Copycat NFL Teams Hunting for Rookie QBs Who Can Be the Next Taysom Hill

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMay 7, 2019

Now-Buccaneers rookie quarterback Nick Fitzgerald scrambles during the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1.
Now-Buccaneers rookie quarterback Nick Fitzgerald scrambles during the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Nick Fitzgerald has no problem at all with Taysom Hill comparisons.

Then again, it's not like the undrafted Buccaneers rookie has much say in the matter.

"I have no problem being a quarterback, but also going to run a route, take a jet sweep, go run down on special teams," Fitzgerald told Greg Auman of The Athletic when he was signed soon after the draft. "I'd be ecstatic if they looked at me and said, 'You can return kicks like they let Taysom Hill.' I would be really excited to do that."

Fitzgerald rushed for 3,607 yards in his Mississippi State career, more than any other quarterback in SEC history. He had far more rushing attempts (221) than completions (145) in his senior season, executing an offense that made Tim Tebow's old Florida game plans look like the Air Raid.

The Buccaneers clearly weren't looking for some traditional dropback passer for training camp depth when they signed Fitzgerald. They were seeking a "slash" player like the Saints' quarterback-Wildcat-receiver-returner-special teamer Hill.

Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht even spoke about the appeal of a Hill-type player earlier in the offseason.

"If you can find a backup quarterback who can play on a lot of your special teams units and come in and play a role on offense, you're utilizing 46 guys on your roster on game day," he said, via Auman. "It's something that's talked about a lot. It's finding a guy that's the tough part."

The Buccaneers aren't alone in their search for the next Hill.

The Giants listed Syracuse rookie quarterback Eric Dungey, who rushed for 754 yards and 15 touchdowns in an Orange offense full of options and designed runs, as both a quarterback and tight end in rookie camp.

The Giants, as you may have heard, don't have a lot of space on their quarterback depth chart. So Dungey, like Fitzgerald, is saying all the right things about his unusual role.

"Coach offered me an opportunity to play multiple positions and a chance to play quarterback," he said, per the Associated Press. "If I can do that and learn the offense to the best of my ability, I am looking forward to doing everything I can to help out."

Meanwhile, the Ravens, who dabbled with Lamar Jackson as an all-purpose weapon before he inherited the starting quarterback job last year, see sixth-round pick Trace McSorley as more than just a mobile third-stringer who won't force them to change their offense in the event of a Jackson-Robert Griffin III disaster.

Taysom Hill's ability to play multiple roles in the Saints offense last season prompted a number of NFL teams to seek similar players in the draft and rookie free agency this year.
Taysom Hill's ability to play multiple roles in the Saints offense last season prompted a number of NFL teams to seek similar players in the draft and rookie free agency this year.Bill Feig/Associated Press

"You saw what the Saints have done down there with their third quarterback," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the draft. "That's something we'll have a chance to do, too, with Trace. He's going to be able to play special teams as well."

It looks like the copycat NFL has finally figured out that backup quarterbacks can be much more than just backup quarterbacks. It's all thanks to Hill, the former Brigham Young option quarterback who made slash players cool again last year.

Hill slipped below the draft radar because his college career was interrupted by several injuries and his Mormon mission. (And also because the NFL never knows what to do with option quarterbacks.) The Saints grabbed Hill off waivers two years ago and transformed him into a unique multiposition playmaker.

Hill rushed for 196 yards and two touchdowns last year on Wildcat-type plays, fake punts and other chicanery. He caught three passes and completed three others. He returned kickoffs. He blocked a punt. He played on the punt and kick coverage units.

There were versatile backup quarterbacks in the NFL before Hill. Joe Webb has been an emergency quarterback, sometime receiver and all-purpose special teamer for numerous teams since 2010. The Jets tinkered with Tebow as a trick-play changeup. Go back far enough, and you'll find Washington great Joe Theismann returning punts as a third-string rookie.

But like those Redskins, the Saints were established contenders, not some team with little to lose by performing some roster experiments. And Hill took quarterback snaps away from Drew Brees, not Mark Sanchez or Nathan Peterman.

In other words, the Saints proved there's a role on even a Super Bowl-caliber team with a Hall of Fame starting quarterback for a multipurpose backup who can do more than carry a clipboard.

The trick, as Licht said, is finding the right guy. There aren't many players with Hill's athleticism and versatility. But option quarterbacks often fall through the scouting cracks, meaning players with similar characteristics can be found in the late rounds of drafts or in rookie free agency.

Fitzgerald ran a 4.64-second 40-yard dash at the combine—not quite Hill's 4.44 result from his 2017 pro day but still plenty fast for a potential slash weapon.

Dungey ran a 4.68-second 40 at his pro day, with a 7.02-second three-cone drill that would have placed him ahead of many wide receivers at the combine.

McSorley ran a 4.57-second 40, with other slash-worthy results, at the combine. Chargers rookie Easton Stick, who hasn't been labeled a Hill type but fits the profile perfectly (and if any veteran quarterback could use an option changeup, it's the stationary Philip Rivers), ran 4.62, with a cone drill that prompted some "next Julian Edelman" talk.

All these college quarterbacks appear to have the toughness to block or cover kicks as well. Fitzgerald gained many of his rushing yards by plunging between the tackles in the SEC. Dungey proved he wasn't afraid to mix things up with a taunt after a touchdown pass against Western Michigan. McSorley's aggressive, physical style could be seen on national television most Saturdays. Stick tried to bowl over his share of defenders at the FCS level.

None of these players, however, were quick to embrace their potential as gadget weapons and specialists before the draft. McSorley declined a request to work out at other positions. Dungey, listed as a receiver prospect by most draft experts, used his pro day to showcase a new throwing delivery, not his receiving chops. Fitzgerald performed some receiving and blocking drills at his pro day but emphasized in interviews that he's a quarterback "first and foremost."

Though he cast himself as a quarterback only in the predraft process, Ravens rookie Trace McSorley likely will be asked to run the ball often, as he did at Penn State.
Though he cast himself as a quarterback only in the predraft process, Ravens rookie Trace McSorley likely will be asked to run the ball often, as he did at Penn State.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

It takes more than athleticism and an anything-for-the-team attitude to turn a college option dual-threat quarterback into someone who can run routes, catch, block, tackle and still function as a third-string NFL quarterback. And while Hill lookalikes are fashionable right now, no one wants to be typecast as a role player without a role if this turns out to be just another fad.

The NFL goes through a "slash" vogue every decade or so. Kordell Stewart became the original Slash (not counting the Guns N' Roses guitarist, of course) when he played an all-purpose role for the Steelers in the mid-1990s. Then came the Wildcat craze of 2008, when the Dolphins used running back Ronnie Brown as a package quarterback, and suddenly lots of teams were direct-snapping to backs, receivers and even moonlighting defenders.

Stewart may have blazed a trail for future mobile quarterbacks, but his early all-purpose role never caught on (it was still a curiosity when Jackson took on a similar role last season, over 20 years later). The Dolphins' Wildcat begat the brief read-option revolution of the early 2010s, but while the gadget plays seeped into regular playbooks, the gadget quarterbacks didn't stick around for long. The few players who tried to carve out slash-type roles (late-career Tebow, Pat White) fizzled quickly.

But things could be different this time. Hill's success may have finally opened the eyes of coaches and GMs to the possibility of doing more with their third-string quarterbacks than inactivating them on Sundays. And that may open the door for players like Fitzgerald, Dungey and others to carve out careers as more than camp arms and scout-team Russell Wilson impersonators.

Let's hope so. These young players are fun to watch and root for, and the NFL is more interesting when backup quarterbacks do more than hang around like fire extinguishers, waiting for emergencies.

   

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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