Preseason is rankings season.
Of course, there is no more important position in football than quarterback, so in addition to Steve Palazzolo's annual QB rankings, Kevin Cole and I also threw our hat into the ring by ranking the NFL's starting quarterbacks from an analytical perspective. Now the time has come to rank all 32 backup quarterbacks in the NFL.
Having a good backup quarterback isn't necessarily the most important thing when it comes to roster building, but in past years we've seen plenty of examples of serviceable backups keeping their teams in the playoff race — Matt Moore won some games for the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs in 2016 and 2019, respectively, Ryan Tannehill was a star in Nashville last season, and Nick Foles famously won the Super Bowl in 2017.
A few notes before the rankings:
- As of today, the Chicago Bears haven't publicly chosen a Week 1 starter, but we settled on Mitchell Trubisky as the backup, as Foles projects better going forward. Early news out of training camp also implies that Foles is starting to pull away in their competition.
- We assume that Joe Burrow is the only rookie starter and that Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert are the backups for their respective teams. This is consistent with the fact that Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyrod Taylor project better going into 2020, mostly because rookies generally struggle out of the gate.
- Even though it's not clear whether Jalen Hurts and Jordan Love are the primary backups going into Week 1, we assume they will be just that.
- You can read about the methodology in our article about the starters. Players who haven't yet taken any snaps — or played only very few and/or meaningless snaps — are projected according to a blend of our college-to-pro projections and draft priors based on their draft position.
Just as they were in our previous article, the quarterbacks are ranked by a composite z-score that describes how many standard deviations the quarterback is above or below the average NFL quarterback.
To get an idea of what this means, there are roughly 25 above-average quarterbacks in the NFL at any given point. As backups are generally below average, only the top three in our rankings have a positive z-score.
We can once again simulate the outcomes for each quarterback (under the assumption they had to play a full season) 100,000 times and estimate how often the respective player is the best, a top-five, a top-10, or a top-16 backup. We can also compute the rate at which each backup could be a top-10 starter — the 2020 version of Ryan Tannehill, if you will.
Given the expectation surrounding the backups who were once longtime starters in the league, the uncertainty about these backups is much larger than for most starters. To illustrate this, even our worst-projected backups have roughly a 20% chance to be a top-10 backup, whereas the worst starters have a chance lower than 10% to be top-10 starters. It's noteworthy that the uncertainty would be even larger if we projected only a few games rather than the whole season.
Here are the final rankings.
Projected composite z-score: +0.6
Chance to be the best backup: 13.2%
Chance to be top-5 backup: 47.6%
Chance to be top-10 backup: 71.9%
Chance to be top-16 backup: 88.1%
Chance to be a top-10 starter: 25.9%
Jameis Winston couldn't find a starting job during the offseason, but at least that makes him the Patrick Mahomes of backup quarterbacks. The 2015 first overall pick projects as the best by a fairly wide margin and is the only one who projects more than half of a standard deviation above average. The Saints should be in good shape to stay competitive if Drew Brees misses time in 2020. Winston projects to be an average starter and would provide New Orleans with a reasonably realistic chance of top-10 quarterback play, something we estimate to happen roughly one out of four times.
Projected composite z-score: +0.2
Chance to be the best backup: 6.7%
Chance to be top-5 backup: 31.9%
Chance to be top-10 backup: 56.3%
Chance to be top-16 backup: 77.4%
Chance to be a top-10 starter: 14.9%
Mariota is one of three backup quarterbacks who project to be above average and thus better than some starters. Interestingly, Derek Carr would also rank second on this ranking if he were the backup, so there wouldn't be much of a drop-off if the Raiders had to play Mariota. Signing him to a moderate deal was a wise decision, as we estimate Mariota to produce at the level of an average starter roughly one out of three times.
Projected composite z-score: +0.2
Chance to be the best backup: 6.0%
Chance to be top-5 backup: 30.8%
Chance to be top-10 backup: 56.2%
Chance to be top-16 backup: 77.8%
Chance to be a top-10 starter: 14.0%
Andy Dalton's projections are nearly identical to those of Mariota. However, the longtime Bengals starter has a slightly lower ceiling but a higher floor, as he is even more of a known commodity. Dalton would probably end up playing with his best supporting cast since 2015 if he were to play meaningful snaps for the Dallas Cowboys, so we could expect him to lead a solid offense.
Projected composite z-score: -0.2
Chance to be the best backup: 3.0%
Chance to be top-5 backup: 18.6%
Chance to be top-10 backup: 39.7%
Chance to be top-16 backup: 63.2%
Chance to be a top-10 starter: 7.3%
There is a significant gap between Dalton and Mitch Trubisky, as we reach the portion of backups who project to be below average. Trubisky hasn't proven to be a starting-caliber quarterback, but he is still among the best backups in the league, so at least the Bears have that going for them. If he were to play, he would most likely not be a top-10 quarterback, but the Bears can expect him to play like an average starter 19% of the time.
Projected composite z-score: -0.3
Chance to be the best backup: 4.6%
Chance to be top-5 backup: 21.6%
Chance to be top-10 backup: 40.7%
Chance to be top-16 backup: 61.6%
Chance to be a top-10 starter: 10.2%
Schaub was once a very solid starter for the Houston Texans, but if you read the methodology of our rankings, you would know that we heavily downweigh performance from that long ago. Still, Schaub projects as one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league and even has a higher ceiling than the higher-ranked Trubisky. When asked to fill in for Matt Ryan last year, he passed for 8.6 yards per attempt and 0.2 expected points added per dropback against the Seattle Seahawks, a very respectable performance. This would easily be top-10 play for a whole season, but, of course, this is unlikely to be sustained over a season, as we project it to happen 10% of the time.
We rank the remaining backup quarterbacks below:
|Rank||QB||Proj. z-score||Best||Top-5||Top-10||Top-16||Top-10 starter|
|6||Nick Mullens, SF||-0.3||4.7%||21.5%||40.7%||61.2%||10.2%|
|7||Joe Flacco, NYJ||-0.3||2.6%||17.3%||38.3%||62.7%||6.4%|
|8||Tua Tagovailoa, MIA||-0.3||6.0%||22.6%||39.5%||57.9%||12.1%|
|9||Case Keenum, CLV||-0.4||2.0%||14.7%||34.1%||57.8%||5.2%|
|10||Robert Griffin III, BLT||-0.4||3.3%||17.4%||35.0%||55.8%||7.7%|
|11||Jacoby Brissett, IND||-0.4||2.1%||14.5%||33.2%||56.1%||5.3%|
|12||Jalen Hurts, PHI||-0.5||4.8%||19.4%||35.4%||53.5%||9.9%|
|13||Mike Glennon, JAX||-0.5||3.2%||16.2%||32.6%||52.3%||7.3%|
|14||Chase Daniel, DET||-0.5||3.3%||16.2%||32.2%||51.8%||7.3%|
|15||Geno Smith, SEA||-0.6||3.2%||15.7%||31.3%||50.5%||7.2%|
|16||Justin Herbert, LAC||-0.7||3.3%||15.3%||29.5%||46.9%||7.3%|
|17||Chad Henne, KC||-0.7||2.4%||13.1%||27.7%||46.6%||5.6%|
|18||Jordan Love, GB||-0.8||3.0%||14.1%||27.8%||44.6%||6.6%|
|19||Jarrett Stidham, NE||-0.8||3.0%||14.0%||27.7%||44.8%||6.6%|
|20||A.J. McCarron, HST||-0.8||2.2%||11.8%||25.4%||43.5%||5.1%|
|21||Brett Hundley, ARZ||-0.8||1.8%||10.8%||24.3%||42.8%||4.4%|
|22||Sean Mannion, MIN||-0.8||2.5%||12.4%||25.7%||43.1%||5.6%|
|23||Matt Barkley, BUF||-0.8||2.2%||11.6%||25.0%||42.4%||5.0%|
|24||Kyle Allen, WAS||-0.9||1.1%||8.4%||21.3%||40.5%||2.8%|
|25||Jeff Driskel, DEN||-0.9||1.2%||8.6%||20.8%||38.7%||3.1%|
|26||Trevor Siemian, TEN||-1.0||1.0%||7.4%||19.0%||36.8%||2.5%|
|27||Colt McCoy, NYG||-1.0||1.4%||9.0%||20.8%||37.5%||3.5%|
|28||Mason Rudolph, PIT||-1.1||1.0%||7.1%||17.9%||35.0%||2.5%|
|29||John Wolford, LAR||-1.1||1.7%||8.9%||19.8%||35.0%||3.9%|
|30||P.J. Walker, CAR||-1.1||1.8%||9.4%||20.2%||35.4%||4.0%|
|31||Ryan Finley, CIN||-1.2||1.4%||8.3%||18.8%||34.0%||3.4%|
|32||Blaine Gabbert, TB||-1.4||0.4%||3.8%||11.3%||25.0%||1.1%|