Ranking the NFL's top backup quarterbacks

ByJohn Clayton ESPN logo
Monday, June 15, 2015

Late last week, both Super Bowl participants upgraded their backup quarterback spots.

The Seahawks re-signed Tarvaris Jackson, a much needed move because Pete Carroll was getting through OTAs with R.J. Archer as Russell Wilson's No. 2. And just in case Tom Brady's four-game suspension isn't overturned, the Patriots picked up Matt Flynn to be Jimmy Garappolo's backup.

The league-wide thought on a quality backup quarterback is that they can win you three games once they get on the field, but if you play them six, they could lose you three. Going from an elite starter to a good backup takes a top team from 11 or 12 wins to eight or nine. That reflects in offensive scoring. An elite starter usually averages between 24 and 28 points per game. A top backup can get between 20 and 22 points.

Assuming Brian Hoyer (Browns), Matt Cassel (Bills), Josh McCown (Browns) and Geno Smith (Jets) end up with starting jobs this season, let's run down the list of top No. 2s.

1. Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets

Bill O'Brien got the most out of Fitzpatrick last season in Houston. He went 6-6 in his 12 starts, while the offense averaged 24 points per game. His Total QBR ranked 16th in 2013 (when he was in Tennessee) and 20th last season. He'll be waiting in the wings if Smith stumbles out of the gates.

2. Mark Sanchez, Philadelphia Eagles

Surprised? You shouldn't be. The case for Sanchez is two-fold: He has averaged 22.4 points per game as a starter, and has a 37-33 career record. In Chip Kelly's offense, he's averaged 30 points per game.

3. Matt Hasselbeck, Indianapolis Colts

Even though he's 39, Hasselbeck is still a quality quarterback. This might be his last year, but he's the perfect option if something happens to Andrew Luck.

4. Matt Schaub, Baltimore Ravens

After he flamed out as the Texans' starter and failed to win the job in Oakland last season, Schaub is trying to re-establish himself as a backup. As a starter, he averaged 23.7 points per game during his career, and his 52.5 Total QBR equates to a nine-game winner.

5. Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks

He's the perfect backup to Russell Wilson. He's 17-17 in starts and averages 22.5 points per game, which would be more than enough to pile up winswith Seattle's elite defense.

6. Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Glennon, who now finds himself sitting behind Jameis Winston, has averaged 19.9 points per game in his two NFL seasons -- and that's with very little supporting cast of note.

7. Shaun Hill, Minnesota Vikings

Hill went 3-5 last year in St. Louis, proving he's a good -- not great -- No. 2 option. Now 35, his age is a bit of a concern, but he can still get you 22 to 24 points per game.

8. Christian Ponder, Oakland Raiders

Ponder makes the list because he's averaged 23.5 points per game during his starts. He falls behind Glennon because he had the benefits of having Adrian Peterson in the Vikings backfield.

9. Matt Moore, Miami Dolphins

He's thrown just 29 passes in the three seasons since Ryan Tannehill arrived, but he went 6-6 as a starter in 2011, which is part of the reason the Dolphins re-signed him to a one-year deal this offseason.

10. Kellen Clemens, San Diego Chargers

He went 4-5 with the Rams in 2013 as a starter. His fourth-quarter-comeback ability has made him a coveted No. 2 over the last few years.

One last note: You might have noticed that very few of the guys on this list are up-and-comers. If you count Hoyer, Cassel, McCown and Smith as backups -- as their skill level would suggest -- that'd mean nine of my top 14 backups are in the 30s. You have to wonder where teams will get competent No. 2 quarterbacks in a few years.

From the inbox

Q: With the recent release of Evan Mathis from the Eagles, what do you see as the chances that he may wind up in Denver? He hasn't found a trade partner for two years and a minimal contract with a chance to shine and potentially go to the Super Bowl is better than no money. It may not be the best fit for Denver either, but they are needy at O-line and he definitely would be an upgrade.

Ben in Knoxville, Tennessee

A: The Broncos aren't among the four main teams looking at Mathis (Indianapolis, Kansas City, Miami and San Francisco). Though he would be big upgrade at guard, I don't see them having enough money to make the move. They have $6.91 million of cap room left this year and have already committed more than $127 million next year. Mathis -- who's coming off back-to-back Pro Bowls and is considered one of the best guards in football -- is in enough demand that he might be able to pull off a two-year deal even though he's 33. Gary Kubiak plans to go young with the offensive line this year. They want to give Ty Sambrailo a shot at left tackle and might use Michael Schofield at right tackle. Because Peyton Manning releases the ball so quickly and Kubiak is so good at settling up the run game, Denver will probably take a pass on Mathis.

Q: Given that the Super Bowl is in San Francisco this year, I would have thought that my beloved 49ers would have tried to make a serious run at the championship by adding some key players and then worrying about the salary cap situation later. The chance to play at home in the Super Bowl seems worth doing whatever is necessary to try and make it happen. Even before the unexpected retirement of several key players, the 49ers did not seem to be taking that approach. Am I the only one that is surprised?

Rich in Waterloo, Ontario

A: You raise an excellent point. A home Super Bowl is a rare opportunity. With Jim Harbaugh still as head coach, they might have had a chance. They still have a top 10 or 15 defense despite the departed players. Colin Kaepernick is talented enough to get them back to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, ownership and the front office grew tired of working with Harbaugh, making a Super Bowl run unlikely. To stay in the Bay Area, Harbaugh would've wanted a contract extension; there's no way he was going coach with only one year left on his deal. He earned the right to get an extension, but the organization decided it wasn't worth it. While the 49ers opted against rebuilding this offseason, I could see them taking that approach in 2016 if they again hover around .500 this year.

Q: I'm a true blue Giants fan. Do you think the Giants would bring Osi Umenyiora back and look at Lance Briggs? Briggs is a proven veteran who could really help the Giants at the right price. Both Briggs and Umenyiora would benefit from coachSteve Spagnuolosystem.

Carmell in Buffalo, New York

A: I think they'd pass on both. Briggs is 34, and Umenyiora is 33; I just can't see the Giants wanting to add players at that stage of their careers. The Giants signed J.T. Thomas in the offseason to be the weakside linebacker. That's Briggs' position. Osi might be a consideration, but I would think Tom Coughlin would want to see how his young defensive ends fare before reaching out to him.

Q: I have been a long-suffering Detroit Lions fan for 45 years! One playoff win in my lifetime. They have had some very talented teams over the years. Barry, Herman, Suh, Spielman, Calvin and, yes, even Stafford. So now I will ask: Where do you put this year's team at? Can this possibly be the team that can finish off the year with the big surprise? I may be asking a lot because, after all, they are the Lions! I have a different feeling this year. They have a lot of talent in all the right positions, and it seems like they will be a lot deeper as a whole.

Bill in Mesa, Arizona

A:You're right about their depth: Pro Football Focus recently ranked their roster 11th overall. They have an elite quarterback in Matthew Stafford. My concern is the impact of losing their top four defensive tackles, particularly Ndamukong Suh. Though there is still enough talent along the defensive line, I would anticipate a drop-off in run defense. They gave up only 69.3 rushing yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry. Even with the addition of Haloti Ngata, you would have to think the defense is going to give up more than 100 yards a game on the ground. If that happens, it would be hard for them to again allow only 17.6 points per game (third overall in 2014). I also see a problem with the running game. They averaged only 3.6 yards a carry last season, and unless Ameer Abdullah and Joique Bell can get that average above 4.2, the Lions might be in that eight-to-10 win range. I think they can make a wild-card run, but I don't see a deep run in the playoffs.

Q: In the interest of keeping thirty-something veterans in the game longer, could a portion of their salaries be paid by the NFL? For instance, keep the salary cap increases more modest and fund a pool for a base pay scale based on years of NFL service that is unrelated to the salary cap.

Chris in Victor, Idaho

A: Believe it or not, that system is in place. It's called the minimum salary benefit. A 10-year vet, who clearly would be in his 30s, can get a base salary of $970,000 that costs only $585,000 against the cap. The difference is charged to the benefits package of the collective bargaining agreement. Once the regular season starts, those base salaries are guaranteed. The NFLPA is also proposing to split the performance pool into two categories to separate veterans from rookies to get more money to the veterans. Teams still want to get younger. They might sign a bunch of 30-year-olds, but they might not keep them when the regular season begins.

Q: Very interesting article about Kaepernick. I don't think he will be traded, mainly because I don't know who has the resources to trade for him. That fact aside, I think the most intriguing option in terms of a trade partner would be the Eagles. Kaepernick has struggled to fit into a pro-style offense, but has been good-to-dominant when running an option. He is, in my opinion, the fastest and best running QB on the market today, in addition to having one of the strongest arms. Kelly's mix of hyper-easy short looks, option offense, and downfield passing could give Kaepernick the best chance to succeed. It would seem to be an offense that perfectly fits his talents. Do you think this is an actual possibility? To me, Kaepernick is a more powerful version of Marcus Mariota with a similar game and a lot of the same issues. This could be a match made in heaven, but I think it would take something like 2 first rounders, Sam Bradford, and Kiko Alonso (who I expect, given the exodus, would be the No. 1 player on the Eagles that the Niners would target).

Zach in Watertown, Massachusetts

A: Any Kaepernick trade that occurs would take place in 2016, not this year. For Kaepernick to be traded, the 49ers would have to be drafting in the top eight after a horrible season, and the team would need to recoup a bunch of high draft picks. You're right that he would be a good fit in Chip Kelly's offense. If Sam Bradford doesn't work out, Kelly will again be looking for a quarterback. The fact Kaepernick comes from a spread offense might make him enticing. The problem is, I don't know if the Eagles and Kelly would be willing to part with two or three high draft choices to make the trade.

Short takes

Davis in Parkersburg, Pennsylvania, wonders which teams would be in serious trouble if they lose their starting quarterback. There would be a huge dropoff in Green Bay going from Aaron Rodgers to Scott Tolzien and a bigger drop in Denver going from Peyton Manning to Brock Osweiler. Any 10-to-12 win team with an elite quarterback would be more of a .500 team ifit losesits starter.

Robert in East Lyme, Connecticut, still believes the 49ers can make a deep run into the playoffs. He believes Colin Kaepernick can carry the offense and there is still enough talent on defense. Down at least eight key players, I still say it's going to be hard to get to 10 wins. They might make it as a wild-card team, but I don't see them going deep if they do make the playoffs.

Reinaldo in Oceanside, California, wonders if I think the San Diego Chargers can make a playoff push this year. I do think so. They have Philip Rivers and a roster that is getting a couple new starters per year out of the draft. Denver is still the favorite in the AFC West, but the Chargers aren't far behind.

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