Why NFL teams will settle for less talent at backup quarterback

Ryan Fitzpatrick is on his seventh team in 13 seasons. Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

NFL coaches and GMs generally want the best 53 players they can find for their rosters, but they're willing to make exceptions -- especially for backup quarterbacks.

At the backup QB position, some teams willfully sacrifice talent and potential for players who can support and mentor the starter.

"They talk about competition at every position, but obviously there is not," a defensive coach from an AFC team said.

Different teams have different priorities.

Fourteen No. 2 quarterbacks were drafted by their teams and remain on their rookie contracts, making them developmental players, with some having a better chance than others at unseating the starter. Jimmy Garoppolo, Patrick Mahomes II, Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, Paxton Lynch and AJ McCarron headline this group.

Another seven backup quarterbacks are veterans who are older than the starters ahead of them and are no longer considered starting material, placing them in the veteran sounding board category. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Schaub and Matt Cassel headline this group.

There are also veterans whose star has fallen but who might possess at least some perceived upside. Ryan Mallett, Geno Smith and Nick Foles fit into this category. Colin Kaepernick would obviously headline this group if he were on a roster, a story unto itself. Kaepernick edged potential 2017 NFL starters Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, Jared Goff and Josh McCown in a recent survey of 20 coaches and evaluators, affirming that his controversial political stances are a leading reason for his unemployment, with the peculiarities of the backup position as a contributing factor.

And then there is a miscellaneous group featuring players such as Kellen Clemens, Scott Tolzien and Trevone Boykin, who were never really considered to be starting QB candidates.

What are some of these teams thinking? Why do they sometimes employ No. 2 quarterbacks who possess limited appeal in the present and no upside for the future?

One general manager pointed to three traits he seeks in a veteran backup:

1. The experience and intelligence required to manage the offense in a game without many practice reps.

2. A great teammate to the starter, lending support and mentoring instead of threatening him.

3. A willingness to blend into the fabric of the team without creating distractions.

An insider who was with the 2009 Detroit Lions said he's seen firsthand the pitfalls of having a backup quarterback competing to unseat the team's young starter. Daunte Culpepper was already on the roster and eager to start when the team used the first overall pick for Matthew Stafford.

"Matt got hurt, and when he returned we were playing Matt no matter what," this insider said. "Culpepper wasn't good with that. We brought in Shaun Hill [the next season] and he was just aces. He was helping Matt. There is something to that."

An offensive-minded head coach said that veteran backups who are resigned to their No. 2 roles can be helpful as conduits between the coaching staff and the starter, giving coaches a subtler avenue for getting their points across to the starter. Hill made a career out of being the supportive backup behind highly drafted players such as Stafford, Alex Smith and Teddy Bridgewater. Cassel is playing that role behind Marcus Mariota in Tennessee.

There is disagreement over whether this is the way to go.

"The real truth is, we are hiring a backup quarterback at $3 million a year to help a QB coach and offensive coordinator who are [purportedly] so good they are in the head-coaching pipeline anyway," this coach said. "If they need a veteran backup to coach up the starter, they are not coaching him well enough. You sign a veteran backup off the scrap heap, have a CBA-imposed six less weeks of offseason program for him to learn your offense, what is he telling your starter? Is he muddying the waters?"

Ten teams brought in new No. 2 quarterbacks this offseason. That included first-round draft choices Trubisky, Watson and Mahomes, plus second-rounder DeShone Kizer, whose short-term status could hinge on what the Browns do with Brock Osweiler. Case Keenum, Chase Daniel, Geno Smith, Nick Foles, Matt Barkley and Ryan Fitzpatrick are the other No. 2 quarterbacks new to their teams.

"Coaches get hung up with young guys not knowing enough, as opposed to projecting the ceiling and finding ways to simplify and get around it," a veteran coach said. "Most coaches make mistakes by saying, 'Because this [veteran backup] guy knows so much, we are going to go with him even though he is a crappy player.' Veteran guys know how to make teams, and then halfway through the season, you have a guy who is not nearly as good as you would have had."