Ranking the backup QBs for the 2021 NFL season
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Ranking the backup QBs for the 2021 NFL season

More than half the NFL teams will enter the 2021 season with a new backup quarterback. The draft also thrust some high-ceiling players into the league's QB2 mix. Here is how teams' backup situations stack up going into the year.

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32. Mike White

Mike White
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This is White's fourth NFL season, but the Western Kentucky product has yet to play in a regular-season game. The Jets have White stationed as Zach Wilson's backup in an interesting setup in which the team has no active-roster QBs with any game reps. Journeyman (putting it mildly) Josh Johnson is on the team's practice squad, at least. White thrived as a mid-major QB, throwing 37 touchdown passes for the Conference USA-based Hilltoppers in 2016. He closed his college career with two 4,000-yard seasons, leading to Dallas drafting him in Round 5 in 2018.

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31. Logan Woodside

Logan Woodside
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Tannehill has managed to shake the injury problems that plagued him in Miami, going through two Tennessee seasons unscathed. The Titans quarterback has run into a COVID-19 issue that provides an example of what could happen should the team need to use another QB this year. The Titans again have Woodside as their backup, though they do have Matt Barkley on their practice squad. An ex-Bengals Round 7 pick, Woodside has yet to throw a meaningful regular-season pass. He did dominate at Toledo, throwing 45 TD passes as a junior. But the Titans are rolling the dice here for a second straight year.

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30. Davis Mills

Davis Mills
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Houston will backstop Tyrod Taylor with Mills. Baker Mayfield and Justin Herbert took over for Taylor quickly, but the free-agent signing will likely see his most run since his third and final year as the Bills' QB1 (2017). For being Scouts Inc.'s 63rd overall prospect this year, Mills did not produce much at Stanford. He left Palo Alto with 18 touchdown passes in two abbreviated seasons as a starter. And he has walked into a Josh Rosen-level situation to start his NFL career. The third-round pick also is slated to sit ahead of Deshaun Watson on the depth chart, adding an odd wrinkle to start his career.

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29. David Blough

David Blough
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As of now, the Lions have just Blough behind Jared Goff. Aaron Rodgers' backup of the past two years, Tim Boyle was slated to start the season as Detroit's QB2. But an injury will force Blough up a spot, barring a Lions addition. Blough made his debut as a rookie for a 2019 Lions team that lost two QBs to injury. In five Blough starts, Detroit went 0-5 as the Matt Patricia era waned. Blough did start for four seasons at Purdue, throwing 25 touchdown passes as a sophomore and senior. 

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28. Tyler Huntley

Tyler Huntley
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Narrowly losing the preseason passing title to Nathan Peterman, Huntley did receive extensive playing time. He attempted 34 passes in a near-full-game outing against Washington, throwing four touchdown passes. Huntley received some mop-up action as a rookie and beat out Trace McSorley for Baltimore's backup job this year. The ex-Utah Ute has some dual-threat ability, which the Ravens prefer, having surpassed 500 rushing yards as a sophomore in 2017. But the Ravens are certainly less equipped behind Lamar Jackson this year, after rostering RG3 for the past three seasons.

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27. Jacob Eason

Jacob Eason
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

After some wobbly practice performances that saw Sam Ehlinger pull even in the Colts' QB2 race, Eason played better in games and won the job. He now has it by default, with Ehlinger on IR. Carson Wentz's foot injury and COVID-19 list stay gave Eason plenty of work this summer as well. A starter at Georgia in 2016, Eason joined Justin Fields in losing a job to Jake Fromm and transferring. He resurfaced at Washington and flashed as a junior in 2019. The fourth-rounder has yet to throw a regular-season pass, having sat behind Philip Rivers and Jacoby Brissett as a rookie.

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26. Kellen Mond

Kellen Mond
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Long-term, Mond has a higher ceiling than most players on this list. But entering his rookie season, the Texas A&M alum would likely be battling uphill were Kirk Cousins to be unavailable. Mond submitted an uneven preseason marred by his COVID-19 contraction. With Cousins, one of the NFL's staunchest anti-vaccine spokesmen, the Vikings may be forced to use Mond at some point. Mond, however, held his own against elite competition with the Aggies and is coming off a senior season with 19 TD passes and three INTs. Ideally, he sits throughout this season.

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25. Josh Rosen

Josh Rosen
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Ability-wise, Rosen would probably reside ahead of a few players above him here. But the ex-UCLA star is on NFL team No. 5 in less than four seasons and just failed to impress Kyle Shanahan. The pocket passer who went in the top 10 of the 2018 draft was thrust into two terrible situations to start his career, being thrown into the fire on a bad Cardinals team and being traded to an even worse Dolphins squad after one year, but time is running out. Fortunately for the Falcons, Matt Ryan has missed three games in 13 years. 

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24. Cooper Rush

Cooper Rush
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys certainly are pro-Rush, having reacquired him and given him the backup job after cutting Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci. But Rush is a Central Michigan alum who has never thrown a meaningful regular-season pass. That said, Rush was Dak Prescott's backup from 2017-19. That is a lot of roster time for no relevant game action. The former undrafted free agent did post three seasons of 20-plus TD passes as a Chippewa from 2014-16 and has now impressed multiple Cowboys coaching staffs. 

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23. P.J. Walker

P.J. Walker
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Where is a good place to slot the would-be 2020 XFL MVP? It is likely many current NFL backups would have starred under those circumstances, and Walker was an NFL workout body prior to that stretch. Walker filled in for Teddy Bridgewater in a Panthers win last season but saw a rough Week 17 outing skew his TD-INT ratio (1-5) in his first NFL season. Walker, one of six  Temple players on this year's Panthers roster, has Matt Rhule's trust after having worked with him in college. That will likely matter. Sam Darnold has maxed out at 13 starts in a season thus far.

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22. C.J. Beathard

C.J. Beathard
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Beathard received a late-summer promotion, rising into the Jaguars' backup role after the team traded Gardner Minshew. An Iowa alum and grandson of Hall of Fame GM Bobby Beathard, the fifth-year QB at least brings experience. He has 12 NFL starts but went 2-10 in those. Last season, however, the former third-round pick closed well as the 49ers' last man standing. With Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Mullens out, Beathard finished with a 6-0 TD-INT ratio and joined Jeff Wilson in leading the team past Arizona in a must-win spot for the latter in Week 16. Beathard no longer has Kyle Shanahan pulling the strings, however.

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21. Brandon Allen

Brandon Allen
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Allen has been thrust into some bad spots over the past two years, replacing Joe Flacco on a Broncos offense with scant weaponry in 2019 and stepping behind a bottom-tier Bengals offensive line late last season. The Arkansas alum has been in the NFL since 2016, however, and did play well in two of his three Denver starts. He also threw for 371 yards and two touchdowns in a shootout win in Houston last year. Allen is not a great option behind Joe Burrow, but after Ryan Finley's exit, he is the only other QB on Cincinnati's roster.

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20. Mike Glennon

Mike Glennon
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Going into his ninth season, Glennon is now on team No. 6. Formerly a Buccaneers starter and a player the Bears once paid starter-level money (for one season), Glennon has more experience than many current QB2s. The 6-foot-7 passer has made 27 starts. His teams went 6-21 in those games, though he has only quarterbacked bad teams -- two of them (the 2013 Bucs and 2020 Jaguars) being woeful enough to secure the following year's No. 1 pick. Glennon did have a positive TD-INT ratio on a terrible Jags team, but the Giants probably downgraded at backup QB in letting Colt McCoy walk.

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19. Brian Hoyer

Brian Hoyer
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

A few years ago, Hoyer would rank much higher. But the season in which he piloted the Texans to the playoffs was six years ago. The soon-to-be 36-year-old QB has been on four teams since. Hoyer did not look good in his past two starts -- against the Chiefs as a Patriot last year and a loss to a skeleton-crew Dolphins squad as a Colt in 2019 -- and is only in line to back up Mac Jones due to the team viewing Cam Newton as too high-profile for such a role. Still, Hoyer has 39 career starts. The Patriots would not be doomed if the seven-team veteran were to make a couple more in 2021.

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18. Taylor Heinicke

Taylor Heinicke
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

This might be too high. Heinicke was out of football for most of last season and has one regular-season start (with the 2018 Panthers) since being a 2015 undrafted free agent. But still. Heinicke went toe to toe with Tom Brady, despite a far worse supporting cast, in a surprisingly entertaining wild-card game that ended with the Old Dominion alum accounting for 352 yards and two touchdowns. Given Ryan Fitzpatrick's high-variance nature and his 39th birthday approaching, Heinicke figures to be at least a marginal factor in Washington's higher-stakes 2021 season.

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17. Mason Rudolph

Mason Rudolph
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This is Year 4 for Rudolph, who signed an extension to take him beyond his rookie contract this offseason. In his extension audition in 2019, Rudolph finished last in Next Gen Stats' average completed air yards metric. However, the Oklahoma State product has been with the Steelers since 2018 and did look better in the team's 2020 finale -- which featured a cross-section of Pittsburgh backups and starters against Cleveland -- and would be moderately equipped to keep the Steelers afloat this year. Ben Roethlisberger is 39, has run into frequent injury issues, and is playing behind a worse O-line. Rudolph will likely play more in 2021.

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16. Geno Smith

Geno Smith
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

It has just been so long since Smith saw extensive time. I.K. Enemkpali's 2015 locker-room sucker punch stopped Smith's starter run, though it was not looking promising prior to that encounter, and he has made two starts in the past six years. Chase Daniel would marvel at this light workload. Russell Wilson has never missed a game, putting the Seahawks in a good spot here. They did re-sign Smith for a third season, indicating trust in the ex-erratic Jet. In playing behind Wilson, Philip Rivers, and Eli Manning since 2017, Smith has found a low-stress way to bank low-seven-figure salaries.

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15. John Wolford

John Wolford
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Were Wolford on almost any other team, he would rank much lower. But this is Wolford feat. Sean McVay, elevating the former Alliance of American Football arm considerably. Wolford's late-season cameo satisfied McVay to the point it increased the coach's desire to trade Jared Goff. A Wake Forest alum, Wolford did throw 29 TD passes and just six interceptions as a senior in 2017 and helped the Rams to a two-score win over the Cardinals in Week 17. He is now in Year 3 with Los Angeles, having landed in a favorable situation.

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14. Chase Daniel

Chase Daniel
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While Geno Smith is signing for near-league-minimum money annually, teams continue to pay up for Daniel's wisdom. For his career, the 12th-year veteran still is under 300 pass attempts and has thrown just eight TD passes. But the Chargers hired him to mentor their burgeoning superstar. Justin Herbert will learn from a player who teamed with new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi in New Orleans. Daniel helped the Bears to the 2018 NFC North title but has still made just three starts over the past six years. If QB1 work is unattainable, Daniel's career represents a nice fallback option for aspiring passers.

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13. Drew Lock

Drew Lock
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Erratic as a starter, Lock does give the Broncos a boom-or-bust backup option. The former second-round pick torched a playoff-bound Texans team in 2019 and had moments as an NFL sophomore last season. He completed a 21-point comeback to beat the Chargers. But Lock tying for the NFL INT lead despite missing three games was eye-opening. Lock has talent and may well resurface as the Broncos' starter this season, should this become a yo-yo situation similar to the 2020 Bears' efforts, but Denver's QB track record certainly points toward the third-year passer becoming a career backup.

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12. Blaine Gabbert

Blaine Gabbert
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The final part of this list's Mizzou sector. With the Buccaneers employing a statuesque 44-year-old starter ahead of a 17-game season, it would stand to reason Gabbert would see time. But betting against Tom Brady has become a dicey proposition. He has not missed a game due to injury in 13 years. Still, Gabbert has stabilized his career under Bruce Arians. This marks Gabbert's fourth year with Arians, whose final Arizona year involved five Gabbert starts. The ex-first-round pick fared decently with the Cardinals and has backed up Brady and Jameis Winston, putting his miserable Jaguars stint well behind him.

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11. Colt McCoy

Colt McCoy
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The Giants were only in that strange playoff scenario in Week 17 because McCoy quarterbacked them to their top 2020 win -- a 17-12 defense-powered slog in Seattle. McCoy spent six seasons in one system in Washington, accumulating experience while mostly not playing in games, but proved capable in the Giants' overmatched offense on the fly last season. Kyler Murray has not missed a game as a pro, though he was forced out of Arizona's season finale last year. McCoy represents an upgrade for Kliff Kingsbury's squad. This will be the former Browns third-round pick's 12th NFL season.

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10. Chad Henne

Chad Henne
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Like Wolford, Henne is elevated by his situation. Henne on his own might be out of the league by now. But this is Henne's fourth season in Kansas City, where he works with one of the all-time great offensive minds. Andy Reid coaxed Matt Moore to two solid performances in 2019, helping the Chiefs to a bye while Henne was injured, and got just enough from Henne in the Chiefs' dire divisional-round spot to keep the 2020 team on course for the Super Bowl. The former Dolphins second-round pick is 18-36 as a starter and obviously marks a steep downgrade from Patrick Mahomes. But Reid-Henne could likely steal some wins if necessary.

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9. Joe Flacco

Joe Flacco
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

On paper, Flacco is a good backup investment. He is a former Super Bowl MVP who worked as a starter for 10 seasons and change. Of course, he is on record as indicating it is not his job to help young QBs. And in his previous two such situations, with Lamar Jackson and Drew Lock, scant evidence emerged of Flacco being particularly helpful. He is now on a team with Jalen Hurts, a raw prospect who would benefit from a mentor type. Flacco started four Jets games last season, looking out of place on a young team in crisis. It will be interesting to see if his role changes now that Gardner Minshew is in Philly.

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8. Jordan Love

Jordan Love

Zagging with their quarterback plan compared to the rest of the teams that drafted first-round passers since the 2011 CBA made rookie QB deals major roster-building tools, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers back and intend to put off the Love era for another year. No team has sat a first-round QB for two full seasons since Brett Favre kept Rodgers on the bench in 2006. Love showed glimpses of his first-round talent this preseason but still needs considerable work. Rodgers' holdout did allow Love to soak up first-team reps this offseason, putting him in a better position in the event of an injury or another unforeseen Rodgers development.

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7. Mitchell Trubisky

Mitchell Trubisky
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Trubisky totaled 231 preseason passing yards in the preseason; 221 of those came against the Bears in a low-profile statement game. The maligned former No. 2 overall pick should benefit from a year out of the spotlight. Sitting behind Josh Allen with experienced OC Brian Daboll represents one of the best possible fits. Trubisky piloted the Bears to key wins down the stretch last season, albeit against bad competition, and has an interesting top-five QBR finish on his resume (2018). As a backup, he should be plenty capable of stepping in this season.

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6. Jacoby Brissett

Jacoby Brissett
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

This season will break Brissett's unusual starter-backup boomerang path, with the former Patriots draftee moving from Philip Rivers' caddy to Tua Tagovailoa's. Brissett managed an 18-6 TD-INT ratio with the 2019 Colts, after Andrew Luck's surprise retirement, and improved on his emergency-starter 2017 work. Brissett still has not gone through a QB1 offseason. But the sixth-year passer presents one of the top combinations of age (28), starter experience (32 games), and capability of this year's QB2 lot. Will he stay Tagovailoa's backup or become Deshaun Watson's?

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5. Marcus Mariota

Marcus Mariota
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mariota did not end up pushing Derek Carr for the Raiders' starting job last year and has largely been a nonfactor since the Titans benched him in October 2019. But this is a former No. 2 overall pick who led a playoff comeback and allowed for a seamless transition when Carr went down during a nationally televised late-season game last season. The Chargers struggled to contain Mariota in that game, illustrating the former dual-threat Heisman winner's off-the-bench capabilities. In his second year in Jon Gruden's offense, Mariota should be in fine position for relief duty as his career crossroads run extends.

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4. Case Keenum

Case Keenum
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At this point, it can be safely confirmed that Keenum's 2017 season was an aberration. But the veteran reaching those heights for a 13-3 Vikings team lifts him near the top of a backup list. And Keenum is still just 33. He is entering his third season working with Kevin Stefanski, his QBs coach during the 2017 slate that ended with the emergency Minnesota starter as DVOA's top passer and the Vikings in the NFC championship game. Keenum did not deliver for the Broncos or Washington in 2018 and '19 but is back in friendly confines with Stefanski and should keep the Browns in gear if Baker Mayfield misses time.

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3. Taysom Hill

Taysom Hill
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Hill managing to take Drew Brees off the field during a 2018 MVP push illustrates how highly the Saints value his skill set, and his pure QB work in 2020 (73% completion rate on 7.7 yards per attempt) revealed unexpected capabilities as a backup. In Sean Payton's offense for a fifth year, Hill will be in a position to continue his gadget mastery and give New Orleans solid Jameis Winston insurance. Hill failing to take the post-Brees starter reins may cement his status as a uniquely used backup. Given his contributions compared to most QB2s, that is not a bad place to reside in the grand scheme. 

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2. Trey Lance

Trey Lance
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

This season slots two potential impact starters in backup roles. Kyle Shanahan is preparing to throw Lance packages at defenses during what promises to be Jimmy Garoppolo's final year as San Francisco's starter. With Lance having one season of experience at the Division I-FCS level and missing most of the 2020 season, it makes sense for the 49ers to be patient. Lance delivered some eye-popping preseason plays and appears on the precipice of having one of the most impactful roles in the history of the backup quarterback role. Even as a reserve, the No. 3 overall pick could have a major say in the NFC championship race.

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1. Justin Fields

Justin Fields
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Fields should beat Lance in graduating from backup status, but the Bears have insisted all offseason they will start Andy Dalton in Week 1. Fields will be the latest passer attempting to reverse a bad trend for Ohio State arms in the NFL. He figures to have by far the best chance of doing that, having shown star traits during Chicago's preseason docket. Fields started two years in Columbus, compared to Dwayne Haskins' one, giving him a larger sample size for the Bears to judge. It would be stunning if he did not unseat Dalton by Halloween. And that may be a conservative deadline.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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