Keep An Eye On - Backup Quarterbacks
By Jason Wood
July 15th, 2010

If any of you are wondering why NFL backup quarterbacks are worth paying attention to as you prepare for the 2010 fantasy football season, let me remind you of a few backups in the not-too-distant past that went on to relevance.

  • Kurt Warner, Arizona - Warner has carved out a Hall of Fame worthy career, with two NFL MVPs and one of the best passer ratings in NFL history. Yet, in 1999 was the ultimate long shot. Were it not for an injury to Trent Green, Warner may never have stepped into an NFL huddle.

  • Tony Romo, Dallas - Fantasy owners paid ZERO attention to Tony Romo four years ago as Drew Bledsoe was coming off a top-10 fantasy season in Dallas. A month into the season, Romo took over and has emerged as one of the league's best passers.

  • Tom Brady, New England - Speaking of Drew Bledsoe, were it not for an injury years ago, Brady might never have gotten into the Patriots lineup. Three Super Bowl rings, an MVP and the all-time single season TD record later; it appears that would've been an oversight.

  • The NFL season is a grind, and QBs rarely manage to play the full slate. Over the last five years, on average only 15 QBs appear in all 16 games. What that means is your odds of having to start at least two, if not three, QBs over the course of your fantasy season are VERY HIGH.

    Last year was a bit of an anomaly in that no off-the-radar backup emerged into fantasy greatness. However, let's also remember that Chad Henne was considered a backup who might get a shot a year or two down the road before Chad Pennington got hurt again and the Dolphins committed to the youngster. Matt Moore, who is on track to start in Carolina this year, stepped into the Panthers lineup and helped right their season after John Fox finally gave up on a floundering Jake Delhomme. Donovan McNabb was never in danger of losing his job to Kevin Kolb last year, but you can be sure Kolb's strong play as an injury fill-in helped shape the offseason trade of McNabb to Washington. Even Vince Young and Alex Smith, who seemingly had lost their shots, got their jobs back and now enter 2010 with a renewed sense of opportunity. The point is, with the rigorous nature of the position, you can be sure that you'll have to consider rostering, if not starting, quarterbacks this season that aren't currently thought of as more than clipboard holders.

    With that idea as a backdrop, I want to call your attention to the projected backup QBs entering the 2010 season. With training camp looming, there's a good chance a few of these QBs will actually win starting jobs potentially, while others may fall another rung on the depth chart or suffer their outright release. A few of these players will be hyped enough that they may even get selected during your draft, but the majority are sure to go unnoticed on draft day. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be aware of them. Today's unknown backup could be tomorrow's fantasy stud.

    Flip a Coin

    These quarterbacks enter camp battling for the starting job. Usually in these situations, the backup is worth keeping an eye on because the chances are excellent they will see the field at some point in the year.

  • Matt Leinart vs. Derek Anderson, Arizona Cardinals - To hear the coaches tell it, there is no controversy here. Matt Leinart is the Cardinals starter, and Derek Anderson is the game day backup while rookie John Skelton will fill out the roster. But let's be realistic, Leinart is no sure bet to win the job and Anderson could easily unseat him if Leinart doesn't take major steps forward in the way he comports himself in training camp. The sad truth is, however, that no matter which QB gets the Week One nod, we should expect to see both on the field. The Cardinals have built a winning culture in no small part thanks to Kurt Warner's precision and the team is going to be deeply unsatisfied with poor quarterbacking. This is really a question of the lesser of two evils.

  • Trent Edwards vs. Brian Brohm vs. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo Bills - Probably the most interesting training camp in the NFL because of so many uncertainties, the quarterback position is as wide open as we've seen in ages. New head coach Chan Gailey has been mum about the depth chart and it seems that all three quarterbacks have legitimate shots to win the job with a strong training camp. The edge has to go to incumbent Trent Edwards, but he's far from a sure thing. Reports have been mixed on Brian Brohm, but a number of prominent NFL observers believe he has a shot at claiming the job. Regardless of who gets the nod, their fantasy prospects are questionable. The Bills offensive line is, to put it mildly, in a state of flux, and outside of Lee Evans, there isn't a receiver that scares opposing defenses.

  • A.J. Feeley vs. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams - Make no mistake, Sam Bradford will be the Rams starting quarterback at some point this season. The only real question is how long, if at all, A.J. Feeley will keep the huddle warm for him. Feeley is a veteran of OC Pat Shurmur's offensive system from his days in Philadelphia, and can be a functional alternative until the team is sure Bradford is fully prepared to take over the reins. But the Rams didn't use the 1st overall pick on the former Sooner and guarantee him tens of millions of dollars to keep him on the bench for long. Steve Spagnuolo and Pat Shurmur are intimately familiar with the way Philadelphia handled Donovan McNabb. At the time, they let Doug Pederson take his lumps until Week 9. Fantasy owners have to hope Bradford earns a role faster than midseason, because his upside is the only thing that would make the Rams receiving game worth considering.

  • "Backups" for Now

    These quarterbacks are listed as backups on the depth chart at press time, but could be inserted in the starting lineup by the opening kickoff. As such, these guys may even find their way onto fantasy rosters on draft day.

  • Seneca Wallace, Cleveland Browns - When Seneca Wallace was traded to the Cleveland Browns, he thought this would finally be his chance to shine. GM Mike Holmgren was, after all, the man who coached him in Seattle. But the euphoria didn't last as Cleveland offered a multi-year contract to veteran Jake Delhomme and anointed him the likely starter. Delhomme has a far more accomplished resume, but was also so awful last year that John Fox (loyal to a fault) had to let him go in spite of a mountain of guaranteed money looming. The Browns then drafted Colt McCoy in the April draft, potentially putting Wallace in the uncomfortable position of being neither the present nor the future. But if Delhomme is as done as some pundits believe, the door should be wide open for Wallace to assert himself. Time will tell.

  • Luke McCown, Jacksonville Jaguars - The entire Jaguars organization is on a short leash. After years of being considered "on the verge", it's simply never materialized and HC Jack Del Rio and his staff have to show marked improvement this year or they'll be looking for new jobs in 2011. David Garrard is an enigma. He's reasonably accurate (61.1% completion rate), averages a respectable 6.9 yards per attempt, and seems to be well liked by his teammates, coaches and the community. But for a ‘game manager', Garrard's 12-20 record over the last two seasons isn't getting it done. The real problem is, in spite of 3,500+ yards passing, Garrard has only thrown 15 TDs in back-to-back seasons. Is it him? Or his lack of supporting talent? With the emergence of Mike Sims-Walker and the explosive Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield, to think a QB can only muster 15 TDs is alarming. Now it would be one thing if the Jags signed a proven veteran free agent to openly compete, or drafted a rookie QB in the first round - they did neither. Luke McCown is on his third team in five seasons after being the odd man out in Tampa Bay last season. His NFL resume is incomplete, but some believe this is the opportunity he's been waiting for. Consider McCown a long shot, but don't be completely taken aback if he wins the job. Should he get the nod, he has an intriguing array of weapons and an offensive line that should continue to improve as the set of young tackles gains experience.

  • Unproven, but in a Good System

    These quarterbacks are largely unknown commodities by virtue of never getting a chance to play, however, because they play in successful systems and/or have impressive supporting casts, they could surprise if given the chance.

  • Chris Redman, Atlanta Falcons - Chris Redman enters his 11th NFL season secure in his place as Matt Ryan's backup. With the TE/WR tandem of Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White, combined with the power running of Michael Turner (and his capable backups), this offense could still function well enough with Redman in place of Ryan. The savvy veteran has a career 21:13 TD:INT ratio and in three fill in games last year, threw for almost 800 yards while completed 58% of his passes. This isn't someone that will save your fantasy season, but if you draft Ryan and need an injury fill in, Redman can do just enough to keep you afloat.

  • Caleb Hanie, Chicago Bears - The volatile nature of Mike Martz' relationship with his quarterbacks prompted many to speculate the Bears would bring in an established veteran to light a fire under Jay Cutler. But, to date, that hasn't happened which leaves Caleb Hanie as the principal backup. The 3rd year passer was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State, and moved up to the #2 position last year. Hanie is 6'2", 236 lbs. and has a very strong arm (Mel Kiper said it was 2nd only to Joe Flacco in the 2008 draft class). He was thought to be a little too much of a gunslinger in college (sounds a lot like Cutler), but completed 64% of his passes and has a quick release; two prerequisites for flourishing in a Mike Martz system.

  • Matt Flynn, Green Bay Packers - Like his NFC North counterpart, Flynn enters his 3rd year as the #2 as an unproven commodity. The Packers coaching staff seems to believe in the former LSU Tiger. In 2008, the Packers used a 2nd round pick on Brian Brohm and a 7th rounder on Flynn. Yet it was Flynn who stuck with the team, while Brohm had to move on and now finds himself fighting for a role in Buffalo. It's ridiculous to think that Flynn would run the Packers offense as well as Aaron Rodgers, but this is a talent laden offensive cast and Flynn could still be a productive fantasy waiver option if called upon.

  • Curtis Painter, Indianapolis Colts - Like death and taxes, you can be sure Peyton Manning will be in the Colts starting lineup. But the Colts also are a threat to pull their starters in Weeks 16-17 which makes Curtis Painter a more intriguing backup than most. The Colts offense has depth at WR, an All Pro TE, two solid receiving RBs, and a fluid and efficient offense line. Painter, meanwhile, takes over for Jim Sorgi as the QB2 in his second year out of Purdue.

  • Brian Hoyer, New England Patriots - After the emergence of Matt Cassel two seasons ago, you shouldn't need me to explain the value of the Patriots QB2. That honor now falls to Brian Hoyer, who surprisingly beat out the likes of Kevin O'Connell, Andrew Walter and Matt Gutierrez as an undrafted rookie. Now in his second season, Hoyer becomes a more credible fantasy option in the event Tom Brady suffers another serious injury. Hoyer completed 18 of 27 passes in regular season action last year, which is an admittedly small sample size but does nothing to dissuade us from the viewpoint that Bill Belichick can get productive QB play from just about anyone.

  • Chase Daniel, New Orleans Saints - To be honest, Daniel could be completely irrelevant by the time you read this article because there are persistent rumors that New Orleans wants Mark Brunell to return as Drew Brees' backup. But Brunell could opt to sign with another team (the Jets are courting him, too), which makes it more likely Chase Daniel would enter the season as the defending NFL champions QB2. Daniel had a heroic collegiate career at Missouri, but was undrafted because of his size (6'0") and a perceived lack of elite physical tools. Regardless, Daniel acquitted himself well on the Saints practice squad and has put himself in position to be one Drew Brees' injury away from a major role in one of the NFC's leading offensive systems.

  • Jim Sorgi, New York Giants - Jim Sorgi appeared in this article last year as Peyton Manning's backup. Now he's backing up Eli Manning in New York, and finds himself in a similar position. Sorgi is unlikely to see the field given Eli's sturdiness and abilities, but if the door opens Sorgi is more than capable of playing well. The 30-year old is a career 63.5% passer and has a 6:1 TD:INT ratio. You could do worse than grab him off waivers if Manning goes down for more than a week or two.

  • Experienced Veterans

    These backups are experienced NFL quarterbacks who have been productive in the past but probably have seen their best days, but are nevertheless one injury away from a chance at a renaissance.

  • Marc Bulger, Baltimore Ravens - The Ravens believe they're ready to contend for a title this year and wanted a proven veteran to backup Joe Flacco, just in case. Bulger, is a two-time Pro Bowler with 95 starts as a St. Louis Ram. In his first five seasons, he was highly accurate and productive, but the continuous pounding he took in the last few seasons derailed his once meteoric career trajectory. At 33 years old, Bulger understands his role but would have an intriguing opportunity to re-emerge on the fantasy landscape if Joe Flacco gets hurt. The additions of Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth bolster a receiving corps that also features a prolific pass-catching RB (Ray Rice), a steady veteran WR (Derrick Mason) and TE Todd Heap.

  • Jon Kitna, Dallas Cowboys - Kitna didn't play a snap last year as Tony Romo's backup, but you can be sure his presence reassured the locker room. When Romo missed time in 2008, Brad Johnson completely stalled the offense. Kitna is 38 years old and clearly is long past his prime, but his adaptability should give Cowboys fans comfort. Kitna has enjoyed Top 10 fantasy seasons for three different teams, how many other NFL veterans can say the same?

  • Tarvaris Jackson, Minnesota Vikings - Brett Favre probably isn't on Tarvaris Jackson's Christmas card list. For the second consecutive offseason, Jackson has to pretend to be the Vikings QB1 all offseason and during the bulk of camp, only to have the future Hall of Famer step in and take over when it counts. Unlike a season ago, the wound probably is lessened by how extraordinarily well Favre played. Jackson has to know that he isn't capable of executing this offense in the same manner, but his pride (and experience) does argue for some high risk/high reward upside if Favre misses significant time.

  • Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles - Vick was a gimmick QB last year and not very effective in that role save for the occasional glimpse (e.g., the Cowboys playoff game) of his former self. But he did enough for Philadelphia to pick up his option and keep him as the QB2 while elevating Kevin Kolb into the starting role. Unfortunately, Vick is again embroiled in some legal drama. While it remains unclear what his role, if any, was in the shooting of his cousin at a recent party, there are understandable rumblings that the Eagles may be ready to part ways. If Vick fights off the drama, he would be the backup to an inexperienced new starting QB for a team full of young offensive weapons.

  • Byron Leftwich, Pittsburgh Steelers - This time a year ago Leftwich was considered the favorite to start in Tampa Bay, but the team went with rookie Josh Freeman instead. Now, with Ben Roethlisberger serving a 4-6 game suspension, Leftwich has the opportunity to start for an AFC playoff contender. If he plays well, he will reestablish himself to other NFL teams as a potential starter. If he struggles, that probably ends his shot at another starting job. No pressure, eh? The main fly in the ointment for Leftwich is his incredibly slow release matched against a porous Steelers offensive line. That's probably going to be hard to overcome and fantasy owners shouldn't assume Leftwich will be a viable fantasy contributor in Roethlisberger's absence.

  • Billy Volek, San Diego Chargers - Volek is 34 years old and enters his 5th season as the Chargers backup. He's only attempted 43 regular season passes as a Charger and really only has one season (2004 in Tennessee) season of any renown. But he knows the Chargers system inside and out, and could surprise if he was called upon. Volek isn't someone fantasy owners should get excited about if Rivers gets hurt, particularly if WR Vincent Jackson makes good on his threat of an extended holdout. At the very least wait until you see him prove it on the field for a week or two.

  • David Carr, San Francisco 49ers - What a strange career David Carr has had. The 1st overall pick by Houston took a historic pounding as a Texan and that appeared to make him permanently gun shy. But strong preseason performances have earned him roles as a backup, first for Jake Delhomme in Carolina, then for Eli Manning in New York. Now Carr finds himself mentoring yet another former 1st overall pick (Alex Smith) in San Francisco.

  • Kerry Collins, Tennessee Titans - The roller coast in Tennessee continues. Last year, Kerry Collins was rock solid safe as the starter because of Vince Young's personal path of self destruction combined with Collins workmanlike game management in 2008. But the wheels fell off the train last year in Tennessee and the coaches had no choice but to make a change at QB. While Vince Young has a long way to go before anyone starts talking about him as championship-caliber quarterback, he did enough to regain the starting job while Collins now stands as a really well paid clipboard holder. Collins stands 12th on the all-time passing yards list (38,618 yards), but ranks only 38th in career TD passes.

  • The Rookies

    These rookies have a bright future with their teams, and almost certainly will get a shot to start down the road, but may not be very good fantasy options this year despite the hype.

  • Jimmy Clausen, Carolina Panthers - The Panthers are going to give Matt Moore every chance to hang onto the starting job for 2010, but Jimmy Clausen will get a shot to impress and compete for a starting job no later than 2011. Clausen's reputation for arrogance and immaturity has seemingly clouded fantasy football owners from the fact he's got all the physical tools and fundamentals to be a star passer. He executed a pro style offense at Notre Dame on a grand stage, and will push for playing time sooner rather than later. The Panthers are also pleased with the play of Hunter Cantwell, so Clausen could be the QB3 this year and someone more appropriate for dynasty league owners.

  • Colt McCoy, Cleveland Browns - You would think one of the NCAA's all-time winners would have garnered more enthusiasm from fans and pundits, but McCoy has as many detractors as supporters. Regardless, with Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace ahead of him on the depth chart, McCoy will get chances to impress the coaches and prove to scouts he's more than an average guy from a great collegiate system. McCoy's best strength is his accuracy, but his size and athleticism doesn't blow you out of the water on tape.

  • Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos - Has there ever been more hype for a raw, developmental QB than Tim Tebow? There are NFL TV pundits insisting he will compete for the starting job at some point in 2010, yet I'm just not buying it. This is a guy who had to literally reshape his throwing motion just days before the April draft. I can't fathom how he would be ready to execute an NFL playbook, much less one as complex as Josh McDaniels' in his first season. Technically Tebow is the 3rd QB behind Brady Quinn and Kyle Orton, but the team may want to leverage Tebow's athleticism in spread plays on occasion, which could bump him up to the QB2 slot on game days.

  • Mike Kafka, Philadelphia Eagles - Kafka was described by our own Sigmund Bloom (a collegiate scout extraordinaire) as "another Kevin Kolb." In so much that Kafka is a cerebral passer who makes good decisions and gets the ball out of his hands quickly, the comparison is apt. Kafka is probably going to be the Eagles QB3 this year, but with Michael Vick's future clouded by offseason legal issues again, it's possible the rookie could find himself as the active backup on game day.

  • Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams - Bradford is the latest QB drafted 1st overall, and the Rams are counting on him to resurrect a franchise that was competing for Super Bowl just a few years ago but now scrapes the bottom of the barrel. The Rams have plenty of holes, and might be better served letting A.J. Feeley take a pounding this year; but it will be hard to keep Bradford out of the lineup for long. He's hyper accurate, has a good frame and can make any NFL throw; but he is still a rookie on a bad team and that means fantasy owners shouldn't pay him much mind even if he starts 16 games, much less the 10 or so we expect him to.

  • Backup Battles

    It seems that many teams, more so than normal, enter the preseason with an uncertain backup situation. For some teams, it's a matter of finding the lesser of two evils. For other teams, it's about determining whether to opt for the veteran or the youngster. And lastly for a few teams, it's a matter of playing out the string, realizing that neither of the options is ideal, and bringing in a veteran to plug the dam.

  • Hunter Cantwell vs. Jimmy Clausen, Carolina Panthers - A lot of people think Jimmy Clausen is battling for the starting job against Matt Moore, and he eventually might. But right now Clausen is running 3rd behind Moore and Hunter Cantwell. In mini-camps, Cantwell has looked terrific and won't give up the QB2 job with ease.

  • Brady Quinn vs. Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos - Another situation where most fans think of Tebow as pushing Kyle Orton for the starting job, but in reality is more fighting against Brady Quinn for the #2 honors. Quinn never fulfilled his promise in Cleveland but ran the same system at Notre Dame that McDaniels run in Denver.

  • Tyler Thigpen vs. Chad Pennington, Miami Dolphins - Thigpen was a solid fantasy producer in Kansas City but mainly because of a lot of garbage time productivity. Chad Pennington should be the main backup (with Pat White hanging on in the developmental role), but Thigpen is a dark horse given his mobility.

  • Charlie Whitehurst vs. J.P. Losman, Seattle Seahawks - When new HC John Carroll brought Charlie Whitehurst aboard, there was some sense he would compete against Matt Hasselbeck for the starting job. Yet reports out of OTAs and mini-camps have been discouraging, and the addition of J.P. Losman clouds the depth chart even more.

  • Other Backups

  • Troy Smith, Baltimore Ravens (For Now) - Troy Smith is on the Ravens roster, for now, but with the addition of Marc Bulger the Ravens could consider shopping his services. Smith would be a terrific fit on a team like Philadelphia, where he could step in and offer stability at the QB2 spot without being a derisive impact in the locker room.

  • J.T. O'Sullivan, Cincinnati Bengals - O'Sullivan started 8 games in Detroit in 2008, and that carried him into a backup role in Cincinnati. He only managed 11 attempts and theoretically has a strong supporting cast (The Bengals won the AFC North last year and added Antonio Bryant to the mix), but ranks in the "other" category because O'Sullivan is a hard sell as someone that will magically step into Carson Palmer's shoes and play well consistently.

  • Shaun Hill, Detroit Lions - Shaun Hill entered the 2009 season as the starter over Alex Smith in San Francisco. But Hill wasn't making enough big plays (5 TDs in 6 games) and now moves to a mentor role behind Matthew Stafford in Detroit. The Lions have some intriguing young pieces to the puzzle, but Hill simply isn't comparable to Stafford on any level. If Hill has to play an extensive time, the Lions will struggle to maintain respectability among fantasy circles.

  • Dan Orlovsky, Houston Texans - Orlovsky was 0-8 as a starter in 2008 in Detroit and has done next to nothing that would suggest he can do a fraction of what Matt Schaub has done in Houston. If Orlovsky has to play a lot, Andre Johnson and the rest of the Texans receivers would take a hit.

  • Brodie Croyle, Kansas City Chiefs - Charlie Weis takes over the play-calling in Kansas City and that should bode well for an across-the-board improvement. But Croyle is hard to endorse with a career 0-9 record as a starter, a sub 58% completion rate and a woeful 5.4 yards per attempt average.

  • Kellen Clemens, New York Jets - Clemens may lose his QB2 role if the Jets sign someone like Mark Brunell. The fact New York was kicking the tires on JaMarcus Russell speaks to their lack of confidence in Clemens as the safety valve for an injured Mark Sanchez.

  • Bruce Gradkowski, Oakland Raiders - Gradkowski's solid albeit unspectacular play last year in Oakland helped drive the stake into JaMarcus Russell's heart. He's been rewarded with a much better upgrade in Jason Campbell who will assuredly keep Gradkowski's opportunities limited.

  • Josh Johnson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers - A year ago many thought Johnson would win out in a fierce camp battle for the starting job, but the Bucs went with Josh Freeman instead. Freeman is the face of the young franchise, so Johnson will need an injury to get another shot at proving he's NFL starting caliber. Either way, the Bucs are too young on offense for Johnson to pose a credible fantasy threat.

  • Rex Grossman, Washington Redskins - Grossman has started 31 games in his career, but lasted only one season in Houston and now tries to anchor the backup role behind Donovan McNabb in D.C. To say that Grossman would far less effective in the huddle than McNabb would be an understatement.

  • Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to wood@footballguys.com.

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