The NFL’s New MVP: Backup Quarterbacks

The NFL changes over time. Before Lawrence Taylor, left tackles did not hold the same value as they did after Taylor battered just about every quarterback he faced. General managers adjusted based on what they were seeing. It seems like it is changing again now regrading the league values backup quarterbacks.

It feels like backup quarterback has become an infinitely more valuable position in the last few years in the NFL. With the rate of injury to starting quarterbacks, it is becoming a necessity to have a good backup. They are quickly becoming a valuable commodity across the league.

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Entering the season, Foles was the second-highest paid backup in the league, behind only Teddy Bridgewater. (Wikimedia Commons)

Think about how many backup quarterbacks you can name during Peyton Manning’s career. Go back further to Dan Marino. Or Roger Staubach. Maybe some of the ones for Marino or Staubach have faded with time, but I grew up during the Peyton Manning-era. Off the top of my head, the only name that comes up is Curtis Painter, and that is mostly because the Colts started him for their final two games of the 2009 season. One of those games was against a Jets team starting Mark Sanchez and needing a win to keep postseason hopes alive. I will forever be thankful for Curtis Painter.

I digress. The point is, most of these backup quarterbacks are pretty much unknown. There wasn’t much value in them unless you were grooming a young quarterback and he needed some guidance. Now, teams are trading for backup quarterbacks, or even notably not giving them up.

The best example is Nick Foles. The backup quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles had to step in after Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending injury late in the 2017 season. No doubt, you know what happened by now as Foles led the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory and was named the game’s MVP.

Over the offseason, several teams tried to trade for Foles, seeing as Wentz would come back and take over the starting job as soon as he was healthy. Reportedly, Cleveland offered up its second round pick, the 35th overall selection in the 2018 NFL draft in exchange for Foles. That is exception value to receive for your backup quarterback, who you hope won’t have to play all season. The Eagles declined the offer though. While yes, Philly did need Foles to start the season as Wentz was not cleared for contact by week 1, there were plenty of other free agent quarterbacks that could have stepped to start for those two weeks and the Eagles would have some extra ammo in the draft. It also would have cleared a ton of cap space off the books for Philadelphia. Foles will count for $13.6 million against the cap in 2018. However, the Eagles felt they needed a strong enough backup to have in their back pocket, just in case.

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Teddy Bridgewater (right) has not started a game since 2015, but the Saints traded a third-round pick for him to back up Drew Brees. (Wikimedia Commons)

Philly is far from the only team. Several clubs moved to bolster their backup quarterback situation. The Colts refused to move Jacoby Brissett after he stepped in last season to start for Andrew Luck. Minnesota traded for Trevor Siemian in the offseason, despite breaking the bank to sign Kirk Cousins from Washington. The Seahawks traded a sixth round pick in 2019 for Brett Hundley, formerly a backup in Green Bay. The Packers felt comfortable letting go of Hundley because they already had their backup quarterback of the future in Deshone Kizer. The Packers traded for Kizer after he struggled during his rookie season with the Browns. The Saints joined the fun as well, sending a third round draft pick to New York in exchange for Teddy Bridgewater.  Now Kizer did see some action already due to an Aaron Rodgers injury, but without injury, none of these players would see the field in 2018. Their value exists due to the what if.

This whole trend might actually go back a bit further Nick Foles. It likely originates with Matt Cassel back in 2008. He stepped in after Tom Brady was lost for the season with a knee injury. Cassel, never anywhere as close to as good as Brady, led the Patriots to an 11-5 record. He signed a big 4-year deal with the Chiefs the following offseason and proceeded to look way out of his depth. Even though he flamed out of Kansas City, Cassel has made the roster of five different teams in the past six seasons.

Perhaps the best example of the value teams place in having an experienced backup quarterback is the bearded one himself, Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Harvard grad has toured the NFL as the consummate backup quarterback and spot-starter. Fitzpatrick is not a very good passer. In his career, he has completed just under 60 percent of his passes and thrown 43 more interceptions than he has touchdowns. Usually, that would mean you are out of the league, not playing in your 14th NFL season. Fitz has made a living as a journeyman backup. Spotrac puts his career earning at just over $58 million. The fact that teams still sign him is a testament to the value he still holds in the league.

In a similar boat is Josh McCown. Now a backup on the Jets as the franchise puts its faith in Sam Darnold, McCown has a made a career circling the league as a backup. He has made just shy of $50 million for his efforts despite never starting all 16 games in a single season.

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Bradford has made about $14.4 million on average over his nine NFL seasons. (Wikimedia Commons)

Another interesting study is Sam Bradford. He has never been a great quarterback. In his career he is a 62.5 percent passer who averages about 234 yards per game. His career record as a starter is 34-48-1. Sam Bradford is also the 17th highest paid player in NFL history. Yes, you read that right. Now, that stat is a bit skewed. 15 of the 20 highest paid players in league history are currently playing. Four of the five that have retired did so in the last three years. Brett Favre is the only one in the top 20 to retire more than three years ago.

There are some other qualifiers for Bradford’s status. He is the last player selected first overall to negotiate outside of the rookie wage scale, meaning he signed a six-year, $78 million deal before ever taking an NFL snap. For reference, Cam Newton, who was the first overall pick the following year, signed a four-year, $22 million deal for his rookie contract.

Just this year, Bradford signed a one-year deal with Arizona for $20 million. Bradford has not played a full season of football since 2012. He has never made the playoffs as a starter. Yet, he somehow still manages to command money. The Cardinals also drafted Josh Rosen 10th overall this year, so they have a quarterback of the future. They also have Mike Glennon on the roster. With Rosen taking over the starting job, Bradford is now the most expensive backup in the NFL.

They aren’t the first team to do this either. The Bears did it in 2017 with Mike Glennon and Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky took over right around the same time as Rosen did. I just mentioned that Glennon is also in Arizona. Experience is key for NFL teams looking to find the solution at quarterback.

Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne, Matt Schaub, Colt McCoy, Drew Stanton, Robert Griffin III, Geno Smith, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler. The list goes on and on of players we know do not have what it takes to be starters in this league. Most of them aren’t even that young anymore and don’t represent future prospects looking for their chance. They all have jobs though due to the fact teams are valuing backup quarterbacks more than ever before.

This isn’t to say there weren’t career backups who made the occasional start for an injured quarterback. Before Nick Foles, there was Jeff Hostetler. Hostetler stepped in for an injured Phil Simms late in the 1990 season and did just enough to lead the Giants to a Super Bowl victory. Hostetler went on to start for a few seasons with the Raiders, even making the Pro Bowl in 1994. He was never a great quarterback.

Hostetler never really returned to his backup role, unlike what so many of these current quarterbacks are doing. There are some great backup quarterbacks in NFL history, but they are few and far between.

Earl Morrall backed up Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese during his career. He played 21 years in the NFL and started fewer than five games per year on average. Steve DeBerg was replaced by Joe Montana, John Elway and Steve Young during his long NFL career. He finished with more interceptions than touchdowns thrown, but lasted 17 seasons in the league.

Most notable backup quarterbacks are few and far between. Perhaps it’s easier to name all of the current backup quarterbacks now because they are still current players. Still, it is hard to dismiss the fact that general managers and fans alike are paying more attention to the depth chart at the quarterback position than ever before.

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Bradford wants out of Philly

The Eagles are shocked that after trading up for the second overall pick to take a quarterback, signing Chase Daniel to a reasonably large contract for his stature and failing to pay him, Sam Bradford would like to leave Philadelphia.

Sam Bradford
Bradford threw 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 2015.

Chip Kelly brought Bradford to the City of Brotherly love and now that Kelly is in San Francisco, the Eagles want to head in a different direction. Bradford is injury prone and did not have a great season last year. Yet for some reason they resigned him. Now he is demanding a trade.

For Bradford, this makes sense. He has no desire to be a back up or have a time clock set on how much longer he could stay with the team. He clearly doesn’t like the idea of having his replacement waiting in the wings. It doesn’t reflect very well on his personality, but you have to understand him wanting to skip town.

Let’s break down the teams that could try to negotiate a trade for Bradford.

New York Jets
Probability: High
Bradford is probably a step backwards from having Ryan Fitzpatrick, with the latter having played in the system last year and knowing the team, but Bradford would fill a need. If the Jets are unsuccessful in signing Fitzpatrick, trading for Bradford might be the next best option. Bradford would have the chance to compete with Geno Smith for the starting role. Bradford’s short contract also allows the Jets to move on from him fairly quickly. The likelihood is Bradford is no one’s long term solution at quarterback.

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The Eagles fired Kelly back in December.

San Francisco 49ers
Probability: Medium
Well, as I mentioned before, Bradford does have some ties to new San Francisco head coach Chip Kelly. The 49ers currently have a couple of quarterbacks on their roster, but rumor has it that Colin Kaepernick wants a change in scenery and Blaine Gabbert likely isn’t the quarterback San Francisco wants to invest its future in. Bringing in Bradford would give someone for Gabbert to compete with and allow the 49ers to move on from Kaepernick. Again, it does not solve the long term quarterback issue, but it certainly makes the present a bit better.

Denver Broncos
Probability: High

John Elway already traded for one Eagles quarterback this offseason, why not another? This trade probably won’t happen if only because Denver does not have the money or doesn’t want another Philly castoff, but from the standpoint of filling a need, it makes a lot of sense. Bradford could fit well into a run-heavy scheme and he would not be required to put up huge numbers with the defense he would have in Denver. The Broncos are a team that has a championship-caliber roster, minus the quarterback. Bradford might be just good enough to keep Denver’s hopes of repeating alive.

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Brees’ cap hit for 2016 is $30 million, which is the largest of any player.

New Orleans Saints
Probability: Low
This one might sound a little bizarre, but hear me out. The Saints have Drew Brees under contract through this season and then he becomes a free agent. His cap figure is currently the highest in the NFL, so New Orleans would probably like to find a cheaper option. Enter Bradford in 2017. He spends a year on the bench, learning the system and the personnel before taking over as the starter. The Saints do have last year’s third round pick Garrett Grayson on the roster still, but if New Orleans isn’t sold on him, Bradford would be a good option. He would need to take a pay cut this year to make it work, but long term, this might be a good solution for Bradford.

Buffalo Bills
Probability: Low
These two teams already have a good relationship after working out a major deal last year to swap Kiko Alonso and LeSean McCoy. Maybe they will pull off another deal. No one is sure if Tyrod Taylor is the long term answer at quarterback. He and E.J Manuel are set to be free agents after next season. That could open the door again for a situation similar to what could happen in New Orleans. Bradford would be able to learn the system and compete with Taylor for the starting job. If he doesn’t get it, then he could take over the following season.

Players in make or break years

Every NFL player is under intense scrutiny but these ten players have the heat turned up just a bit higher.

Mike_WallaceMike Wallace, Minnesota Vikings
The speedster who looked like an inevitable star in Pittsburgh took his talents to South Beach and then disappeared. Well not completely disappeared but he never became the star that the Dolphins paid him to become. He was still productive though, tallying 1792 yards and 15 touchdowns during his two years in Miami. However, Wallace found himself looking for a job at season’s end and now joins a young Minnesota team. With Charles Johnson bursting onto the scene and Corradelle Patterson still trying to find his way, there is room for Wallace in this team. However, if Patterson rediscovers his rookie year form and either Stephan Diggs or Jerrell Wright starts showing promise, don’t be surprised if Wallace’s time with the Vikings is short.

Trent_RichardsonTrent Richardson, Oakland Raiders
The 2012 draft is full of running backs that failed to live up to their billing. The most successful pick turned out to be Alfred Morris and that was in a draft where the potential of guys like Doug Martin and David Wilson had GMs drooling. Richardson is likely the most disappointing of them all though and now entering his fourth season, Richardson is joining his third team in as many years. Averaging a pedestrian 3.3 yards per carry heading to Oakland is not a good sign. This is likely the former Alabama products last chance to stick in the league. If he fails in Oakland, no one else is going to gamble on him again.

RG3Robert Griffin III, Washington
RG3 has had expectations heaped on him since day one. He electrified the league as a rookie but a knee injury and some adjustment to the read option offense have largely quashed what looked to be a promising career. However, the Redskins have not had a whole lot of success rotating other quarterbacks into the lineup, spare a Monday Night Miracle by Colt McCoy. Griffin is going to get one last shot at turning it around in Washington and recapturing his Rookie of the Year performance. This is the final year of his contract and if he does not show signs of marked improvement, you can be sure that Washington will not be looking to renew his deal. That would definitely put Griffin in the conversation for biggest draft bust of all time.

Geno SmithGeno Smith, New York Jets
Geno Smith probably doesn’t need reminding that he is running out of time in New York. Smith has failed to make a great first impression in his first two season with the Jets and now with Ryan Fitzpatrick waiting in the wings, Smith has real competition. Pair that with the fact that the team has a new coach and a new GM and that spells the end of Smith’s tenure in the Big Apple at the first sign of trouble. The Jets have indicated that they will give Geno every chance to win the starting job and grow but if he struggles at any point, don’t be surprised to see Todd Bowles turn to Fitzpatrick.

Percy_HarvinPercy Harvin, Buffalo Bills
Joining his fourth team in as many years is not how most people thought you would be describing Percy Harvin back in 2012. But after a trade to Seattle that was marred with injuries and another trade to the Jets that was average at best, Harvin is now set to join the Bills. He could fit the roll of a C.J. Spiller type of do it all player. However, this team is searching for an identity with a new coach. Harvin has some background with the coach in question as he played for Rex Ryan in New York just last year. If Harvin fails to impress though or cannot stay on the field, he could find himself bouncing to yet another team.

Prince_AmukamaraPrince Amukamara, New York Giants
The former first round pick is set to enter his fifth big league season. However, Amukamara has only played all 16 games once so far in his career. Over the past four years, Prince has been unavailable for 20 of New York’s games. Amukamara started off last season promising with 3 picks and 11 pass deflections in the first half of the year before once again suffering a season ending injury. With Dominique Rogers-Cromartie on one side, the Giants will be relying on Amukamara on the other. If he fails to hold up or cannot survive the rigors of a full season, New York will more than likely begin searching for his replacement.

Jarvis_JonesJarvis Jones, Pittsburgh Steelers
58 total tackles and 3 sacks is not what Pittsburgh thought they were getting when they drafted Jarvis Jones in 2013. The former first rounder came in with a lot of promise as a pass rusher but has failed to make much of an impact. Jones hasn’t managed to stay healthy either, appearing in only 21 games over the past two seasons. The Steelers’ once great defense is now a shell of itself in need of some new stars. The chance for Jones to step up is certainly there but with Pittsburgh tabbing Bud Dupree in the first round of this year’s draft, he will certainly have some competition.

Jay_CutlerJay Cutler, Chicago Bears
Believe it or not, Jay Cutler wasn’t always unpopular in Chicago. After the last two years of mediocre play which included being benched in favor of Jimmy Clausen, Bears fans’ indifference towards Cutler has turned to anger and disgust. He hasn’t always had the best offensive line in front of him, but Cutler has certainly had his fair share of targets to throw too. With Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett in his arsenal Cutler had no excuses. Yet he still tossed 18 interceptions in 15 games. At 32, Cutler is running out of time to win over the fans, and the management in Chicago.

May 10, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts linebacker Bjoern Werner (92) walks off the field after practicing in the Colts Rookie Minicamp at the Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Bjorn Werner, Indianapolis Colts
Two years into his professional career, Werner has failed to turn too many heads. He was selected in the first round by Indianapolis back in 2013 with the label of a project. However, he has failed to develop a whole lot with only 68 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 28 career games. Nagging injuries have certainly played into Werner’s slow development but that isn’t a reassuring excuse. Werner will likely have to duke it out with Trent Cole and Erik Walden just to get playing time. Once he gets it, he needs to capitalize or he will be out of a job.

Sam_BradfordSam Bradford, Philadelphia Eagles
Signing the richest rookie contract in history at the time was great for Sam Bradford. It turned out to not be so great for the Rams. Bradford only managed to play 49 games in 5 seasons for St. Louis. Coming off his second ACL tear in as many years, many doubt that Bradford is a reliable starting quarterback option. Bradford might be the player with the best chance to breakout this year on this list joining the playoff-hopeful Eagles. Chip Kelly has high hopes for him but if he hits the shelf again due to injury, don’t expect Bradford to be back again.