Playing quarterback is the hardest job in the National Football League. That was my sentiment before I was a backup.
In this space last season, I went into great depth about what it takes for a backup to step into a starting role. It’s an incredibly difficult position to be in, transitioning from contributing in weekly preparation to being the voice of the game plan and executing on Sundays.
Through six weeks of the 2023 NFL season, eight backup quarterbacks have made starts, and several others have been thrust into action mid-game. I experienced both of these scenarios in my own career. After being the starter for the Houston Texans for five seasons, I transitioned into a backup role in Carolina in 2007. I began that campaign as Jake Delhomme’s backup but stepped into the starting role in Week 4, with Delhomme nursing an elbow injury that ultimately ended his season. I ended up making four starts in six games of action, playing through a back injury that unfortunately cut my own campaign short. I spent the following five seasons as a backup elsewhere, including four with the Giants (2008-09, 2011-12) and one with the 49ers (2010). I played minimally in that time, largely because of Eli Manning’s ability to stay healthy and available — he started 210 consecutive games for the Giants from 2004 to 2017.
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The starting quarterback is certainly under a lot of pressure to perform and keep a firm grip on one of the NFL’s 32 QB1 jobs — believe me, I felt that pressure. But it pales in comparison to the difficulty of being a QB2. The most difficult part for me was having to be locked in and ready to go at any moment, along with having to be ready to command the offense and execute, even though the game plan was not catered to my particular skill set and I wasn’t getting reps in practice. Finding ways to stay sharp mentally and visualize success without being the guy is so important. It’s up to each player to find what works best for them to be ready when their name is called.
There’s no one way to approach the QB2 position, and teams value it in different ways. Some teams sign journeymen (Brian Hoyer in Las Vegas or Teddy Bridgewater in Detroit). Some operate with an established veteran to help develop the potential QB of the future (Andy Dalton in Carolina). Some end up with the guy who lost the QB competition in the preseason (Kyle Trask in Tampa). Some roll with a rookie waiting for their shot to prove they belong (Clayton Tune in Arizona).
I wanted to assess which teams have the best backup quarterbacks, but the nature of the position is inherently fluid — a backup is a backup until they begin regularly starting games. To account for that fluidity, I felt it would be fairest to judge each team’s backup situation as of the moment they started play in Week 1 of the 2023 season. In other words, Zach Wilson (who was the Jets’ QB2 until Aaron Rodgers’ injury in the season-opener) qualifies, while Joshua Dobbs (who was named the Cardinals’ starter a few days before the season began) does not.
I also did not want to just compile a quarterback ranking — I wanted to evaluate how each QB2 fits with their team holistically. Some QBs with plenty of talent and starting experience did not make the top-five list below; the same goes for some who have actually stepped up and won games for their teams this season.
I’ve been a fan of Zach Wilson since he came into the league as a promising young gunslinger in 2021. The Jets positioned themselves well by sticking with their former No. 2 overall draft pick as Aaron Rodgers’ backup. Four snaps into the season, Rodgers went down, and Wilson was thrust into the spotlight. While he struggled early on, the vibes around Wilson feel different than they did a year ago — it feels to me like this team can still get back to the postseason, even with Wilson under center in place of Rodgers. It seems all Wilson needed to do to get the rest of the team to rally around him was complete that first touchdown pass to Garrett Wilson. Wilson received immediate support on the sideline. To the credit of coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, he’s transformed the offense to showcase what Wilson does well. It’s a run-first offense with Breece Hall, but when Wilson does throw the ball, he’s getting it out quickly to his check-down options and hitting his targets on intermediate throws using play-action. He’s doing a good job moving the pocket and making plays with his legs, as well. After a rough three-pick outing against Dallas in Week 2, Wilson has settled down, compiling a passer rating of 80.7 with two TDs, one INT and three fumbles (one lost) over the last four games.
The key to the Jets carrying a 3-3 record into their bye week has, first and foremost, been the defense. There’s no questioning its impact on this team. But Wilson deserves credit for improving week to week and, in turn, appearing to gain trust from his teammates and confidence in himself.
The 49ers apparently saw enough from Sam Darnold in the preseason that they were comfortable trading away Trey Lance (though the Niners essentially traded three first-round picks to Miami to draft Lance). During Darnold’s stints with other teams, it seemed to me that he struggled because he had difficulty processing (seeing and deciphering coverages). Kyle Shanahan’s offense, however, requires quarterbacks to rip through progressions and get the ball downfield to a handful of Pro Bowler playmakers. Brock Purdy’s ability to process and throw with different touch and tempo is better than Darnold’s, but there wouldn’t be a big drop-off for this offense if Darnold were under center.
I don’t think I could find a more suitable match for Jalen Hurts than Marcus Mariota. Signing Mariota to a one-year deal this offseason, the Eagles positioned themselves well if Hurts ever misses time, because the two have similar skill sets, with Mariota essentially serving as a less dynamic version of Philly’s starter. Mariota possesses the perfect blend of experience to draw on, along with physical ability. Though his aggressive playing style can get him into turnover trouble, Mariota won’t have to be the hero in an offense as good as Philly’s, making this the perfect situation for him and the team.
Andy Dalton is the consummate QB2, with more than a decade of experience and the ability to still play winning football. He went 6-8 starting games for the New Orleans Saints last season, and he’s made one start this season, a Week 3 road loss to the Seahawks, in which he tossed two TD passes against zero INTs. Knowing you have a veteran QB who can still play while mentoring a rookie is invaluable. The type of offense the Panthers are running require a lot of Bryce Young. He’s being asked to decipher coverage, make protection calls, adjust routes and call audibles. Young couldn’t have a better mentor and guide in the QBs room than Dalton, who’s operated in this same type of system throughout his career as a pocket passer.
Another key thing you’ll see Dalton routinely do on the sideline while Young is working with a coach is talk with the offensive line and playmakers. Serving as a liaison between the QB1 and the rest of the team is so important to helping everyone stay on the same page. I also often looked for these opportunities during my time as a backup, and it helped me stay engaged in the game plan and build a rapport with my teammates.
Taylor has been a competent quarterback for a decade-plus, working his way into starting positions, only to — for one reason or another — then fall out of them. Entering the season, he had completed 61.4 percent of his career pass attempts, tossing 60 TDs against 26 INTs. Taylor keeps his teams competitive by leaning on his athleticism and football IQ. We saw this play out Sunday night, when the 12-year veteran started in place of an injured Daniel Jones against the Bills. The Giants were overmatched, and the offensive line was decimated, but Taylor still made some plays with his legs and connected with receivers downfield for some timely gains. Taylor accepted blame for communication issues that ultimately led to a loss, but don’t put too much stock in those tough moments. Going forward, Taylor can still do what every team wants its QB2 to do — provide a chance to win.
Top 15 offensive player rankings
Each week in the 2023 campaign, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr will take a look at all offensive players and rank his top 15. Rankings are based solely on this season’s efforts. The Week 7 pecking order is below.
NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from Week 6’s rankings.
After another huge performance last week (163 receiving yards and a touchdown on six catches), Tyreek Hill has the second-most receiving yards through a team’s first six games of a season in NFL history with 814. You have to go all the way back to 1942 (when Don Hutson had 819) to find someone with more. Hill is having a historic campaign.
Christian McCaffrey scored a touchdown in his 15th straight game on Sunday, then left with an oblique injury. Afterward, the offense wasn’t the same, though Brock Purdy and Co. did have a chance to stay undefeated with what would have been the game-winning field goal. But no dice. All that concerns San Francisco now is the health of its offensive engine, whose status is uncertain ahead of a Monday night tilt in Minnesota.
Despite a slow start, Tua Tagovailoa rallied his team with three touchdown passes in the second quarter and breezed to a 42-21 win over Carolina. Tua is in total command of this offense, and his ability to get the ball out quickly is second to none among quarterbacks around the league. Through six weeks, he was the least-pressured passer (24.3), per Next Gen Stats, and he has only taken more than one sack in one game (in a Week 4 loss to Buffalo). It’s probably safe to say that most QBs around the league envy Tua right now.
Patrick Mahomes has never lost to the Broncos, improving to 12-0 against Denver with a somewhat comfortable win on Thursday night. The Chiefs amassed 22 first downs and nearly 400 yards, but Mahomes and Co. struggled to get into the end zone for much of the night, going 1-of-5 in the red zone (with one trip ending on a Mahomes INT) and converting one of two goal-to-go situations. It might feel like Mahomes is playing well under his customary MVP level, but his 68.3 completion percentage this season is the best of his career. Plus, the Chiefs are winning.
A.J. Brown skyrocketed into the top five this week after recording his fourth consecutive game with 125-plus receiving yards, making him the fifth player in the last 20 seasons to have a four-game streak with at least that many yards, per NFL Research. Jalen Hurts struggled with giveaways in Philly’s first loss of the season, but he’s found success when targeting Brown all year — and that’s something he’ll surely want to do against Miami on Sunday night.
The Bills appeared to be still getting over jet lag in their first game back stateside, as they got away with one against the Giants. Josh Allen and the Bills’ offense was held scoreless through the first three quarters before he found his receivers for two fourth-quarter scores, which ultimately proved to be enough, with help from the defense. Buffalo was held to less than 20 points in each of the last two weeks. A game against the lackluster Patriots this week is just what the doctor ordered for Allen to get right.
Ja’Marr Chase led the Bengals with 13 targets and 80 receiving yards in last week’s win over the Seahawks. His target volume has had a direct correlation to Cincinnati’s win-loss record in 2023: The Bengals are 3-0 in games where Chase is targeted at least 10 times, as opposed to 0-3 in contests where he sees fewer than 10 passes. Simply put, Zac Taylor would be wise to get Chase involved early and often when the Bengals face the 49ers in Week 8, coming out of their Week 7 bye.
Jared Goff deserves a lot of credit for the Lions starting the season 5-1 — it’s the quarterback’s best start to a season since 2018 with the Rams. He ranks in the top five in a majority of passing categories, including completion percentage (69.5, fifth), pass yards per attempt (8.0, third) and pass TDs (11, tied for fifth). He passed a big test against Todd Bowles’ Buccaneers defense last week and faces another big challenge Sunday against Baltimore’s top-five defense.
Travis Kelce had his best outing of the season last Thursday against the Broncos, hauling in all nine of his targets for a season-high 124 yards. This was more like the Kelce we’re traditionally used to seeing, despite the fact that he came out of the game for several minutes after tweaking his banged-up ankle. The extra few days of rest should only help ahead of another AFC West clash.
After missing the first four weeks of the season with a hamstring injury, Cooper Kupp has proven he’s still every bit the elite player who won the receiving triple crown two years ago. Averaging 133 receiving yards per game in his two contests, Kupp has singlehandedly turned the Rams from an offense that was surprising teams early in the season to one that is a formidable threat to score on every drive.
Brock Purdy had the worst outing of his regular-season career against the Browns. It was a perfect storm for the second-year quarterback. He faced a vaunted defense that now leads the NFL in total and pass yards allowed, and he lost two of his top offensive weapons (Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel) to injury mid-game, which completely alters the game plan in real time. That loss wasn’t entirely on Purdy. This week’s prime-time matchup against Minnesota offers him a legitimate bounce-back opportunity — with or without McCaffrey and/or Deebo.
Raheem Mostert hasn’t taken his foot off the gas since he stepped onto the field in Week 1. With another three-touchdown game in the Dolphins’ 42-21 victory over Carolina, the nine-year pro leads the NFL with a career-high nine rush touchdowns and 11 scrimmage touchdowns — which is two more than early MVP candidate Christian McCaffrey has posted in 2023. Mostert’s production has taken the Dolphins’ offense from great to GREATER this season.
The Bills’ offense has struggled mightily in recent weeks, but Stefon Diggs has continued to be the most consistent element, gaining at least 100 receiving yards in each of the last four games. Further supporting just how important he is to quarterback Josh Allen, Diggs has received 33.5 percent of the team’s targets in 2023 — the highest percentage in the league heading into Week 7.
Justin Herbert’s stock took a hit after an up-and-down performance that ultimately led to a loss to Dallas in prime time. He struggled under pressure and, for a second straight game, threw a costly pick after having zero in the Chargers’ first three contests of the season. Herbert is a great quarterback, but the fact of the matter is, his team is falling on the wrong side of the scoreboard. Whether it’s fair or not (as a former NFL quarterback, I tend to think it’s not), it falls on his shoulders at the end of the day.
The 49ers suffered their first loss of the season last week with the offense attempting to work through the absence of two stars on the field for a good chunk of time. Where was George Kittle in all of this? Great question. He finished the game with one catch for 1 yard on two targets. Kittle, who has 30 or fewer receiving yards in four of six games this season, needs to be more involved in the pass game.
JUST MISSED: Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings (previously No. 7); Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (No. 14); Puka Nacua, WR, Los Angeles Rams (No. 15); C.J. Stroud, QB, Houston Texans; Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers.
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