Teddy Bridgewater & Beyond: Backup Quarterback Rankings
NFL Week 1 - Poor Teddy Bridgewater. He finally landed in an offense custom-tailored for a pesky ball-distributing leadership guy with a B-minus fastball. Bridgewater could have a Pro Bowl-caliber season just dishing slants and drags to Tyreek Hill in Mike McDaniel's designer Shanahan-knockoff Miami Dolphins offense. But he's stuck behind Tua Tagovailoa, the NFL's first combination quarterback/K-Pop sensation/infomercial juicer.
Walkthrough is here to talk about backup quarterbacks, not relitigate the advertising claims made during the Summer of Tua. But if the Dolphins suddenly swapped Tagovailoa for Bridgewater, the sportsbooks probably wouldn't bother changing their win total prop bets. Heck, some naysayers might claim that the Dolphins win projection would improve. Bad, naughty naysayers!
Here at Football Outsiders, we lump starting quarterbacks into three general classifications: "Win Because Of" (the "elite" guys), "Win With" (all the Kirk Cousins-types who soak up the flavor of their supporting casts), and "Win Despite" (2020-2021 Tagovailoa, for example). At Walkthrough, we classify backup quarterbacks into three self-explanatory categories: "Get You Through a Month," "Get You Through a Game," and "Get You Under the Cap."
Bridgewater, the best backup quarterback in the NFL in 2022, would rank somewhere near the bottom of the "Win With" quarterbacks given another starting opportunity. He could lead a team as stacked as the Bills to a 3-1 record if he backed up Josh Allen. Top contenders, however, can rarely afford Bridgewater-caliber contingency plans, and Bridgewater-types themselves gravitate to where both the money and opportunities are in free agency. Hence, Miami.
You know what comes next: backup quarterback rankings from 2 to 32. Let's get on with it.
Backup Quarterbacks Who Can Get You Through a Month
2. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
Here's a galaxy-brained theory about the whole Garoppolo-Trey Lance saga: Kyle Shanahan knew since at least the Baker Mayfield trade (early July) that the 49ers would never find a trade partner for Garoppolo. He also knew the organization had to sell Garoppolo's return to both Lance and the fans. So Shanahan purposely floated all the rumors about Garoppolo ghosting during the offseason and so forth to make Garoppolo look like much less of a threat. It's like referring to someone in an Instagram post as a "100% platonic pal." And of course, doing so just begs further questions.
Where would Shanahan learn such devious media manipulation? I learned it from watching you, dad!
Anyway, Garoppolo will be there to provide playoff-caliber game-management if the 49ers need him, assuming that he answers their texts, his shoulder is OK, etc.
3. Nick Foles, Indianapolis Colts
It's customary to make stinky-poo faces about creaky starters-turned-backups. But Foles was last seen coaxing a comeback victory from a dreadful Bears offense against the healthy-Russell-Wilson-led Seahawks in Week 16 of 2021. And of course, few quarterbacks have gotten a team through a month-plus quite like Foles from December of 2017 to February, 2018. Can Foles operate a Frank Reich RPO/play-action-heavy offense? Was the Philly Special special?
4. Tyler Huntley, Baltimore Ravens
Huntley led the Ravens to a 1-4 record (counting a game in which he replaced Lamar Jackson very early) while trying to get them through a month in 2021. The losses came by a combined seven points, two of them against the Rams and Packers, for a team down to its fourth and fifth cornerbacks and a collection of running backs scavenged from your 2016 fantasy lineup. Huntley is a "makes things happen" type backup, in contrast to the "game manager" type (backup quarterbacks are like Pokemon in many ways): he can scramble his way to chaotic wins with just enough passing and decision-making capability to keep opponents honest.
5. Gardner Minshew, Philadelphia Eagles
If you want your team to be competitive during a starting quarterback's absence, you want someone like Nick Foles. If you want them to be a hoot to watch, pick Minshew, who is already halfway to becoming Ryan Fitzpatrick with his signature look, colorful backstory, and knack for making routine plays look difficult and losses look like moral victories. Like Fitzpatrick, Minshew can string together enough improvisational highlights to generate a few wins before opponents realize they are being snookered. That's just about all a team can ask for from a young veteran backup.
6. Andy Dalton, New Orleans Saints
Dalton has led the Bears and Cowboys to a 7-8 record over the last two seasons. The Bears offense was a stale pretzel, and Dalton was battling injuries for a Cowboys team that never turned its Zoom cameras on in 2020. If Michael Thomas is healthy (you know the drill) and the Saints defense is as good as advertised, Dalton can game-manage his way to several wins if counted upon. No one said he has to look cool doing so.
7. Jacoby Brissett, Cleveland Browns
Brissett is what you get if you keep a "Get You Through a Month" backup in the lineup for a whole season multiple times. Brissett's 19th overall DYAR ranking with Indianapolis in 2019 is superficially impressive, but Brissett produced a string of 150ish-yard, 52-ish percent completion rate, zero-touchdown starts in the second half of that season. Even Frank Reich was out of ideas. It's like driving cross-country on a donut spare: the first 50 miles are swell, then you reach the desert and veer off the road into a cactus.
Brissett should get the Browns to at least 2-2 against a soft early schedule before Kevin Stefanski runs out of play-action boot concepts. For seven games after that, Brissett will be just effective enough to earn his next gig. And that's just fine: being Nick Foles is great work if you can get it.
8. Taylor Heinicke, Washington Commanders
Minshew without the gimmicks: a daring pepperpot who gets hot for a drive or two, then overthrows his next dozen open receivers. The Commanders clearly have a "type" at quarterback. Heinicke is boosted a notch by the fact that rookie Sam Howell could also deliver a surprise win if pulled from the back of the bench.
9. Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers
Ignore Love's four preseason interceptions: he was the victim of some tip-drills and rookie receiver errors. At the same time, don't overreact to how great Love looked at times against backup defenders. Love appears to have made a developmental leap forward in his third season, and he always had talent to burn. So the Packers won't be forced to take the game out of his hands the way they did in their 13-7 Week 9 loss to the Chiefs in 2021 if Aaron Rodgers takes a week off to protest vaccine boosters or help Tom Brady solve his marital problems or something. But we're not ready to rank Love ahead of more seasoned backups just yet.
10. Drew Lock or Geno Smith, Seattle Seahawks
Given four starts, Lock will have one three-touchdown game, two four-turnover games, and one game where his coaches just give up and hand off on every third-and-10. Smith, by contrast, has become a low-tier dink-and-dunk game manager with a wisp of leftover mobility to spice things up: given four extended appearances last year, he helped thump the Jaguars but mixed sacks with third-down throws short of the sticks against better opponents.
Both Lock and Smith barely qualify as "Get You Through a Month" backups, so it should be excruciating watching the Seahawks try to get through four-and-a-half months with them.
Backup Quarterbacks Who Can Get You Through a Game
11 to 13. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh Steelers
Desmond Ridder, Atlanta Falcons
Malik Willis, Tennessee Titans
Pickett's average preseason pass could best be measured in air centimeters, but he did demonstrate an ability to run the offense efficiently in hurry-up conditions. Ridder looked promising throughout the preseason, though some of his highlights (like his game-winning touchdown in the preseason opener) would turn into bloopers against real NFL competition. Willis produced a few scattered viral highlights but looked generally extremely unready through 51 pass attempts and nine sacks in three games.
The order above is both alphabetical and intentional, with Pickett most ready to game-manage his way to a win or two thanks to his supporting cast, Willis capable of potentially surprising a Jaguars/Texans level opponent with his arm and wheels, and Ridder somewhere in between. All three remain viable quarterbacks of various futures, but this is where B-tier prospects inevitably land as rookies: they're student drivers, and their coordinators will need to keep a foot on the brakes at all times if they are forced to start.
14. Case Keenum, Buffalo Bills
Welcome to the kelp forest of creaky veterans!
Keenum led the Browns to two victories in 2021: the Thursday night D'Ernest Johnson Goes HAM 17-14 win over the Broncos and a Week 18 custodial job against the Bengals backups. He led Washington to a 1-7 record in 2019, with losses by 24-3, 9-0, and 19-9. It's tempting to lump Keenum among the Foles/Dalton types because of his 2017 success, but he's at least a full rung below them. That said, he shows up ready to play and could lead the Bills to a spot-start win or two against second-tier opponents.
15. Colt McCoy, Arizona Cardinals
McCoy led the Cardinals to two victories in relief of Kyler Murray last season, with an ugly 34-10 loss to the Panthers led by the P.J. Walker/Cam Newton platoon in between. So is he ranked too low here? Not at all. The Cardinals' second win with McCoy at the helm came against the Seahawks soon after Russell Wilson rushed back too soon from his hand injury. The Seahawks held the ball for just 19 minutes and 38 seconds. McCoy fumbled three times but the Cardinals recovered all of them. He spent most of the game dripping micropasses to Rondale Moore and James Connor in a 23-13 victory. So it wasn't exactly a repeatable formula for success. And everything else about McCoy's 12-year career—most notably how rarely he ever got into a game—suggests that he really should be coaching in the Big 12 by now.
16. Tyrod Taylor, New York Giants
Theoretical Tyrod Taylor is a "makes things happen" backup with wheels, gobs of experience, and a reputation for taking care of the football at all costs that coaches appreciate. Actual Tyrod Taylor tends to do just what he did in the preseason: average around 5.4 yards per attempt for a game or so (with more turnovers than expected) before getting injured himself.
17. Joe Flacco, New York Jets
Flacco, like Keenum or McCoy, initially looks like a Foles-level backup. But Flacco's teams are 2-11 in his last 13 starts dating back to the 2019 Broncos. And, well, you've seen him play. Like Keenum, Flacco could lead the Bills past an opponent like the Jets. Unfortunately, Flacco plays for the Jets.
18. Blaine Gabbert, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gabbert is a lot like Geno Smith: a toolsy failed prospect from 2011 who found a sweet gig hiding on the bench behind a durable superstar. Like Geno, Gabbert would probably dink, dunk, and scramble his way to modest success in a brief relief appearance. Unlike Geno, we haven't seen Gabbert do much of anything since he backed up Marcus Mariota for the 2018 Titans. He goes here because he can't really be placed any higher and it feels a little mean-spirited to place him lower.
19. Sam Darnold or P.J. Walker, Carolina Panthers
Darnold was recently a bottom-rung starter, making it tempting to list him among the top backups. But there's a level of unflappability that comes with being a quality backup, and Darnold has been highly flappable throughout his young career. Top prospects such as Darnold rarely morph into quality career backups: if a quarterback falls from "quarterback of the future" to "flunked his second chance" in four years, he's probably destined to become Blake Bortles/Jake Locker/Joey Harrington/Tim Couch, not Vinny Testaverde, Kerry Collins, or even Gabbert.
Walker, meanwhile, has a reputation as a "makes things happen" backup but a knack for interception sprees off the bench. Both Darnold and Walker are as likely to exacerbate a crisis as mitigate one.
20. Nick Mullens, Minnesota Vikings
The arithmetic mean of Case Keenum and C.J. Beathard, the ideal emergency quarterback if everyone else has COVID/injuries/jury duty, and the backup the Vikings are stuck with because the Kellen Mond/Sean Mannion competition ended in a double-TKO.
21. Chad Henne, Kansas City Chiefs
"Get you through precisely two series at the end of a playoff game" should be its own category.
22. Trevor Siemian, Chicago Bears
When Walkthrough first came up with these backup quarterback rankings, it sounded like a great idea. I can burn some leftover Gardner Minshew and Tua jokes! And knock the whole thing out on Friday then hit the pool for the weekend!
Then I reached this moment, the moment where I had to find something relevant to write about Trevor Siemian, and I realized that I was in hell. I had consigned my immortal soul to hell. Not to chase wine, women, and song, mind you, but in the name of an easy byline. What circle of hell is this, Dante? The one where Satan uses Brutus and Cassius as suppositories? Eh, I came to this fate honestly.
Anyway, Siemian started a bunch of games for a Saints team with a great defense and a solid offensive line but no playmakers last year, giving way to Taysom Hill for a few Wildcat junkballs per game. The Saints fell well behind the Titans, Eagles, and even the Falcons in three of those games, only for Siemian to throw some late touchdowns to make the final score close. The Bills said "LOLZ, nope" to that routine with a Thanksgiving basting, and then it was officially (sigh) Taysom Time.
So if you are looking for a quarterback to get you through a month of backdoor covers, Siemian might indeed be your guy.
23. Brian Hoyer, New England Patriots
Hoyer's teams are 1-12 in his spot starts dating back to 2016. The Patriots 2022 outlook would be much better if Bailey Zappe were Mac Jones' backup and Hoyer was the offensive coordinator.
24. Chase Daniel, Los Angeles Chargers
The Mario Mendoza of veteran backups. If your journeyman mentor somehow has less game experience or a higher salary than Daniel, it's time to dump him for some league-minimum rando.
Backup Quarterbacks Who Just Get You Under the Cap
25. Brett Rypien, Denver Broncos
Rypien was initially slated to join John Elway's League of Extraordinary Nephews alongside Chad Kelly; the master plan was to recruit Arch Manning like D'Artagnan. The new Broncos brain trust was thrilled with what they saw from Rypien in the offseason, though they hedged their thrilled-ness by stashing Josh Johnson on the practice squad. Rypien's lone start was a QB WINZ masterpiece against the Jets in 2020, but he tops this category because he has both gotten his team through a game and impressed a second regime.
26. Cooper Rush, Dallas Cowboys
Rush has been kicking around JerryLand since 2017 (with a brief Giants layover). He game-managed a 2021 victory by a 20-17 final to the Vikings when they were in full Sunday Night Football is just too big a stage for Kirk Cousins mode. But Rush officially starts the season next to Will Grier (who would rank 97th among the 32 backup quarterbacks) on the practice squad, which demonstrates just how much the Cowboys value their backup quarterback.
27. Kyle Allen, Houston Texans
Former Ron Rivera binkie backup and favorite of the Brotherhood of Cam Newton Haters, Allen is a sack machine whose primary purpose in 2022 is to prevent any Davis Mills controversy by not being a viable alternative. And you know what? That's not a terrible strategy: let Mills sink (probably) or swim (slightly feasible) with no lifeguard instead of burning cap bucks on some Garoppolo type who might confuse Failson McNair and Jack Easterbunny by winning a few spot starts.
28. Nate Sudfeld, Detroit Lions
A longtime Eagles offseason/preseason favorite best known for entering the game when Doug Pederson quiet-quit at the end of the 2020 season. Like Kyle Allen, his job is to prevent any sort of quarterback controversy. Unlike Allen, he backs up a starter with zero chance of developing.
29. C.J. Beathard, Jacksonville Jaguars
It's shocking that John Elway never employed Beathard, an under-center pocket passer AND nepotism hire. Instead, Beathard became a Shanahan side project with an almost Mike Glennon-level gift for padding his stats with touchdowns in lopsided losses. If anything bad happens to Trevor Lawrence, Doug Pederson plans to be at Cold Stone 15 minutes after practice every week, making the experienced-but-forgettable Beathard is the perfect "nothing to see here" backup.
30. John Wolford, Los Angeles Rams
Scrambly meaningless-game long reliever for a team that lacks two nickels to rub together for bench players. We all know the Rams are screwed if anything happens to Matthew Stafford, so why bother pretending?
31. Jake Browning, Cincinnati Bengals
Jake Browning? That fella who briefly looked like a prospect when John Ross and Dante Pettis were his collegiate receivers in 2016? Alrighty then. Taylor Heinicke would look great backing up Joe Burrow. Just try to overthrow Ja'Marr Chase. We dare you.
32. Jarrett Stidham, Las Vegas Raiders
Josh McDaniels' answer to Kyle Allen.