by Adrian Hasenmayer, FOXSports.com
In the modern NFL, forget about your starting quarterback lasting the entire season
Quarterback is still king and rates as the most important position on the field, but in today's NFL teams often go through as many as three QBs in simply surviving the regular season. Even with rules slanted to protect the passer, a strong benefits package is suggested if you're an NFL quarterback.
TOP 99 FOR '09 The Steelers are champs, but who's the NFL's best player? Peter Schrager emerges from his man cave with his Top 99 players for '09.
So which teams are best positioned to not just survive, but flourish at quarterback in 2009? For the purposes of our rankings, the goal for every team is to find two, if not three, guys who can come in and start in case of injury emergencies. Ideally, the backups would include a veteran who has been through the NFL battles and a young, talented prodigy the team is grooming for the future.
A great starting QB alone is most important, but a lack of solid backups can mean a steep drop. Super Bowl experience definitely helps, since it's all about winning.
RANKING THE NFL'S QB PACKAGES
No. Team Depth chart Breakdown
Drew Brees is the fuel and engine for the Saints' high-powered offense. Consider that New Orleans led the NFL in scoring in '08 despite injuries to Marcus Colston, Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister. If Brees goes down, the Saints should/could conceivably still sneak into the playoffs if all of their offensive weapons are standing. Mark Brunell's well past his glory days, but in the Saints' system should at least keep them competitive, as should Harrington. While New Orleans doesn't have the perfect package, they're at least three-deep at the game's most important position.
With two Super Bowls in five seasons, Big Ben is now among the top five — maybe even the top three — quarterbacks in the NFL. He's got the big arm, the elusiveness and calm under pressure. But the thing about Pittsburgh is, their system is built on consistency and continuity. So for most teams, Charlie Batch as backup QB could be an issue — but not in Steeltown, where he has already shown his ability to keep this team (behind a historically-good run game and defense) afloat. Dixon gives Mike Tomlin a versatile "Wildcat" threat, if he so chooses.
Rivers has proved himself to be the fiery leader and franchise quarterback, coming one road AFC title game loss to New England in '07 away from a Super Bowl shot. While he gives the Chargers a great shot of getting over the super hump, backup Billy Volek is a solid veteran who has playoff wins to fall back on. Along with prospect Charlie Whitehurst, San Diego GM A.J. Smith has the Bolts well-positioned in case of a serious injury bug.
There has been plenty of focus around Tony Romo's off-field action, but he's been pretty good on it. At least during the regular season. He's got the numbers and individual accolades (Pro Bowl berths in 2006 and 2007), but not the respect earned through playoff success. This year he also has no T.O., which Dallas hopes will allow him to lead more effectively. If Romo gets injured, this year they traded for backup Jon Kitna as a strong No. 2 — especially from the character POV. Kitna is one of the tougher, more well-respected players in football and should prove a great outlet for Romo as he seeks to take control of the Dallas locker room.
Brian St. Pierre
Essentially, the Cards are 1½ players deep at QB, led of course by the veteran Warner — coming off leading the Cards to their first Super Bowl appearance. Hall of Fame or not, even in his late 30s he delivers huge passing numbers (4,583 yards, 30 TDs in 2008). The big question: If Kurt got hurt last year, could Matt Leinart have led 'Zona to the Super Bowl? Likely not, though at least Leinart's working hard this offseason.
Delhomme is set as Carolina's franchise quarterback and one of the better clutch arms in the business, plus with two division titles and a Super Bowl trip on his resume. If Jake goes down, their backup should keep them headed toward the playoffs. McCown has been a part-time starter in the league, but mostly on bad teams like Arizona and Oakland. Moore was overmatched in three emergency starts as a rookie in '07, but is young enough for the Panthers to groom for the future.
By rallying his Eagles to within a few minutes of the Super Bowl, Donovan McNabb has re-established himself among the game's elite passers. Still, his injury history begs the question, "What if?" The jury is out on 2007 draft pick Kevin Kolb, who was forced to face the Ravens during a second-half in Baltimore in his only chance to snatch the starting gig from Philly's No. 5. At least Feeley has helped guide the Eagles during tough stretches minus McNabb in the past, giving Andy Reid an option of confidence.
The man is back, and all of New England can breathe sighs of relief. But what if Brady, the three-time Super Bowl champion, gets hurt again? Well, we scoffed at the Pats' chances last September when Mr. Perfect got injured because Matt Cassel — a dude who had not started a game since freaking high school. Then Cassel turned in a Pro Bowl season. Could Bill Belichick do it again with NFL mysteries O'Connell, Gutierrez and Hoyer? Highly unlikely.
The Colts should move to L.A., as they'd be the perfect dweller in such a major city built on a series of earthquake-prone faults. Hey, they've got Peyton Manning, so they should have one of football's top two QB groups, right? Well heaven forbid, what will happen to the team if Manning ever DOES get injured? With all due apologies, Jim Sorgi, Curtis Painter and Chris Crane (who???) would not cause any defensive coordinators one less wink at night. Maybe the gambling Colts should move to Las Vegas instead.
Everyone around the Bengals is aglow from watching Carson Palmer's offseason activity. With their two-time Pro Bowler seemingly in perfect health, the Bengals' passing game should come back to life — considering Palmer averaged 28 TD passes per season from 2005-07. Behind him, not too much. J.T. O'Sullivan turns 30 in August and whiffed on his best shot as a No. 1 in San Francisco last season. Neither Carson's little brother (Jordan, with two career picks in 12 passes) or Billy Farris have any NFL success to their credit.
John Parker Wilson
Ryan was a rookie revelation in 2008, and all signs point to even further development as a soph — both from minicamp reports and the addition of stud TE Tony Gonzalez, which should expedite his evolution. Behind Ryan, however, there's not much else. Redman is a veteran with 10 career starts, but a journeyman who was out of the league from 2004-06. Behind him are two young prospects, but already playing behind a second-year QB Atlanta would be better served by a veteran with more game experience.
Gibran Hamdan (RFA)
Edwards is the perfect quarterback to build around, which is exactly what Buffalo has done this offseason — the T.O. addition being a biggest move. If Terrell Owens can enhance and not inhibit Edwards' development, it's a huge win for the Bills. Credit Buffalo for a nice little pickup this offseason at their backup spot, grabbing Ryan Fitzpatrick from Cincy — who played admirably (especially down the stretch) while filling in for Carson Palmer in '08.
Believe it or not, this is not a bad group in Houston. While this is a make-or-break season for Schuab, he has shown enough in two seasons as the Texans' starter to give them valid playoff hopes. His biggest issue has been staying healthy, as he missed five games in each of the past two seasons. But Houston may not have too big of a problem as they should have a dcent battle for the No. 2 spot this summer, as ex-Lions starter Dan Orlovsky takes on former Bears QB Rex Grossman. While both have their warts, Orlovsky often gave the terrible Lions their best chance at winning in '08 and Grossman did lead the Bears to the Super Bowl once. It could be worse.
Whereas the Dolphins were a total mess two seasons ago throughout the Cam Cameron nightmare, Bill Parcells has transformed his QB depth chart and now has three interesting options. The starter Pennington played keep-away to near-perfection en route to leading to Dolphins to the AFC East title last year while winning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors. But Miami really likes Chad Henne as a big-time QB prospect, while they also drafted the versatile Pat White this April as the possibly the perfect threat in their patented "Wildcat" offense.
After total, utter chaos reigned at the position last season, give it up to new general manager Scott Pioli for scoring a QB stud in Matt Cassel, who threw for 3,693 yards, 21 TDs and 11 interceptions while being Tom Brady-Light in New England. He should stabilize the pocket, but behind him is Thigpen (played well at times in 2008) and Croyle (another young gun whom K.C. once thought was the QB of the future. There are worse situations in the league.
Who'd have thought Joe Flacco would rescue the Ravens last season? While he was more of a game manager than Atlanta's fellow rookie Matt Ryan (partially thanks to a dominating defense behind him), like Ryan and the Falcons Baltimore is surprisingly barren at backup quarterback. Nos. 2 and 3 on the depth chart, Smith and Beck have combined for six NFL starts (1-5 combined record as starter). If Flacco goes down, Baltimore's season is immediately in jeopardy.
If former Super Bowl champion Eli Manning gets hurt for an extended period, watch the Giants' offense go into "three yards and a cloud of dust" mode. Somehow, former mega-draft bust David Carr has found a home as New York's backup — despite being scarred seemingly beyond repair from being a pinata in Houston for five seasons. Behind Carr are two youngsters sans snaps at this level, meaning Big Blue fans should offer armed escorts and bubble-wrap any time Eli steps outside his door.
One of the more overlooked story angles lost in all the Brett Favre hubbub was how well Aaron Rodgers played. He put up legitmate Pro Bowl-type numbers in his first season as starter, with 4,038 yards and 28 touchdown passes. Problem is, the Pack struggled mightily on defense and fell to double digits in the loss column. While Rodgers seems to have proved himself — at least on paper — his backups leave zero safety net for Green Bay in case of injury. I'd be fine with Doug Pederson at this point.
Well, at least now the Bears finally have one legitimate, top-shelf QB. They just may not have anyone behind him if Cutler ever gets hurt. First, how good is Cutler? Critics point to his offseason pouting in Denver, his 18 interceptions in 2008 and fact that he's never led a team to the playoffs. But he did have a horrible defense in Denver, which on paper the Bears should be an improvement. But Caleb Hanie and Brett Basanez as backups? Chicago's front office should be ashamed to head into the season with no proven backup.
Technically, the Titans are set with three guys who can play right now with Collins, Young and Ramsey. But there are big chinks in everyone's persona. Collins, while he enjoyed a career revival and is entrenched as the team's starter, is not your elite passer expected to win battles against the Bradys, Mannings or other NFL top guns. Vince Young is trying to stunt a downward career spiral. Ramsey is backup fodder, though he is tough and will compete. At least the Titans have three guys who should keep the team competitive, pending Young's state of mind.
Seattle's ranking all has to do with which Matt Hasselbeck is available this season — the healthy fireplug who led the 'Hawks to a Super Bowl XL appearance, or the bald guy with the bum arm. Wallace has had specs of success, but too sporadic to consider him anything more than a career backup. Many insiders were surprised Seattle did not draft Mark Sanchez with its No. 4 pick in the draft, seeing as they do not have a franchise QB to groom for the post-Hasselbeck era.
Can Marc Bulger revive his career? He probably can with a real live NFL offensive line around him. Once a Pro Bowl-caliber QB, Bulger needs a big season after two straight years of struggles. The Rams added Kyle Boller as a backup, who seemed to be evolving in Baltimore until injuries cost him his 2008 season — and Joe Flacco stole his job. Other than that, this pocket has a few holes in it.
While he should not bear the brunt of the team's problems last season as the Jaguars came apart both on-field and off in 2008, David Garrard still only has one solid season as a starter under his belt. His backup Bouman was out of football last season and last took a meaningful NFL snap in 2005 — or several years before Twitter became a name in pop culture. Jack Del Rio's team is not positioned well for a season-wrecking injury.
The Redskins entertained deals for both Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez this offseason, and were major players in trade talks for each. That says everything about their lack of confidence in Jason Campbell, whom ex-coach Joe Gibbs recently said has rabbit ears. This is a huge year for Campbell, who must prove he is more than just an average guy. Todd Collins knows the offense inside and out, making him an excellent backup. The No. 3 spot appears to be a camp battle between two rookies coming off stud college careers. While the group is deep, the lack of a true No. 1 hurts their cause.
The good thing about a quarterback competition? Plenty of depth. The bad thing: No true No. 1 guy. Granted, Derek Anderson did lead the Browns to the playoff doorstep with a wildly successful 2007, but failed so much last year that most local fans and media expect former first-round pick Brady Quinn to win the gig this fall. If Quinn fulfills his hype, the Browns have a strong group of passers along with prospect Brett Ratliff, a Mangini favorite from his stint with the Jets. But if not, the Browns have to go QB hunting in next year's draft.
While it's tough to judge a rookie QB before he takes a big-league snap, Matt Stafford's presence is giving lots of Lions fans some real hope. Just don't hope for much THIS season. That said, if Daunte Culpepper is in much better shape (as he appeared to be in minicamps) and has his head back on straight, Detroit should win a few games this season ... which for them ain't too shabby. He can keep the seat warm until "The Franchise" is ready to take over.
Call the Jets' QB race "Young and Younger." Kellen Clemens has his chance to win the starting gig and is currently atop the team depth chart, but frankly, it's probably the best chance he'll ever have. Realistically he needs to light up the Jets' practice field this summer to have a shot at starting, judging from the buzz around New York's glamour rookie Sanchez. While the road may be rugged in '08, at least Rex Ryan and the Jets seemingly have their franchise quarterback.
For a team that hasn't yet decided on a starting QB, Tampa Bay sure does have plenty of interesting choices. They have three veterans gunning for the top spot in McCown, Leftwich and Griese (though Griese's absence at team OTAs may point to an eventual release). Behind them are two greenies — the Bucs' former hot QB prospect (Johnson) and current (Freeman, the team's first-round pick from April). With so many arms, has QB addict former head coach Jon Gruden really been fired?
The Raiders lead the league in recognizable names at quarterback. Other than that, this group leads in nothing but question marks. The jury is WAY out on former No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell "getting it" this season. Walter has never been good enough to get his shot by the Bay, and both Gradkowski and Frye flamed out in prior, brief stints as NFL starters. Give Al Davis credit for a smart move in bringing in feisty veteran Jeff Garcia this offseason, even though he seems a poor fit for the owner's "Mad Bomber" philosophy.
John David Booty
As of this writing, this ranking does not include a certain veteran from Mississippi. So judging the quarterbacks currently on the roster, it's clear why coach Brad Childress is entertaining Brett Favre — even at his age and physical condition. You can argue that Favre's been wrong in how he's handled all of his retirement drama the past few years, but not the reason for his current summer fling — the Vikings are one QB from a Super Bowl run. Sage Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson would be hoped simply not to screw it up as a starter.
There's a big battle going on for the Niners' top spot, but a battle of mediocrity considering past NFL experience. Hill is the incumbent, who put up surprising decent numbers last season (62.8% completed, 13 TDs, 8 INT). Mr. Smith is healed both mentally and physically, and OTA reports are grading him well. Huard is a solid veteran to help guide the youngsters. For a rebuilding team with no true bonafide franchise stud, at least the 49ers have some options .... even if they're not Joe Montana or Steve Young.
Well, Josh McDaniels, you'd better be right about Kyle Orton. Denver fans will not react well if Orton fails to lead Denver to the postseason, and especially if the Broncos' ex Jay Cutler gets to play deep into January. While Orton is 21-12 as an NFL starter and nearly pushed Chicago to the playoffs a year ago, he lacks the elite skillset of a Cutler. Some around Denver wonder if Orton will even beat out Chris Simms for the starting job. For reference, Simms' last starting experience came in 2006 in Tampa, where he went 0-3 with 1 TD and 7 INTs ... and somewhere, Broncos fans moan.