes (66.4 percent) for 854 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions. That’s a pretty good stretch, but given the track records John Elway and Hue Jackson have with quarterbacks, their interest in McCarron is probably more of an indictment against him than an endorsement.

The Mostly Competent Career Backups

13. Mike Glennon, Raiders

It’ll always be a mystery why the Bears handed Glennon a three-year, $45 million contract with $18.5 million in guarantees in 2017. After benching him for Mitchell Trubisky by Week 5 of that season and then cutting him the following spring, it’s clear Chicago quickly found out that Glennon is not starting-quarterback material.

12. Matt Moore, Chiefs

Moore has been in the league since 2007. He has 45 career touchdown passes. The person he’s backing up, Patrick Mahomes, threw 50 touchdown passes just last season. So while Moore is one of the better backups on this list, the Chiefs would still have as large a drop-off in QB quality as any team in the league if something were to happen to the 2018 MVP.

11. Matt Schaub, Falcons

It’s been a decade since he did it, but Schaub is the only backup quarterback on this list to have once led the NFL in passing yards, doing so in 2009 when he threw for 4,770 as the Texans starter. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler and has a career ANY/A of 6.44, which ranks 14th among active quarterbacks with at least 500 career pass attempts—that’s better than guys like Carson Wentz, Andy Dalton, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, and Eli Manning. But Schaub is also 38 and hasn’t attempted more than 80 passes in a season since 2013, so it’s fair to wonder how much he has left in the tank at this point.

10. Josh McCown, Eagles

McCown is the platonic ideal of a career backup: He’s played for eight different teams since being drafted by the Cardinals in 2002 and has spent time with even more squads during various training camps over the years. Yet McCown has been sneakily solid, especially in 2017 when he threw for 2,926 yards, 18 touchdowns, and nine interceptions in 13 games as the Jets starter. The biggest downside to McCown is that he is now on the wrong side of 40. In his defense, he doesn’t look like it:

The Taysom Hill Tier

9. Taysom Hill, Saints

Hill is the Saints’ jack of all trades. He’ll run routes, play special teams, even block if he’s asked to. That versatility makes him a unique backup, and while Teddy Bridgewater will take over for Brees, head coach Sean Payton still has a secret weapon in Hill. In the preseason, Hill played the second half of the team’s game against the Chargers, and he threw for 136 yards and two touchdowns while adding another 55 yards on the ground. Sure, that’s just the preseason, but it shows that he can be a competent fill-in when necessary.

The Recent Starters

8. Brian Hoyer, Colts

Hoyer has started 33 games over the past five seasons, and the results haven’t been half bad: 59.3 percent completion rate, 41 touchdowns, 24 interceptions, and 6.2 adjusted net yards per attempt. Those starts came with four different teams: the Browns, Texans, Bears, and 49ers. His star faded some after Jimmy Garoppolo took over the Niners’ starting job toward the end of 2017, but Hoyer is a reliable backup.

7. Blake Bortles, Rams

Bortles may have served as little more than the butt of jokes in his five-year stint in Jacksonville, but even one of the worst starting quarterbacks in recent years is still one of the league’s best backups.

6. Ryan Tannehill, Titans

After six seasons and 88 games in which he failed to break out in Miami, it’s probably safe to say that Tannehill’s days as a starting NFL quarterback are over. But Tannehill could end up with a Schaub- or Moore-like back half of his career and spend many years as a competent backup.

5. Tyrod Taylor, Chargers

Taylor is in his ninth season in the league, and at this point his strengths and weaknesses are abundantly clear. He’s one of the league’s best at avoiding interceptions and can pick up crucial yards with his legs, but he regularly plays himself into sacks and relies too heavily on dink-and-dunk passes. In other words, Taylor won’t lose you too many games—but he won’t win many, either.

4. Eli Manning, Giants

Eli has been one of the league’s worst starting quarterbacks for a while now, but he can still easily hold his own with nearly every player on this list. Welcome to the bench, Eli!

The First-Round Rookie

3. Dwayne Haskins, Redskins

Haskins may not truly be a top-five backup in terms of his immediate readiness to take over, but his ceiling is higher than virtually every other player on this list. Ringer draft analyst Danny Kelly had Haskins as the no. 2 quarterback and 15th-highest ranked prospect overall entering the 2019 draft, and when Washington took him with the 15th pick, it was instantly one of the smarter moves the franchise has made in recent years.

Haskins put in a not great, not terrible preseason, completing 32 of 58 passes for 409 yards, two touchdowns, and two picks. And with Washington sitting at 0-2, Haskins may find himself in the starting role—and reunited with college teammate Terry McLaurin—sooner rather than later.

The Former Rookie of the Year

2. Robert Griffin III, Ravens

I’ll never quit believing in RG3, even if his play since his 2012 rookie season has been mediocre at best. In the 31 games he’s played in since that Pro Bowl year, his stats are tough to digest: 62.2 percent completion, 23 touchdowns, 21 interceptions, and 5.1 adjusted net yards per attempt. He takes a sack on 10.1 percent of his dropbacks, which is one of the worst era-adjusted sack rates since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger and is at least partially due to his penchant to hold onto the football.

Still, if Griffin were ever to get time in the Ravens offense, he could thrive. It’s obvious that when the Ravens signed RG3 last offseason, they believed the dual-threat quarterback would be the perfect backup for Lamar Jackson in this scheme.

The One Guy Who Has Truly Flashed Potential

1. Nick Mullens, 49ers

After bursting onto the scene in a Thursday Night Football game for the ages last season, Mullens was quietly solid for the back half of San Francisco’s 2018 campaign. Mullens’s ANY/A of 6.7 was 15th-best in the league among the 33 passers who registered at least 200 attempts. That may not be replicable over a larger sample size or in an offense that isn’t built by Kyle Shanahan, but it was an incredibly promising level of production for the then-rookie. To put that number into perspective, Andrew Luck registered a 5.7 ANY/A in his rookie season.

Mullens is not the next Luck, of course, but if Garoppolo ever misses time, Niners fans should feel confident in their backup. Look at the other 31 names on this list: Outside of teams with rookies on the bench, there is no other squad that can put the same faith in their backup. The Niners are the only team that wouldn’t be fucked.