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Way We Hear It

PFW ranks the NFL's backup QBs

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
Executive editor

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Posted Nov. 19, 2012 @ 10:35 a.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

Updated Tuesday, Nov. 20 at 12:20 p.m. ET

After a sobering Week 10 in the NFL in which four starting quarterbacks went down for the count with injuries — beginning with the Eagles’ Michael Vick and ending with the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger — an in-depth examination of the NFL’s backup QB landscape has never seemed more relevant.

Taking into account the league’s latest bullpen duty — which included a Sunday-night start for Byron Leftwich in place of the injured Roethlisberger, Monday-night starts for Bears QB Jason Campbell and 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick in place of concussed QBs Jay Cutler and Alex Smith, the starting debut of Eagles rookie Nick Foles in place of the concussed Vick, Cardinals third-stringer Ryan Lindley replacing an ineffective John Skelton and Chad Henne doing yeoman's work in place of an injured Blaine Gabbert in the Jaguars' near-upset of the Texans  — Pro Football Weekly has taken on the challenging task of ranking each team’s backup QB — from best to worst.

The way we ended up hearing it, after consulting with a handful of trusted NFL talent evaluators willing to lend their assistance — and weighing the delicate balance that comes into play measuring both seasoned experience in some cases against considerable starting upside in other cases — the relief pitcher providing the most capable repertoire for success with the 2012 season’s three-quarters pole fast approaching resides in Miami.

The more we researched the subject, the more convinced we became that Dolphins backup QB Matt Moore, currently No. 2 on the Miami depth chart behind rookie Ryan Tannehill, is worthy of being considered the NFL’s No. 1 backup QB.

“Matt Moore is always the same,” one pro personnel director told PFW. “He is very sound in the underneath game. He is never going to ‘wow’ you or beat you with his arm, but he has enough arm strength and is capable. He is a solid guy to have as a backup. He doesn’t need a lot of reps. He gets the offense going – just not enough to be a true starter.”

Moore was hardly a clear-cut choice for the top-backup honor, receiving spirited competition from a host of candidates, led by the signalcallers who rounded out PFW’s top five in our backup balloting — in order, Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck, Campbell, Cowboys QB Kyle Orton and Seahawks QB Matt Flynn.

“If Jake Locker is playing well, then Hasselbeck’s role increases as a backup,” the personnel director said. “He can provide knowledge to the other guy. If you’re talking about him as a straight starter, his arm and legs are starting to go.

“I think Campbell is probably the best backup in the league,” the personnel director continued — prior to the Bears' dismal showing on Monday night. “His legs are still young and he can make some plays. He can throw the ball with velocity. He has the arm strength and physical tools. His issues, going back to college, have always been cycling through so many offenses and his long release. He has been cursed, but as a backup, it can be a blessing to have known a lot of different systems. … As long as he has Brandon Marshall out there, he should be OK. He started enough games where he should be comfortable running the offense.”

The consensus among our committee of backup QB experts is that Orton is very much cut from the same cloth as Moore.

“The thing about him – his game never changes,” the personnel director said of Orton. “He has never been mobile and probably less mobile and less consistent in things he does now in Dallas. His decision-making is not as fast as it was a couple years ago – he needs time to throw the ball. If his line is not good, he is always going to struggle. He can’t make plays with his feet. He can still make some with his arm.”

Considering the price the Seahawks paid for Flynn on this year’s free-agent market, his No. 5 backup rating could be considered a bit of a disappointment.

“Everyone thought he was going to be the starter, and he didn’t do a whole lot in preseason when he got the chance,” the personnel director said. “Then he got hurt. He really looks like a guy that has not played a lot of NFL games. His ball placement, accuracy and decision making are still raw. You see flashes but don’t see a guy walking in as starter.”

Not included in our rankings is one David Garrard, a former proven starter with the Jaguars who has recently indicated a willingness to return to the pro wars.

Would Garrard be a worthy fit for a team in need?

“No,” the personnel director said. “Number one, he has gotten most of his money for the year already. He got hurt so fast that no one really knows where he is at. People really haven’t had to find quarterbacks until this past week. Even after this week, (Josh) McCown was really the only one signed, and he was in camp with the Bears.

“There really hasn’t been a run on (replacement quarterbacks). Between (Garrard’s) knee being bad in camp and getting beat out last year, there really was no reason to call him.

“The need has not been there.”

What follows is PFW’s complete backup QB rankings, with capsules on every player:

1.Matt Moore / Dolphins (25 NFL starts: 13-12) — The Dolphins named Moore the team MVP last season after he took over for Chad Henne and led a strong finish to the season. When he replaced Ryan Tannehill this season, Miami took down the Jets, and the transition to Moore was flawless. He has plenty of experience as a No. 2, the respect of his teammates and the confidence to go for big plays. Accuracy has been Moore’s biggest weakness in his career.

2. Matt Hasselbeck / Titans (152 NFL starts: 80-72) — One would be hard-pressed to find many QBs as selfless and dedicated to their craft. After starting all 16 games for the Titans in 2011, the 37-year-old Hasselbeck lost a training-camp battle to young gun Jake Locker. Yet, Hasselbeck never grumbled, and after Locker injured his left shoulder in Week Four, Hasselbeck showed he still could be productive, engineering consecutive fourth-quarter comeback victories in Weeks Six and Seven.

3. Kyle Orton / Cowboys (69 NFL starts: 35-34) — With his winning record as a starter and a career TD-interception ratio of 81-57, Orton is among the more successful current NFL backups. He had back-to-back seasons with 20 TD passes for the Broncos in 2009 and ’10 and went 9-6 as a starter in his final season with the Bears. The Cowboys are his fourth team (he was with the Broncos and Chiefs last season), and he’s among the more highly paid backups in the league. The Cowboys have a 6-7 record in games that Tony Romo has missed since 2008.

4. Jason Campbell / Bears (71 NFL starts: 31-40) — One of the league’s highest-paid backup quarterbacks, Campbell signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with Chicago in the offseason after starting 70 of the 71 games he played in over his six NFL seasons. He did not have the benefit of stability at offensive coordinator during his time with the Redskins and Raiders, but he does have decent arm strength and can do damage with his feet. Campbell has sputtered the last two weeks in relief of Jay Cutler. He was under siege all night in the San Francisco loss, throwing a pair of interceptions and getting sacked six times while gaining only 107 yards through the air and registering a 52.7 passer rating.

5. Matt Flynn / Seahawks (2 NFL starts: 1-1) — Considered one the most enticing players in this year's free-agent market, Flynn has yet to make good on the Seahawks’ investment in him after getting beaten out in preseason by third-round rookie Russell Wilson. Flynn was impressive in his two career starts as a Packer in place of league MVP Aaron Rodgers, completing 55-of-81 passes (68 percent) for 731 yards and a 9-2 TD-interception ratio. In the 2011 regular-season finale vs. Detroit, he broke team marks in touchdowns (six) and passing yards (480) and won the game in dramatic fashion, connecting with TE Jermichael Finley on a four-yard game-winner with 1:10 remaining. Flynn’s best attributes are his unflappable demeanor and gritty leadership skills, but he remains a relatively unproven commodity with only two pro starts under his belt.

6. Chad Henne / Jaguars (31 NFL starts: 13-18) — There were plenty who thought the big-armed Henne would push starter Blaine Gabbert this summer, and after his strong 354-yard, four-TD outing in relief of the injured Gabbert Sunday in Houston, it's quite possible Henne could remain the Jags' starting QB. A second-round pick by the Dolphins in 2008, Henne showed flashes of being an NFL-caliber starter during his four years in Miami, but much like Gabbert, his lack of instincts in the pocket has hindered his development.

7. Shaun Hill / Lions (26 NFL starts: 13-13) —An 11-year veteran who spent time with the Vikings and 49ers before becoming Matthew Stafford’s backup, Hill provides experience and a sound grasp of Scott Linehan’s offensive system. He’s a rhythm passer who lacks arm strength, but he has a proven track record. In a three-year period with the Niners, he had a 10-6 record as a starter in one 16-game stretch with a 23-11 TD-interception ratio.

8. John Skelton / Cardinals (15 NFL starts: 8-7) — With four losses this season starting in place of the injured Kevin Kolb, Skelton hasn’t fared nearly as well as he did last season, when he won six of the eight games in which he appeared, usually in dramatic fashion. An ineffective Skelton was replaced in the Cardinals' Week 11 loss in Atlanta by third-string rookie Ryan Lindley. Together, Skelton and Lindley combined for 11-of-27 passing for 70 yards (48.5 passer rating). The 6-6, 244-pound Skelton directed four fourth-quarter comeback wins last season, at times displaying a Ben Roethlisberger-like ability to create something positive when plays broke down. But he has been very inconsistent this season, in no small part because of an injury-decimated offensive line.

9. Byron Leftwich / Steelers (50 NFL starts: 24-26) — The Jaguars’ first-round pick (seventh overall) in the 2003 draft started his first game Sunday night in relief of the injured Ben Roethlisberger since a 2009 appearance with the Bucs. The Steelers' offense sputtered in its Week 11 loss to the Ravens, as Leftwich completed 18-of-39 for 201 yards and showed surprising energy running for a 31-yard TD, but also threw an interception and was sacked three times. Leftwich replaced Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh’s Week 10 Monday-night win in overtime over the Chiefs and completed 7-of-14 passes for 73 yards. A big pocket passer with slow feet and a long delivery, he is smart, makes good decisions and has a strong arm.

10. T.J. Yates / Texans (5 NFL starts: 2-3) — Very few NFL teams have the luxury of a backup QB that has won in the postseason, but the Texans are among them, with their second-year signalcaller. Much like starter Matt Schaub, Yates is a great fit in head coach Gary Kubiak’s West Coast offense. He did yeoman’s work as a rookie in place of Schaub, showing great poise and preparation while guiding the Texans to their first-ever postseason berth.

11. Colt McCoy / Browns (21 NFL starts: 6-15) — A beleaguered, injury-prone starter for Cleveland in 2010-11, McCoy was beaten out this season by rookie Brandon Weeden and is considered a very functional backup best-suited for a West Coast offense with durability concerns.  He is somewhat mobile, but he lacks height and arm strength, and his accuracy comes and goes. His relatively short stature can lead to some batted-down throws.

12. Colin Kaepernick / 49ers (1 NFL start: 1-0) — In his first extended action under center, the Niners’ 2011 second-round draft pick last season did a decent job in place of the injured Alex Smith in the Week 10 tie vs. the Rams, completing 11-of-17 passesfor 117 yards and rushing eight times for 66 yards and a TD. In his first pro start Monday night vs. the Bears, he was good enough to ignite an instant QB conroversy in Niners Nation, registering a 133.1 QB rating in a masterful effort. Kaepernick had one of the strongest arms in his draft class and a swagger that appealed to head coach and former NFL QB Jim Harbaugh. Kaepernick also has good size (6-4, 230) and excellent running skills (4,112 rushing yards at Nevada). The consensus among close observers, however, is that he has a long way to go and needs to improve his accuracy, particularly on touch passes.

13. Tim Tebow / Jets  (14 NFL starts: 8-6) — The least accurate passer in the league last season, Tebow made it happen when it counted in the fourth quarter, sparking “Tebowmania” in sending the Broncos to an improbable playoff berth — and a stunning first-round win over the Steelers to boot. He is much more of a weapon with his legs, and the Jets have struggled to find a way to use him properly, but they are also averse to replacing Mark Sanchez with Tebow.

14. Bruce Gradkowski / Bengals (20 NFL starts: 6-14) — Gradkowski has flashed some playmaking ability during his career, but he is undersized, has below-average accuracy and lacks arm strength. But the seven-year vet who played for the Buccaneers, Browns and Raiders before landing in Cincinnati, is a gutsy competitor who’s capable of winning a game or two.

15. David Carr / Giants (79 NFL starts: 23-56) — The former No. 1 pick might have flamed out as a starter in Houston and Carolina, but he has settled in as a respected backup for Eli Manning. Carr, 33, is relegated to clipboard duty almost exclusively, as he has attempted only 47 passes in two stints with the Giants over four seasons in the past five years. He’s regarded as smart and trustworthy, but his propensity for taking sacks ended his days as a starter.

16. Kirk Cousins / Redskins (0 NFL starts) — It caused quite the hubbub near the start of the third day of the draft when the Redskins took Cousins a few rounds after selecting Robert Griffin III No. 2 overall. Observers wondered if Cousins was a wasted pick with Griffin on board, but he already has proved his worth — first beating out Rex Grossman for the backup job then gamely filling in for RG3 when Griffin was hurt against the Falcons.

17. Matt Leinart / Raiders (18 NFL starts: 8-10) — Leinart, the former first-round pick and Cardinals starter, signed a one-year, $700,000 deal with the Raiders in the offseason and reunited with the starting quarterback he spent the first two seasons of his college career shadowing, Carson Palmer. Leinart had a golden opportunity to rejuvenate his career with a playoff-bound team cut short last season when he broke his collarbone in his one and only start after the Texans lost starter Matt Schaub to injury.

18. Dan Orlovsky / Buccaneers (12 NFL starts: 2-10) — The Bucs signed Orlovsky to a two-year deal in the offseason coming off a season in which he led the Colts to their only two wins. The Bucs were able to turn to their new quarterbacks coach, Ron Turner, for his take on Orlovsky after he spent last season with him as the Colts’ QB coach.

19. Joe Webb / Vikings (2 NFL starts: 1-1) — Webb was all the rage around this time last year when he started to make his impact felt in place of a struggling Christian Ponder. After barely making a dent the first 12 weeks of the 2011 season, Webb came off the bench to throw for 376 yards and run for 149 in parts of the final five games. He’s hardly a traditional pocket QB and won’t unseat Ponder anytime soon, but he presents a different look for a defense with his athleticism and toughness.

20. Nick Foles / Eagles (1 NFL start: 0-1) — After lighting up the preseason, Foles was the hot name in Philadelphia — first this summer and then after Michael Vick and the Eagles were struggling around midseason. Chants of “We Want Foles” occurred until the third-round pick actually got into the Week 10 game against the Cowboys after Vick was injured. It was a mixed-bag performance, followed up by a shaky pro debut in Week 11 when he threw a pair of interceptions on the Eagles' first two drives and ended up completing 21-of-46 for 204 yards in a 31-6 loss. But Foles could have the chance to work through his issues as the starter the rest of the way with Vick severely concussed.

21. Drew Stanton / Colts (4 NFL starts: 2-2) — At 6-3, 243 pounds, Stanton looks every bit the part of an NFL QB. He has a strong arm and good athleticism, and he is a smart, diligent worker. Formerly a second-round pick of the Lions, Stanton earned high marks for his mentorship of Matthew Stafford, which helped the Colts decide he would be a great fit behind rookie phenom Andrew Luck.

22. Brady Quinn / Chiefs (14 NFL starts: 3-11) — Quinn came off the bench to replace a concussed Matt Cassel during the 9-6 home loss to the Ravens. He then kept the starting gig for two more games, both of which were Chiefs losses. Quinn struggled in each, but is still considered the starter while he comes back from his own concussion. As a starter, Quinn has a 53.1 completion percentage and a TD-interception ratio of 10-12. He played for Romeo Crennel in Cleveland previously.

23. Derek Anderson / Panthers (43 NFL starts: 18-25) — Anderson was released by the Cardinals in 2011 after he lost his starting job during the 2010 season, and he has signed a pair of one-year deals to back up Cam Newton in the two seasons since. He had the best season of his career as the Browns’ starter in 2007, when Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was the offensive coordinator in Cleveland.

24. Ryan Mallett / Patriots (0 NFL starts) — The Patriots parted ways with backup Brian Hoyer, a player they liked, which shows how much confidence they have in Mallett, who has a cannon for an arm, but had character issues coming out of college. Mallett is in a perfect system to learn under Tom Brady, but it might be a couple years before we get a chance to see if he can be molded into a starter.

25. Luke McCown / Falcons (9 NFL starts: 2-7) — The Falcons signed McCown, a ninth-year veteran, to a one-year deal in late August a day after he was released by the Saints. McCown had spent the summer with the Saints — he was a backup for the Jaguars from 2009-11, when Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter held the same post in Jacksonville. McCown knows Koetter’s system and is a stopgap while the team develops rookie No. 3 QB Dominique Davis.

26. Tyler Thigpen / Bills (12 NFL starts: 1-11) — Buffalo head coach Chan Gailey has plenty of experience with Thigpen, who started for him in Kansas City and fended off Vince Young and Tarvaris Jackson to keep the No. 2 job this season. Thigpen has some mobility and will take a few shots, but he has never been very accurate and, aside from one start in 2010, has very little experience since 2008.

27. Kellen Clemens / Rams (12 NFL starts: 4-8) — Clemens did a decent job out of the bullpen late last season, starting the final three games with Sam Bradford out with an ankle injury. He has savvy and decent enough arm strength, gets rid of the ball quickly and can connect on the underneath routes. He also played under Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer with the Jets for five years.

28. Charlie Whitehurst / Chargers (4 NFL starts: 1-3) — After a failure to hold on to a starting job with the Seahawks, Whitehurst returned to San Diego, replacing Billy Volek. Philip Rivers has not missed a game since he became the starter in 2006, but Whitehurst gives Norv Turner a veteran with some recent starting experience, albeit with an unsuccessful tenure in Seattle.

29. Chase Daniel / Saints (0 NFL starts) — Daniel is in his third season as the top backup to six-time Pro Bowl QB Drew Brees. The fourth-year player has never made a regular-season start, but he has fared well in the preseason, including this year, when he had a passer rating of 104.8 in four preseason games. Daniel was the Saints’ No. 1 QB during OTAs and minicamp in the offseason while Brees stayed away until his contract was settled.

30. Brock Osweiler / Broncos (0 NFL starts) — The rookie was drafted by John Elway in the second round to presumably be the heir apparent to Peyton Manning. Just shy of 6-foot-7, Oswelier has a strong arm and will never struggle to see the field, but he is a very raw prospect without a lot of starting experience at Arizona State. Osweiler is in a great situation to have Manning and Elway as mentors and is at least a couple years away from being thrust into the spotlight.

31. Tyrod Taylor / Ravens (0 NFL starts) — In his second season, Taylor is athletic but very inexperienced. He is mobile, has a strong arm and is probably best suited as an ideal No. 3 QB. He’s a big drop-off from starter Joe Flacco.

32. Graham Harrell / Packers (0 NFL starts) — While head coachMike McCarthy believes Harrell has the potential to be a solid backup behind Aaron Rodgers, Harrell’s one play this season in relief of Rodgers — a lost fumble just short of the Saints’ goal line in a narrow 28-27 escape over the Saints in Week Four — might suggest otherwise. While he does not have much mobility, his arm strength has steadily improved. A gym rat his entire life, Harrell also earns high marks in the classroom.

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