Backup quarterback might be the most undervalued position in all of football.
No position is more important than the quarterback position. The best team in the game can miss the playoffs without a competent starter under center. Gone are the run-heavy, "defense wins championships" days of yore. This is a passing league and if a team wants to get anywhere it has to have solid quarterback play.
In a league where every quarterback is one hit away from a season-long trip to the sidelines, it's important to have a good backup.
The model for this can be seen in the New England Patriots who've kept young backups like Matt Cassel (now flamed out as a starter and again a backup with the Minnesota Vikings) and Ryan Mallett around as protection behind Tom Brady—once a young backup himself to Drew Bledsoe.
The Green Bay Packers, for much of their recent history, have done the same with guys like Aaron Brooks, Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Matt Flynn all going on to start elsewhere.
Having the best backup isn't going to put any team over the top, but it will keep the bottom from dropping out in a worst-case scenario. The following backups will keep their respective teams in good hands should that happen.
Ryan Mallett (New England Patriots) and Kirk Cousins (Washington Redskins)
As prospects, these two couldn't be more different, but as backups, they share a lot of the same admirable traits.
First and foremost, just about everybody assumes these two will turn into a bevy of trade picks for their current teams at some point.
Mallett, currently serving as the heir apparent to Brady in New England, has a howitzer strapped to his shoulder and a lot of growing up to do—both on and off the field. He was selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft and almost immediately had people wondering when the Patriots would deal him for picks.
He hasn't developed quite as quickly as many would like, but much of that seems to do with the Patriots' offense not fitting his strengths.
Notably, Mallett has only attempted four regular-season passes in his NFL career, completing one of those and finding a defender with another. So, the story of Mallett is still largely a story of immense physical tools and of his potential down the road.
No. 2 QB Ryan Mallett was on for 24 snaps tonight. He played 25 snaps last week in preseason opener. 12 of 20 for 137 yards, TD tonight.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) August 17, 2013
Cousins was selected in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft, just a few rounds after the Redskins took Robert Griffin III to be their franchise passer. People panned the pick (though, not this columnist) and wondered how long Cousins would be content to ride shotgun.
As a prospect, Cousins makes great decisions with the football, has average arm strength and slightly above-average athleticism. It's his intangibles, though, that get people excited.
He was a three-year captain at Michigan State and already had fans in the Washington Redskins' locker room after he took over for RGIII last season.
NFL.com's Mark Sessler ranked Cousins as the top backup in the NFL:
Cousins won't play backup forever. Robert Griffin III is franchise gold, but I wouldn't be surprised to see another team pursue a trade for Cousins down the line. He capably led the 'Skins to a critical late-season win over the Cleveland Browns as a rookie, and he has shown tremendous leadership as RGIII heals from knee surgery.
In his time at the Redskins' helm, Cousins completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 466 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions. It wasn't a great performance, but in context, it signaled great things ahead for him.
Neither of these two are the best backup in the NFL, but they're included on this list because both of them have a very good shot to be starters one day. As their games continue to mature, there's little doubt that they can be successful.
Matt Moore (Miami Dolphins)
As a career starter, Matt Moore has been very pedestrian.
He has played in 37 games, attempted 758 passes and completed 59.1 percent of them. Overall, he's thrown for 5,268 yards, 33 touchdowns and 26 interceptions.
I really like Matt Moore as a backup QB. He's perfect. He's a fringe starter so he wouldn't cost much but the guy can play.— NFL Philosophy (@NFLosophy) August 5, 2013
However, at age 29, it's worthwhile to remark that he's never really had a team give him a fair shake as more than a top backup. Sure, he started 13 games for Miami in 2011, but he had the chain yanked after a decent season where he helped send wide receiver Brandon Marshall to the Pro Bowl.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller wasn't quite as kind, but he placed Moore 20th in his inaugural B/R 1,000 rankings. Among Moore's good decision-making and average physical skills, he noted:
Moore will never be a franchise quarterback, but he has value as a bridge starter at quarterback and as a very good No. 2 quarterback in a situation where a young or fringe starter is in place.
Just tried to mentally rank the AFC East QBs behind Tom Brady. Think I could make a case for Matt Moore in the top three.— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) July 17, 2013
I'm not saying the Dolphins should've gone with Moore over drafting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but it's easy to believe that Moore could've taken another step forward had the Dolphins kept that cast of teammates together and improved upon it rather than blowing it up over the next two seasons.
Moore is what a lot of teams are looking for as a top backup. He's not in the twilight of his career, so any team doesn't have to worry about him retiring every other season. He seems to have a realistic assessment of his own value and re-signed a two-year, $8 million dollar contract this past offseason rather than chase a starter's job elsewhere.
He has mastered the Miami offense and serves as a mentor for Tannehill while still being able to come in and win football games.
Shaun Hill (Detroit Lions)
There's a solid number of long-time readers (especially in the Midwest) who are going to go crazy at this selection.
Scroll down to the comments, and it's almost certain that the words "homer" or "bias" will be sprinkled in there because Hill just happens to quarterback the team I grew up rooting for in Detroit.
Yes, I've been a fan of Hill for a long time. He had some ups and downs with the San Francisco 49ers—like every other offensive player under Mike Singletary—but usually put his team into position to win games.
Throughout his time as a 49ers starter, Hill showed he could be decisive and accurate. He did the same in 2010, taking over for an injured Matthew Stafford.
Overall, Hill has over 6,000 career passing yards (along with 300 yards running), a 62 percent completion percentage and 41 touchdowns with just 23 interceptions. His career passer rating of 85.9 would put him in the middle of the pack (or slightly higher) in any given season.
It isn't just me who considers Hill as the NFL's top backup:
There's a discussion? RT @ChrisWesseling: He gets no national attention but I think Shaun Hill is in the discussion for NFL's best backup QB— Rich Eisen (@richeisen) August 10, 2013
Last season, Hill had his best performance ever as a backup in Week 3 against the Tennessee Titans. Filling in for the injured Stafford, Hill led the Lions to two quick touchdowns to send the game into overtime.
The Lions ended up losing, 44-41, but Hill's two quick strikes made many wonder what could have happened if he'd been playing instead of Stafford all along. Hill's ability to do what he did off the bench sent some reverberations through the Twittersphere.
Shaun Hill just came in cold and led the #Lions to two touchdowns in a span of 18 seconds to tie the game. This is unreal.— Pride Of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) September 23, 2012
Shaun Hill led team to two TDs in 18 seconds. Wow— Chris McCosky (@cmccosky) September 23, 2012
HOLY SHAUN HILL!— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 23, 2012
Then, everyone seemingly forgot about Hill's ability as a backup. If you ask people today who is the top backup, you'll hear the other names on this list or someone like the Dallas Cowboys' Kyle Orton, Indianapolis Colts' Matt Hasselbeck or New England Patriots' Tim Tebow (shudder).
If we're really talking talent, though, and not just name recognition, any NFL team would be in the best hands to have someone exactly like Hill behind their established starting quarterback.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.