EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants backup quarterback job is nondescript but oddly desirable. The opportunity to work behind Eli Manning -- despite his indestructibility -- and for a team that appears to be competing for a Super Bowl while collecting a quality paycheck is enticing.
Manning is entrenched as the Giants’ starter. He’s been in that role for close to 14 years. Third-round pick Davis Webb is the third-stringer and the potential quarterback of the future.
Those two spots are set. Sandwiched in between are veteran quarterbacks Josh Johnson and Geno Smith. Johnson is taking most of the second-team reps at OTAs as Smith is being handled cautiously coming off a torn ACL. They’re set to battle for the backup job this spring and summer.
Johnson would likely be the favorite to fill the role even if Smith wasn’t limited this spring. He earned the coaches’ trust last season and supplanted Ryan Nassib, now a free agent, as the contingency plan for Manning. He showed enough in practice throughout the year to warrant a new deal this offseason.
The Giants liked what they saw. Johnson, 31, was a free agent. They wanted him to return, and right now he has the label of No. 2 quarterback.
“I’m not looking at it like that,” Johnson said of taking most of the second-team snaps at organized team activities. “I’m looking at it as taking advantage of every rep I am getting and maximizing it.”
The advantage Johnson has over Smith is that he knows the offense after spending a year in the Giants’ system, and the coaches like what he brings to the table. Johnson is steady and reliable, with a strong arm and athleticism that hasn’t been showcased in a regular-season game since the 2013 season with the Cincinnati Bengals.
What he’s been asked to do over the past five years, he’s done it well.
“I hear it, but it’s weird to me because it’s like they don’t credit preseason; like it doesn’t happen,” Johnson said. “That’s football, and I play well in the preseason. That’s the opportunity that I was given and for the blessing of the other guys that I’ve been behind, they haven’t gotten hurt so I’ve got the opportunity to stay ready. I’ve always been prepared, since I was younger. I learned that from the guys I initially played with, to always be ready because as a backup quarterback you never know when your opportunity is going to come. It is just something for people to talk about and it doesn’t bother me. My job is to go out when I go out, and play and perform, and if you check my tape recently I have done that.”
Johnson looked comfortable and confident during OTAs last week. He regularly zipped passes deep down the middle of the field without hesitation.
The Giants have to find out what Smith is capable of doing. He has potential, but he needs to show the coaching staff something to earn their confidence. Smith can no longer rest off the laurels of his collegiate career and talent, which made him a second-round pick and starter for the New York Jets. He threw 28 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions in his first four years in the NFL.
Smith, 26, signed a one-year deal with the Giants this offseason. It only guaranteed $325,000 through training camp, which makes him expendable if he doesn’t outperform Johnson.
Smith insists he’s not feeling the pressure.
“Honestly, I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anyone other than myself,” he said. “I am just trying to be my best every single day, focusing on trying to be perfect. I know that is a far goal to try and reach, but just trying to be perfect every day and understanding what is required of me once I step onto the field and then trying to get it done.”
It’s evident at OTAs that he is talented (he’s participating in just about everything but 11-on-11 drills). Smith’s arm looks strong and he’s moving well despite spending the past six months rehabbing a serious knee injury.
Smith thinks the offense is a good fit as well. It’s part of why he chose the Giants over what he says were other offers that would’ve provided him an opportunity to compete for a starting job.
For now, he's locked into a quarterback competition for a backup spot with ground to make up.