NFL's top 10 backup quarterbacks in 2021: Where do Justin Fields, Jacoby Brissett, Taylor Heinicke rank?

Week 2 threw a handful of NFL teams directly into their backup plans, whether they liked it or not.

The loss of a quarterback is obviously jarring, but it can be downright catastrophic if a club’s unprepared to lose its starter at the game’s most important position. This past Sunday, four teams — the Chicago Bears, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins — were instantly confronted with this reality. Out went Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor, Carson Wentz and Tua Tagovailoa; in came Justin Fields, Davis Mills, Jacob Eason and Jacoby Brissett. A week that began with backup Taylor Heinicke leading Washington to a thrilling win on Thursday night became cruelly poetic by the time the dust settled Sunday evening. The aforementioned starting quarterbacks suffered injuries that forced newshounds to train their focus on press conference injury reports in the days ahead. Understudies across the league prepared to take up the mantle of the star role in Week 3.

This development led us to consider the two-deep under center across the league. With so many teams needing to call on their backup early in the season, which clubs have it better than others?

Let’s take a look at the NFL’s top backup quarterbacks in 2021.

Minshew isn’t even the No. 1 backup on his own team’s depth chart, but that certainly doesn’t disqualify him from this group. In fact, his history pushed him to the top. Jacksonville once believed so strongly in Minshew, they traded away Nick Foles — their initial answer for their quarterback conundrum following the end of the Blake Bortles era — and geared up for a continuation of Minshew Mania.

As we all know, the mania eventually died down to white noise. The Jaguars couldn’t find much success when it came to wins and losses, but that doesn’t mean Minshew wasn’t effective. His passing line was certainly respectable, finishing with touchdown-to-interception ratios of 21:6 in 2019 and 16:5 in 2020. His passer rating landed above 91 in each campaign, too. But it would have taken a Herculean effort to lift the Jaguars out of the AFC South basement, especially in 2020. Ultimately, Jacksonville’s 1-15 record last season led to the No. 1 overall pick, Trevor Lawrence, and the departure of Minshew to Philadelphia, where he currently sits behind Jalen Hurts and veteran Joe Flacco.

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Mariota hasn’t seen the field much since losing his starting job in Tennessee in 2019. In fact, his lone play of this season knocked him out of action with a quad injury. Still, when the former No. 2 overall pick has been on the field in his seven-year career, he has been adequate, if not better. (Remember when the Mariota-led Titans upset the Chiefs in Kansas City to kick off the 2017 playoffs?) Mariota entered one game for the Raiders last season due to an injury to Derek Carr and nearly won Las Vegas a division game. Mariota completed 17 of 28 passes for 226 yards with one touchdown and one interception against the Chargers, while also running for 88 yards and an additional score. If it weren’t for a disastrous penalty splurge from Raiders CB Trayvon Mullen, Mariota would probably have a key victory to his name. Though he’s currently on injured reserve, a healthy Mariota is among the league’s best second options under center.

Point to the 35-0 final score of Miami’s Week 2 loss to Buffalo all you want, but the tape doesn’t lie: Brissett had a pretty decent performance. Tossed into the action following Tua Tagovailoa’s rib injury, Brissett was quickly subjected to the same frequent pressure, yet he managed to evade rushers and move the Dolphins into Bills territory on multiple possessions. Sure, he threw an interception and finished with a poor passer rating, but he also didn’t get a ton of help from his teammates, who dropped passes and fumbled away a red-zone opportunity.

Brissett’s standing here is built on more than one game, of course, and he has a decent few tidbits to back him up. Brissett’s 31:13 TD-to-INT ratio as a starter is the 13th-best mark among 33 quarterbacks with 30-plus starts since 2017, per NFL Research, giving him credit for his time as the guy in Indianapolis. The Colts went 7-8 with Brissett as their starter in 2019, with that Indy team ranking in the middle of the league in points per game. He wasn’t a huge drop-off from Tagovailoa once the starter exited this past Sunday, and the focus should be more on protecting him — Brissett was pressured on 47.7 percent of dropbacks, sacked four times and threw an interception under pressure — and finding a legitimate rushing attack than worrying about whether he can go win the Dolphins a game.

The new starter in Washington makes the list because he began the season as the backup and isn’t seen as a legitimate starter in this league, at least not yet. Filling in for the injured Ryan Fitzpatrick, though, he had quite a debut in his new role last week. In a 30-29 win over the Giants on Thursday Night Football, Heinicke completed 34 of 46 passes for 336 yards, two touchdowns and a 99.5 passer rating. Sure, his interception thrown late in the fourth quarter nearly cost Washington the game, but Heinicke immediately redeemed himself by leading a quick drive to put Washington in range for a game-winning Dustin Hopkins field goal.

It wasn’t the first time Heinicke electrified Washington’s fanbase, either. The backup started Washington’s wild-card game against Tampa Bay in the 2020 postseason. While the Football Team ultimately lost to the eventual Super Bowl champs, 31-23, the previously unknown quarterback put on quite a show. Heinicke threw for 306 yards with one touchdown and one interception. And he memorably scampered for an 8-yard touchdown in such thrilling fashion, star teammate Chase Young could only react in one way: by pointing at Heinicke’s nameplate for the camera. Remember this kid’s name; he’ll be in our football consciousness for a good portion of the 2021 season.

Keenum’s career has become a nomadic one, but he established some credibility when he was called into action by the Minnesota Vikings in place of the injured Sam Bradford in 2017. Keenum ended up finishing seventh in passer rating, 12th in passing yards and tied for 12th in passing touchdowns that season, leading the Vikings to a 13-3 record and a division title. Remember the “Minneapolis Miracle”? Keenum was the quarterback who threw the legendary touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs. Since then, Keenum has bounced around, getting the starting gig in Denver for a year before moving to Washington in 2019 and Cleveland in 2020. The Browns were thisclose to seeing Keenum in action last Sunday, as Baker Mayfield injured his shoulder but ended up not missing a snap. Though it obviously wouldn’t be ideal, the Browns can rest a bit easier knowing they have a quarterback capable of playing adequately in the event Mayfield misses any time going forward.

The NFL world is rather familiar with Rudolph for more reasons than his involvement in a brawl at the end of a Thursday night game. Rudolph was called upon to replace Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback who was NOT happy back in 2018 when the Steelers spent a third-round pick on the Oklahoma State product, and the results weren’t great. Rudolph was temporarily replaced by Devlin “Duck” Hodges in 2019 before regaining his job late, and it became apparent he likely wouldn’t end up as Roethlisberger’s successor. But Rudolph can still be counted on to produce in a one-game scenario. His performance in Pittsburgh’s 2020 season finale didn’t earn the Steelers a win (or eliminate the Browns from playoff contention, something Pittsburgh would pay for one week later), but it did underscore what we’ve come to know about Rudolph: The guy can sling it. Rudolph is at his best when throwing downfield, and he nearly threw the Steelers to a win in that Week 17 affair. He’s probably not long for Pittsburgh, but isn’t a terrible option in a pinch.

Flacco is far from where he was when we debated his elite/non-elite status, but in an emergency, he’s shown he can still put together a vintage performance. Take his third start for the New York Jets last season, a prime-time affair against the New England Patriots in which Flacco completed 18 of 25 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns (against one interception). Flacco nearly singlehandedly threw the woeful Jets to an upset win over the rival Patriots before it all fell apart in the fourth quarter. For 45-plus minutes of game action, we wondered if we’d all been thrown into a time machine and sent back to the 2013 postseason, when a hot streak earned Flacco a lucrative — if not bloated — contract extension in Baltimore. He’s not a quarterback you’d want to send out with the starters for half of a season, but he’s still equipped to keep the ship afloat amid a hail of enemy artillery. That’s worth a decent salary when considering the alternative.

This is where we enter the section reserved for unproven — but hopeful — faces of the future. Love was a mystery for all of 2020, going the entire season without so much as dressing for Green Bay on game day, and became an unintentional cause for conflict within the Packers organization, as the relationship between Aaron Rodgers and the front office deteriorated. With Rodgers on the sideline for the entire preseason, Love was able to show off what he’s been working on up to this point. The second-year passer was sharp in his preseason debut, completing 12 of 17 passes for 122 yards and one touchdown before exiting. He wasn’t quite as good in his second and final preseason game, posting similar completion and passing marks but throwing a bad interception. For now, we still don’t quite know what the Packers have in Love, but he gets the edge over the next man on this list just because he has a pro year under his belt, even if he didn’t see the field in that year. (If it makes you feel better, make Love 8A, and the guy below him 8B.) It’s probably still better than hoping Brett Hundley or DeShone Kizer can pilot the Packers to victory.

Fields is the temporary QB1 in Chicago this week, but Bears PR continues to state that he’s the backup when Andy Dalton is healthy. We’ll see. But that’s enough to land the rookie on this list, and Fields’ preseason performance was another one that inspired optimism for Chicago’s future. Fields got a taste of regular-season NFL action when Dalton left due to injury on Sunday, and it wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring. His passing line (6 of 13, 60 yards, one interception) left plenty to be desired, but he did step up when needed most, scrambling on third down to gain a fresh set of downs and end Cincinnati’s comeback hopes. That detail is important for Fields, who brings another element to Chicago’s offense thanks to his mobility. He can certainly rip it downfield, but behind the Bears’ leaky offensive line, his most valuable attribute might be his ability to extend the play, which he’ll need going forward. Fields was 4 of 9 for 47 yards with more than 2.5 seconds to throw on Sunday, showing he’s most dangerous when buying additional time.

After trudging through multiple seasons with backups taking significant snaps due to Jimmy Garoppolo’s unfortunate injury luck, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan decided they’d had enough, trading up to draft Lance third overall in April. The 49ers’ brain trust chose Lance for both long-term planning and immediate security in the event Garoppolo is again lost for significant time. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened in 2021, leaving Lance as little more than a package player. The rookie saw four snaps in San Francisco’s season-opening win over Detroit, completing his only pass for the 49ers’ first touchdown of 2021, and didn’t play in Week 2. It’s going to be like that for Lance for the time being, and it might be best for the youngest player on this list. But with athletic attributes similar to those of Fields, he can bring another element to the 49ers’ offense. If needed in emergency, he’ll certainly be tested — but he’s also likely a better option than Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard were in recent years.

ALSO CONSIDERED: Mitchell Trubisky, Buffalo Bills; Taysom Hill, New Orleans Saints; Nick Foles, Chicago Bears.

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