We're firmly entrenched in the most boring part of the NFL offseason and literally almost nothing will happen for the next 30-odd days or so, aside from players tweeting pictures from their vacations and charity softball games. So, until then, let's talk about every fan-of-a-bad-team's favorite player: the backup quarterback.
Thus far in this series, I've looked at some of the NFL's best defensive lines, linebacker corps and defensive secondaries, the best running back groups, tight ends units, wide receiver corps and offensive lines. Much emphasis was given to depth and breadth of talent at each position-group, because the 16-game NFL season and subsequent post-season is very much a battle of attrition when it comes to injuries. No team is immune, and oftentimes the clubs that end up on top are aided by great luck in the health department. For that reason, instead of ranking the starting quarterbacks in the NFL (which has been done ad nauseam anyway), I wanted to instead focus on which teams are best equipped to keep the ship afloat should the worst happen: a major multi-game (or more) injury to the starting signal-caller.
The starting quarterback is almost inarguably the most important player on an NFL roster. Success in the win-loss column and playoffs is almost always linked closely to the performance of a team's quarterback. There are many other variables, of course -- an elite defense, top-flight play-makers, the ball bouncing your way -- but what a quarterback does with the football affects the game greatly. Thus, a strong starting quarterback is essential in this league. A better-than-decent backup is an enormous luxury.
I included 18 NFL clubs on my list today, all teams that have, or have the potential to have, set themselves up nicely if every coaches' worst nightmare were to occur: a major injury to their starting quarterback. I'm sure I overrated, underrated, or forgot about a couple teams with talent and depth at the position within my list, but here we go.
FORMER STARTERS AND/OR HOMEGROWN VETS:
Have a backup quarterback with at least a cumulative season's worth of starting experience? Does your guy have playoffs experience? Count yourself among the fortunate.
In no particular order...
Starter: QB Andrew Luck
Backups: QB Matt Hasselbeck, QB Chandler Harnish
The Colts are obviously set at the starting job with Andrew Luck, but having a veteran like Matt Hasselbeck behind him is a very nice piece of insurance for a franchise that wants to make a third straight Playoffs run in 2014. Hasselbeck, 38, enters his 16th NFL season and didn't see much action last year, only appearing in three games while throwing it 12 times, but he has a career 60 percent completion rate on over 5,000 regular season attempts.
The Bald Bomber has extensive experience, with 197 starts, 34,000+ passing yards and 201 touchdown passes under his belt. For a guy who has to come into a game cold and show poise in the huddle, this matters. Additionally, Hasselbeck has a good amount of playoff experience - he's started 11 games, including a Super Bowl, and has passed for over 2,700 yards with 18 touchdowns to nine picks in those games.
His physical ability is surely diminished, but he still retains elite-level expertise in offensive concepts and is well-versed in the Colts' playbook. All these things, apart from Hass' age, set the bar for what most teams look for in a backup, particularly teams with an established franchise QB. He's not going to sling the football all over the field, but he's a guy who can keep things afloat, in theory, if Luck ever missed starts. There's a reason he's making $8 million over two years to hopefully sit on the bench.
Eli Manning facing Giant expectations in 2014
Sure, he's got two Super Bowl rings, but what has Eli Manning done for the Giants lately? The pressure's on for the younger Manning brother to turn things around in 2014.
Starter: QB Nick Foles
Backups: QB Mark Sanchez, QB Matt Barkley, QB GJ Kinne
Michael Vick started the 2013 season at quarterback for the Eagles, but after he was forced out with an injury, his backup, Nick Foles, took over and never looked back. Foles started 10 games and passed for 27 touchdowns with only two picks -- an absurd 119 passer rating -- and now Vick is gone and his understudy holds the keys to the offense.
Backing up Foles this year is Mark Sanchez, who returns to football after sitting 2013 out with a shoulder injury. While the former fifth overall pick may not excite many as a starting quarterback prospect, he does offer quite a bit of value as an experienced backup (and he's getting $4 million to be just that for Chip Kelly).
Sanchez has 62 regular season starts in his career, plus six in the playoffs, and provides Philadelphia with a backup plan if Foles were to go down with an injury. Like Hasselbeck, Sanchez doesn't offer top-flight arm strength or dynamic athleticism, but he's an experienced veteran that could in theory manage a football game if called to do so, particularly with Philly's growing talent-base on offense.
Starter: Aaron Rodgers
Backups: QB Matt Flynn, QB Scott Tolzien
Starter: Andy Dalton
Backups: QB Jason Campbell, QB AJ McCarron, QB Matt Scott
Jason Campbell has 79 NFL starts and has a 60 percent career completion rate on four different teams. He'll play for his fifth team in 2014 and should give the Bengals a little bit of assurance in the case their starter goes down. Unlike others ahead of him on this list, Campbell also provides a little bit more in the athleticism department, something that should serve him once plays break down. It also does provide a slight deterrent to teams in sending too many all-out blitzes because of that escapability factor.
Starter: Russell Wilson
Backups: QB Tarvaris Jackson, QB Terrelle Pryor, QB B.J. Daniels
Tarvaris Jackson has played seven of his eight seasons in the NFL under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, first in Minnesota, then later in Seattle. His depth of knowledge into Bevell's playbook -- the language and concepts therein -- is pretty unmatched. Like Flynn in Green Bay, Jackson seems tailor-made to be a backup in Seattle's system; he possesses a strong arm to take deep shots downfield (a Seahawk staple), has mobility to run the bootleg game they adore and has become very disciplined later in his career, which fits Pete Carroll's "protect the football" mantra perfectly. He's highly respected by his teammates, something that certainly matters if he's ever asked to command the huddle on meaningful snaps, and has taken a lot of reps with Seattle's offensive weapons over the past few years.
Jackson has 34 career starts, but he only played in garbage time in 2013. That said, he made the most of it, posting a 140.2 passer rating on 10-of-13 passing for 151 yards and a touchdown. During Seattle's 2013 preseason, Jackson completed 26-of-36 passes for 9.9 YPA, three touchdowns and no picks (131 rating). Those stats don't matter, obviously, but they do show his comfort level in the Seattle system.
Starter: Ryan Tannehill
Backups: QB Matt Moore, QB Pat Devlin, QB Brock Jensen
Matt Moore returns for his fourth season in Miami this year, and could be counted among the more experienced and quality backups in the league. Moore hasn't played much since Tannehill arrived; he last started in 2011, when he threw for 2,497 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions with 7.2 YPA and an 87.1 rating. His rating with the Dolphins has hovered right around 85.0, so while he's not necessarily who the team wants as "the guy," he makes for a nice insurance policy in case Tanny were to miss a few games. Moore has 25 starts in his career.
Starter: Tony Romo
Backups: QB Kyle Orton, QB Brandon Weeden, QB Caleb Hanie
Kyle Orton has 70 starts in his career and his teams have gone 35-35 in those starts. I suppose if we're holding to Pat Kirwan's claim that a good backup can help your team manage itself to two wins in four games, Orton's career "record" (I'm not using QB wins, don't worry) shows maybe he makes for a pretty decent backup. Orton's career 83-to-59 TD-to-INT ratio is respectable, but his 8.0 YPA, 68 percent completion rate, and 95.5 rating in four games with Dallas is better.
Orton seems to be holding out right now in the hopes the Cowboys will cut him (perhaps he feels he can start somewhere else, and he may be able to), but if he ends up being Tony Romo's backup again in 2014, he'll be one of the more experienced and reliable backups in the NFL.
No one's going to call these high-upside, sexy picks for backup quarterbacks, but offensive coordinators value experience and practical knowledge on playbooks, systems, concepts, and reading defenses.
Starter: QB Philip Rivers
Backups: QB Kellen Clemens, QB Brad Sorensen
Kellen Clemens started nine games for the Rams in 2013 and has 21 starts during his eight-year career, and was surprisingly ... well, good might not be the right word, but respectable in replacement duty for Sam Bradford last year. He proved to be very tough, while he threw for 58.7 percent, 1,673 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Rams went 4-5 while he was under center, which is not eye-popping, obviously, but pretty good considering he was facing NFC West defenses in four of those eight games (all losses). When it comes to journeyman backups, you can do a lot worse than Clemens.
St. Louis Rams:
Starter: QB Sam Bradford
Backups: QB Shaun Hill, QB Austin Davis
The Rams replaced Clemens with another long-time, respected journeyman in Shaun Hill. Hill hasn't started a game since 2010, but in very limited action the past few seasons he's looked efficient. He's certainly experienced, with 26 starts in his career, and keeping with the .500 benchmark, his teams have gone 13-13 in those starts. These past four years in Detroit, he's started 10 games, passing for 2,891 yards on 62 percent completion rate, 18 touchdowns and 12 picks. The Rams will obviously hope that Bradford can emerge and stay healthy in 2014, but Hill's a nice, savvy veteran to have waiting in the wings.
DEVELOPMENTAL POTENTIAL (WILD CARDS):
Starter: QB Tom Brady
Backups: QB Ryan Mallett, QB Jimmy Garoppolo
I thought for sure that Ryan Mallett was going to be a first-round pick in 2011 -- top-10, even -- but he slipped into the third round and has languished on the bench behind Tom Brady ever since. There were rumors he'd be traded to the Texans during the earlier part of the offseason, but assuming he sticks in New England, the battle between Mallett and rookie Jimmy Garoppolo will be a fun one to watch.
Mallett may emerge as the backup once again, and to this point it's tough to tell what he really offers, as he's only thrown four regular-season passes, but dammit if I can't remain intrigued with his potential. If Mallett is not the answer, perhaps Garoppolo is. Bill Belichick obviously saw enough to select the Eastern Illinois product in the second round. Either way, New England has some developmental talent at the position, making the Patriots worth watching in the preseason.
Starter: QB Colin Kaepernick
Backups: QB Blaine Gabbert, QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson, QB Josh Johnson
Blaine Gabbert was the 10th overall pick in the 2011 Draft, but never panned out starting for a very bad Jaguars team his first two seasons. He's now gotten a much-needed change of scenery, and will be studying under Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman. Harbaugh, a former quarterback himself, is widely credited with resurrecting Alex Smith's career when he arrived in San Francisco, so with that precedent and for that lone reason, I list Gabbert here. Harbaugh has worn through a few backups during the past year, but he does have a history of getting quarterbacks to play their best.
Gabbert is a very good athlete with a strong arm and a limited amount of experience, which typically doesn't hurt ... and that's it so far. If Harbaugh can help simplify things for Gabbert and use his talents correctly, he could emerge as the primary backup to Colin Kaepernick.
Starter: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
Backups: QB Case Keenum, QB Tom Savage
Free agent Ryan Fitzpatrick has won the starting job in Houston but Case Keenum and Tom Savage make for an interesting competition for the backup job with the departure of T.J. Yates. Keenum passed for 1,760 yards, 7.0 YPA with nine touchdowns to six picks in relief of Matt Schaub last year, fairly admirable numbers for a second-year quarterback who had gone undrafted. He's the favorite right now and the Texans would at least have a backup who has some starting experience.
Savage, meanwhile, was a bit of a sleeper this year at quarterback and had been compared to, among others, Ben Roethlisberger in some scouting reports. Savage not only has an awesome football name, he's in the running to jump past Keenum for the backup job. Keep an eye on this battle.
These rookies are not expected to start this year -- according to front office and coaching staff comments, anyway -- but they're in a position to possibly surprise.
Starter: QB Chad Henne
Backups: QB Blake Bortles, QB Ricky Stanzi, QB Stephen Morris
When the Jags drafted Blake Bortles with the third overall pick, head coach Gus Bradley quickly stated that the team planned to sit him for an entire year. He also stated that the Jags have rallied around Chad Henne as the starter, but we'll see what happens when the bullets start flying. My gut would think that Bradley will stick to his convictions this year regardless of the team's record or public pressure, but you just never know.
Jacksonville is obviously high on Bortles, and Bradley has a history in Seattle with another team that started a young rookie over the experienced veteran, and the results there were satisfactory for all parties. Regardless, for purposes of this article, Bortles makes for an intriguing backup his rookie year, with a high amount of upside.
Starter: QB Matt Schaub
Backup: QB Derek Carr, QB Matt McGloin
The Raiders will certainly have an interesting quarterback competition during training camp and preseason, but if early reports hold true, it's looking like it's Schaub's job this season. That said, second-round pick Derek Carr has impressed in camps and OTAs. With the way that Schaub played last season, bereft of any confidence throwing the ball, he could be a surprise to jump into the starting job. Whether it's Carr as another high-upside backup or Schaub as the veteran mentoring backup, Oakland should be one team to watch at that position this year.
These four teams should have proper quarterback battles on their hands. I won't call any of them now, but they're included because regardless of who emerges as starters for each club, each one of those teams will have a solid backup as well.
Minnesota Vikings: QB Matt Cassell, QB Christian Ponder, QB Teddy Bridgewater
Cassell is the favorite to win the job, meaning high-upside rookie Teddy Bridgewater and former 12th overall pick Christian Ponder will fight for the No. 2 job. Ponder and Cassell have the experience you like at backup quarterback, and Bridgewater has the most potential. Should be interesting.
Browns: QB Brian Hoyer, QB Johnny Manziel, QB Tyler Thigpen, QB Connor Shaw
If Johnny Manziel ends up winning the starting quarterback job for Cleveland, the Browns could do worse than have Brian Hoyer at the backup spot.
Buccaneers: QB Josh McCown, QB Mike Glennon, QB Mike Kafka
The QB competition is heating up in Tampa Bay, and whether it's McCown or Glennon as the backup, both are experienced and provide some upside for the Bucs. Another one of the more interesting battles to keep an eye on.
Jets: QB Geno Smith, QB Michael Vick, QB Matt Simms, QB Tajh Boyd
The thought I've heard recently is that Michael Vick will emerge as the starter in 2014 for the Jets, putting Geno Smith back on the bench but giving him a little more time to develop his game. If Smith holds on to the reins, though, the Jets have a proven backup in Vick, provided he's healthy.
I'm not going to pretend I got all these into the correct groupings, and I'm sure I left a few candidates off the list, so in the comments below, let me know where you differ in opinion or let me know where I missed the mark.