Current NFL Backups Who Will End Up Starters in 2015
A certain optimism surrounds every NFL franchise as the season approaches. After adding talent throughout free agency and the NFL draft, your team is ready to compete for a divisional title, right? Maybe so, but it really comes down to how healthy the team can stay.
A key injury to the wrong player can doom a season. In 2014, when the Miami Dolphins lost left tackle Branden Albert, and the Arizona Cardinals lost quarterback Carson Palmer, their respective seasons were basically over.
The most important position on the field is obviously quarterback. Injuries or poor play from that position are incredibly difficult to overcome. According to Pro Football Focus, 75 different quarterbacks logged a snap in 2014. Chances are extremely high the backup quarterback will eventually play.
Backups will overtake current starters. It's inevitable. We have a list of eight backups who will become the starting quarterback by the end of the season. Some will win out due to talent and better performance, while others will benefit from injuries ahead of them.
Throughout the next series of slides, we’ve predicted which current backups will eventually claim the starting job in 2015. Will they sink or swim as the starter? We have that covered as well. Let’s jump in, using Ourlads’ depth charts to help determine early starter and backup situations.
Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills
If you were to look at the entire Buffalo Bills roster except the quarterback position, it’s hard to see anything but a Super Bowl contender. The collection of impact players throughout the roster is highly impressive. All they need is a competent signal-caller to help steer the ship.
Unfortunately, Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel lead the quarterback room. Cassel, acquired this offseason, has been below average his entire career. His per-game career averages are not promising: 59 percent completion, 174.7 yards per game, 80.1 passer rating.
That won’t cut it in Buffalo.
Behind Cassel is Manuel, who has been even worse in his first two seasons. He’s averaged 187 yards per game, but with just a 58.6 completion percentage and 78.5 quarterback rating. Manuel was benched four games into 2014 because he missed simple reads and throws too often.
The most intriguing option the Bills have is Tyrod Taylor. He hasn’t played much in his career, attempting just 35 passes. But he was an accomplished player at Virginia Tech and proved to be an electric playmaker.
Eventually, the Bills should get tired of poor quarterback play and insert Taylor. The backfield dynamic of Taylor and running back LeSean McCoy could be enough to stretch defenses out and open passing lanes for Taylor.
Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine has hinted that quarterback Josh McCown is the favorite to start, leaving Johnny Manziel as the backup. During an interview with The Bull and Fox radio show (h/t Nate Ulrich of the Beacon Journal), Pettine based McCown’s talent level off his play in 2013 with the Chicago Bears:
Josh has proven in the right circumstances that he can be successful. I think it was pretty clear to us when we looked into the results of what happened for him a year ago that a lot of those circumstances were outside of his control that made the year as difficult as it was.
We just look back to when he was in Chicago, when he had a pretty good supporting cast around him, and he was able to be more than functional. He had a very successful year. When you build the team right, it minimizes the importance of the quarterback.
The issue is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thought McCown would replicate his 2013 success, and he failed. When named starter for 11 games, McCown responded with his worst season since his rookie year. He is what he is: a journeyman backup quarterback.
Though Manziel showed little promise in 2014 as a rookie, the Browns must see what he can do. Another poor season from Manziel would suggest he is not the long-term answer. But if he can provide at least average quarterback play, the Browns could be a playoff team.
Manziel has a long way to go before he can be successful in the NFL. His backyard style of play must be refined into an efficient pocket-passing style. The Browns must give him every opportunity to succeed, though, and not stifle his development.
Brock Osweiler, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos went all-in for 2014, spending a lot of money to field a competitive roster filled with veterans. When quarterback Peyton Manning broke down late in the season, the team couldn't carry Manning. This was a sign of things to come.
Manning will face a massive challenge in 2015. His offensive line is much worse than last year, as Ryan Clady is out for the season and there are new starters at four positions. To help counter this questionable offensive line, Manning must continue to get rid of the ball faster than anyone else, per Pro Football Focus.
The issue with his lightning quick release is it doesn’t allow routes to fully develop. There were dozens of instances in 2014 when a deep receiver was open, but Manning had to force a quick pass underneath. This is because of his weak arm and unwillingness to take a hit.
Eventually, Manning will be hit hard in 2015. That will allow backup Brock Osweiler to enter the game. Denver must learn if Osweiler can be the full-time starter in 2016, as Manning’s career will likely end at the conclusion of this season.
There’s not much on Osweiler’s resume. He’s thrown 30 passes in the NFL and started one season at Arizona State. How he’s developed is unknown, but the team must find out.
Ryan Mallett, Houston Texans
The Houston Texans’ quarterback trio of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett and Tom Savage is wholly uninspiring. Hoyer was the best quarterback on the free-agent market, but he is not an upgrade over Ryan Fitzpatrick for the Texans. At best, he could replicate Fitzpatrick’s production.
Hoyer was praised for “winning” in Cleveland last season, but the team won in spite of Hoyer’s play. His tape showed far too many should-have-been interceptions that were simply dropped by defenders. Former Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan deserves a lot of credit for Hoyer’s success.
Eventually, expect Hoyer to fall out of favor in Houston as well. The Texans brought Ryan Mallett back for 2015 and may want to give him one last chance before moving on. Mallett didn’t show much in three games last year, but those were also his first real games.
Mallett must improve his accuracy and decision-making. Houston needs a quarterback in the 2016 NFL draft if Mallett doesn’t develop. Expect him to earn some playing time in the second half of the 2015 campaign to give him one more chance to prove himself.
Aaron Murray, Kansas City Chiefs
As soon as the ink dried on Alex Smith’s $68 million contract, the Kansas City Chiefs doomed themselves to mediocrity at the position. Smith is known for his ability to protect the football, averaging fewer than nine interceptions a year over his career. The issue is he doesn’t push the ball downfield and create plays.
Now that the Chiefs have some quality playmakers at receiver in Jeremy Maclin, Albert Wilson, Chris Conley and tight end Travis Kelce, Smith’s conservative play style will be crippling. Improvisation is a skill Smith has never shown except for when he runs with the ball.
Smith’s high completion percentage and low turnover numbers are more of a product of being too cautious than him being a standout quarterback. The Chiefs need more playmaking on offense, which could lead to a quarterback change later in the season. Their best young signal-caller is Aaron Murray.
The former Georgia Bulldog is recovered from his ACL tear and ready to compete. Murray is similar to Smith in that he doesn’t have a big arm, but his willingness to make tough throws shouldn’t be overlooked.
Murray’s biggest asset at Georgia was his ability to keep defenses on their toes. His 8.9 career average for yards attempted per throw is more than respectable. He had tremendous success, averaging 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions a year.
If Murray can get in and play well, the Chiefs can trade Smith after the season. A trade next season would save $7 million against the cap, per Over The Cap. Gaining assets and improving this team’s chances to win would be a major boost for the Chiefs.
Mark Sanchez, Philadelphia Eagles
When the Philadelphia Eagles were able to swap quarterback Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, they greatly upgraded the pure talent of the position. Bradford has missed 40 games throughout his career so far, though. His inability to stay on the field is his biggest issue.
If Bradford can play the entire season, he won’t give up the starting job. His accuracy and decision-making are major improvements from what Foles offered and can continue to improve under head coach Chip Kelly. He’s smart and good enough to really maximize what the Eagles do.
Unfortunately, there's Bradford’s health. Philadelphia's offensive line is good but lacks depth. If one or two starters miss time like they did in 2014, Bradford will be hit like he was in St. Louis. If he’s hurt, then backup Mark Sanchez will surely enter as the starter.
Sanchez is limited but serviceable as a starter for the Eagles. He doesn’t create anything outside of what the offense opens for him and struggles with consistency. There are too many instances where he locks on to one receiver and throws an interception or misses a better read.
As we saw last year, though, the Eagles can win with Sanchez in the short term. He’s not the franchise quarterback, which Bradford could be if he can stay on the field.
Austin Davis, St. Louis Rams
In what could be head coach Jeff Fisher’s last stand in St. Louis, he has decided to enter the 2015 campaign with Nick Foles at quarterback. This could prove disastrous, especially if Foles’ 2013 season was the big selling point.
Foles’ raw numbers in 2013 were tremendous. He had 27 touchdowns and two interceptions, along with a 64 percent completion rating. Those are historical numbers.
The film told a different story and predicted a big decline in 2014. Ultimately, the film was right, as Foles completed less than 60 percent of his throws and had just 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions in eight games.
Foles’ film is littered with bad footwork, accuracy and decision-making. He locks on to his target early and struggles making it past his second read. There’s a lot he must improve to help the Rams become more than an average performer in 2015.
Also playing eight games in 2014 was Austin Davis. Davis was a shocking breakout player in his first few games and then came back down to Earth when defenses adjusted to him. He still was more impressive than Foles, despite having fewer weapons around him, posting 2,001 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Davis doesn’t have long-term starting potential, but Foles hasn’t shown any more promise than Davis. Foles has also struggled staying healthy, which means he could be susceptible to injuries behind the lowly Rams offensive line.
Whether it is due to talent or injuries, expect Davis to see the field in 2015. The roster isn’t bad overall, but St. Louis must see an efficient performer at quarterback to win. Davis has been that more so than Foles in very small sample sizes.
Colt McCoy, Washington Redskins
The sharp decline in Robert Griffin III’s play for the Washington Redskins has largely been due to his torn ACL in 2012. Griffin was electric prior to the injury, showing his franchise quarterback potential. Even at times in 2014, he had some of moments that made you believe he could get back to his previous form.
Griffin is going to be fighting for his career in 2015. Expect him to be more effective this season than he was in the previous two, even if he cannot get back to his rookie form. His future in Washington will continue so long as he can be even 90 percent of what he was in 2012.
At some point in 2015, however, backup Colt McCoy will play. Even if Griffin comes back better than ever, he is highly prone to injuries. He’s missed 11 games over three seasons due to various injuries. It’s a matter of when, not if.
McCoy is not talented enough to start for the long term. His stints in Cleveland and Washington have already proved he is not good enough to overcome his limitations. He does have value as a backup, though.
In a pinch, McCoy is poised and able to control a game. He doesn’t risk turning the ball over much, which is fine for a backup. He can manage a game or two when needed.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.