The Baltimore Ravens are mired in a quarterback controversy! Not really. Actually, not at all. Joe Flacco is the unquestioned starter and leader of the offense, and the Ravens’ season will go as his arm goes. But under the surface, an interesting quarterback battle is brewing—the “Battle of the Backups.”
Backup quarterbacks are important members of the roster—as Josh McCown showed last season when he carried the Chicago Bears in Jay Cutler’s stead. Neither of the Ravens backups are on that level so the team is most certainly in a precarious situation if the invincible Joe Flacco does get injured.
But the Ravens face an interesting decision when it comes to choosing between the two because roster spots are the most valuable currency during an NFL offseason. Head coach John Harbaugh has the following options:
- Option 1: Keep Tyrod Taylor, assign Keith Wenning to the practice squad (at the risk of losing him if another team signs him to their active roster)
- Option 2: Keep Keith Wenning and release Tyrod Taylor
- Option 3: Carry two backup quarterbacks—something Baltimore hasn’t done since 2009—and give up a roster spot that could go to a contributor at another position
These are the pros and cons of each path.
Option 1: Keep Tyrod Taylor
If we’re only thinking about the 2014 season, this is the best option. Taylor may not be an excellent backup, but at least he has three years of professional experience under his belt and some in-game reps.
The Ravens at least have some idea of what they would get in the event of an injury to Joe Flacco. The same can’t be said of rookie Keith Wenning, this year’s sixth-round pick.
But general manage Ozzie Newsome has to factor in the future, and Taylor may not be the most prudent choice.
Taylor is an excellent athlete and a dynamic playmaker with solid arm strength, but he hasn’t developed a whole lot since being drafted out of Virginia Tech and his limited in-game performances have been underwhelming—a fact head coach John Harbaugh readily admitted via Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com:
Well, you know, Tyrod’s only got one year left on his contract. We’ve been very happy with Tyrod, and we feel like he has a great future, but we have been a little disappointed how he’s played in games certainly. We feel like he’s a lot better than he’s showed. I know he feels that way too.
Harbaugh mentioned another reason why keeping only Taylor on the roster is problematic. His contract expires at the end of this season, and there’s a chance he’s not back in Baltimore—meaning that Newsome needs to have alternatives in mind.
The Ravens value their draft picks greatly, so they clearly think a great deal of Wenning and brought him in with hopes that he would be capable of backing up Joe Flacco.
Wenning is eligible for the practice squad, of course, but there’s no guarantee that another team wouldn’t sign him leaving the Ravens with no in-house options to replace Taylor.
Option 2: Keep Keith Wenning
Wenning was a sixth-round pick for a reason. He put up great numbers at Ball State, but that production is at least somewhat inflated by the level of competition he faced in the MAC.
But he has a lot of upside—more, in fact, than Taylor as a passer.
Coach Harbaugh has been impressed with the rookie’s arm, singling out his touch and arm strength as positives from rookie minicamp, according to The Baltimore Sun’s Aaron Wilson.
Furthermore, Wenning appears to already have some of those intangible qualities that forever elude quarterbacks that aren’t cut out for the NFL—for example, his ability to retain his excellent footwork when the pass rush is closing in and the pocket gets messy, per ESPN.com's Jason Whitlock.:
NFL scouts discovering Keith Wenning at Shrine Game. Keith makes throws w/defenders at his feet. Rush doesn't make him a coward. #bestasset— Jason Whitlock (@WhitlockJason) January 17, 2014
One factor working in Wenning’s favor (or at least, not against him) is the presence of new offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak. With a new offense in tow, Taylor doesn’t have a significant edge in terms of knowledge—although his years with the coaching staff, players and organization certainly helps.
Wenning is the obvious long-term choice for the backup spot, but will he be ready to fulfill such a demanding role if something does in fact happen to Joe Flacco this season? That’s the scary part of Wenning being the lone backup: the fear of the unknown.
Option 3: Keep Both QBs
This is the ideal decision quarterback-wise. Baltimore would be able to hang on to both of them so Wenning gets the opportunity to keep learning the position while Taylor is the more experienced “break in case of emergency” quarterback.
What should the Ravens do?
But the Ravens haven’t carried three quarterbacks on their final roster since 2009, and there’s a good reason for that. Football is a dangerous sport, and you never know when Flacco is going to take a shot like he did against the Detroit Lions in Week 15 last year, but durability is a skill and the Ravens need to factor in Flacco’s reliability—he’s never missed a start—when making this roster decision.
That extra roster spot could go to a contributor at another position (e.g. a cornerback or wide receiver) or on special teams that would make a difference in games instead of going to a third-string quarterback that probably (*knocking on wood) won’t be needed.
In this scenario, there is also the option of keeping Wenning and upgrading to a more proven “in case of emergency” quarterback with options like Kevin Kolb, Rex Grossman and David Garrard on the market.
What Do the Ravens Do?
Given Taylor’s experience, he is the better backup right now, but the question that matters here is how much better? Taylor is better suited for the role the Ravens hope he never has to fill, but is he so much better than Wenning that the Ravens carry three quarterbacks or risk losing a quarterback with more long-term potential?
The answer to that question will become clearer as the offseason progresses and once both quarterbacks get an opportunity for some preseason reps.
The combination of Wenning’s upside and Taylor’s unimpressive play gives Wenning the advantage (in my book, at least) for right now, but he’ll need to prove that he can run a professional offense and mature as a quarterback—from the college player that operated mostly out of the shotgun.
Shehan Peiris is B/R's Lead Featured Columnist covering the Baltimore Ravens and a co-host of Ravens Central Radio, a weekly podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network that focuses on all things Ravens-related. For the latest Ravens news, draft analysis and links to episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter.