Finding the next Cassel not easy

A year ago at this time, Matt Cassel looked like a quarterback who might be without a job instead of one who was eventually named the Patriots' franchise player.

In the preseason, Cassel was 19-for-34 with no touchdowns and one interception. He struggled so much that there were rumblings that the Patriots might have to find a new backup to Tom Brady. One quarter into the season, however, Brady went down with a knee injury, and Cassel established himself as an NFL starter by winning 11 games.

So who could be the next Matt Cassel, who took over the Patriots after being an unknown career backup and never started a game in college or during his first four years in the NFL?

The best guess is Brett Ratliff of the Cleveland Browns, nudging out Matt Moore of the Panthers and possibly Colt Brennan of the Redskins.

Ratliff fits Cassel's profile. At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, he has decent size and a strong arm. Last summer, as the No. 3 quarterback for the Jets, he created some excitement in preseason games, going 32-for-47 with four touchdown passes.

Because he's playing behind Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, Ratliff probably will have to wait until next season to be the Browns' No. 2 quarterback. It's pretty clear, though, that new Browns coach Eric Mangini has plans for him. Mangini included Ratliff when he brought as many Jets to Cleveland as he could.

Like Aaron Rodgers of the Packers, Ratliff had to grow up as an on-the-field leader at a very young age. He followed Rodgers to Butte College, a junior college loaded with older offensive starters. Like many junior colleges, Butte had offensive linemen in their late 20s.

As Rodgers and Ratliff will tell you, it's not easy being an 18-year-old quarterback fresh out of high school trying to lead players who are significantly older. Ratliff succeeded. He started for two seasons at Butte and had one year in which he threw 35 touchdowns and passed for 3,651 yards.

That earned him a scholarship at Utah, where he spent one year as a backup and another as the starter on an 8-5 team.

Mangini and the Jets signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2007 and started developing him on the practice squad.

The state of backup quarterbacks in the NFL is bad. Eight teams have backups who have never won an NFL game. With Byron Leftwich now the starter in Tampa Bay, only four teams have a backup with a winning career record.

Finding the next Cassel is a guessing game. In Carolina, the Panthers believe they are developing another Tony Romo in Moore. Brennan has shown a flair for moving the football in his time on the field during the preseason.

The Patriots really didn't know what they had in Cassel until Brady went down and they had no choice but to play him. We'll see whether Ratliff will get a similar opportunity in the next couple of years.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.