It is often said that a 4th round pick in the draft or perhaps $4 million a season in salary is a worthy price for a top shelf backup. And yet, how many teams actually invest that heavily? Peyton Manning had Jim Sorgi and the calamitous Curtis Painter. Tom Brady had Brian Hoyer. Drew Brees had Chase Daniel. Aaron Rodgers had a 7th round Matt Flynn before he had UDFA Graham Harrell. Without looking, how many current backups can you name for Matt Ryan, Big Ben, Matt Schaub, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Eli Manning, or Cam Newton?
The exceptions are future starter hopefuls behind old starters such as Brock Osweiler and Ryan Mallett or insurance policies for (at the time) unproven starter situations like Kirk Cousins and Brian Brohm. Of them all, only Cousins could really be argued as being drafted for the purposes of being a long term backup, and he only cost a 4th round pick, had low salary, and had very strong potential as a trade chip in the future.
There are two ways to view the value of a backup quarterback. The first is the backup as insurance policy. Jim Sorgi and Matt Flynn are good examples of low cost, quality insurance policies that reduced the damage of losing a franchise quarterback for a few games during a season. Curtis Painter shows the absolute downside of a poor insurance plan, though without Painter there probably isn’t an exec of the year award on Ryan Grigson’s desk right now. Most people view the backup quarterback in this manner. Since major injuries to starting quarterbacks are so rare, most teams do not feel the need to make a major investment in an insurance policy they will probably never need.
The second view of the backup quarterback is that of the investment. It has been used masterfully in the past by the Ron Wolf / Ted Thompson era Packers, the Andy Reid Eagles, and now the John Schneider Seahawks. This philosophy acquires quarterbacks at low cost, develops them behind a highly established starter, and then moves them later at a profit. The Packers used this method to develop and move quarterbacks like Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks, and Matt Hasselbeck. The Eagles did so with Kevin Kolb and actually traded their starter (Donovan McNabb) when low cost backup Michael Vick proved superior. I suspect they signed Vince Young on the cheap hoping to repair his image and value for a future trade. Seattle acquired Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Flynn, and Russell Wilson, and successfully traded the two quarterbacks that failed to win the starting job.
“There’s different avenues we can go, obviously,” Schneider said Monday morning on 710 ESPN Seattle radio. “We have a plan in place and it’s contingent on who that player is. There’s veterans who are available right now, some very talented guys actually, and some guys guys that are all football and have been down that road before. … And then there’s also guys in the draft that we think are pretty interesting.
“We have a plan and we’re gonna take it as it comes. We’re not gonna force anything and we’re not gonna get in a situation where we have our hands tied.”
It’s been documented elsewhere that John Schneider described finding a quarterback that is a hard worker, a leader, an enabler… all that good “tilt the field” kind of stuff. Someone with upside, too.
To me, it’s fairly clear from this language that Seattle is looking for another “investment” style backup- someone that they can acquire at low cost and turn into a profit down the road. Green Bay used their backup quarterback position as a draft pick generator. That’s why they are looking at quarterbacks every year. John Schneider was Ted Thompson’s right hand man in Green Bay and has gone on record saying that he searches for quarterbacks every year.
Russell Wilson is the only quarterback on the roster today, although Chris Mortensen reports that the Seahawks will soon re-sign Josh Portis. Schneider’s “hands tied” comment reads to me as wanting to keep options open. Seattle doesn’t need to tax themselves with quarterback reps to determine the starter as they did last season, so they could have Portis, a free agent signing, and a draft pick duke things out in August and move from there. Seattle entered last preseason with four quarterbacks on their roster, and gave a tryout to GJ Kinne, who would have been the fifth had they signed him.
With that in mind, here are some names to throw against the wall. It goes without saying, most of the free agent options suck:
Josh Portis: Portis will reportedly be signed back soon. He has excellent mobility, arm talent, and can check through multiple reads. Unfortunately, he received extremely few reps last preseason and his performance vs. Oakland suffered greatly as a result. I suspect that Seattle always hoped to bring Portis back for another training camp but wanted to wait until after dealing Flynn to avoid tipping their hand.
Vince Young: Mortensen linked Young to the Seahawks earlier today on twitter (“add Vince Young to the list” were his exact words), though it’s unclear if he’s sourced or speculating. Vince Young is an obvious candidate in that he’s low cost, has the athleticism in abundance for read option, and has the potential to rehabilitate his image and turn into a potential trade chip down the road (he’s 30 next offseason, so it wouldn’t be anything exorbitant even in a best case scenario). Where Young does not fit is in the leadership and work ethic criteria, though it’s possible he might be a changed man after some of the hard times he’s been through. Young comes with the added perk of not costing Seattle any compensatory pick consideration in 2014, as he was released by the Bills in 2012.
Tyler Thigpen: Many are liking the Seahawks to Tyler Thigpen who was recently made a free agent when Buffalo voided the 3rd year of his contract. Thigpen actually beat out Vince Young for the 3rd quarterback job in Buffalo last season (after taking a pay cut). Rob could probably tell you more about Thigpen than I can, but what I can say is that he’s more mobile than his combine 40 time would indicate, and that he had a 18/12 TD/INT ratio with a good number of rushing yards during his only starting season (at Kansas City). Unfortunately, he has a very low career completion rate and is the definition of a journeyman. Barring a revelation, it’s hard to see Thigpen turning into a trade chip down the road, so I see him as more of a placeholder than anything else.
Matt Leinart: Seattle very nearly signed Matt Leinart in 2011 with a chance to compete for the starting job, but Leinart turned down that chance to remain a sure backup for Houston. He lasted just one more year for the Texans before lasting just one year in Oakland. There have been some unsourced rumors connecting Leinart to Seatttle, but I don’t think Seattle would go this direction until after the draft, if at all. He wouldn’t be much of a read option quarterback, and he lacks the intangibles John Schneider prefers.
John Skelton: Skelton was released a few hours ago, probably to make room for an imminent Carson Palmer acquisition. Skelton can be elusive in the pocket but he’s not a mobile quarterback, and he doesn’t have the kind of frame for constant hard contact. That plus he’s horrible.
Brady Quinn: How bad was Carolina when they lost to Kansas City 27-21 last season? Brady Quinn put on a clinic, completing 83% of his passes for 8.7 yards per attempt with 2 TDs and no picks, good for a 132.1 passer rating. For the season though? He completed 57% of his passes for 5.8 yards per attempt with a 2/8 TD/INT ratio. Yikes. Amazingly, that was the only game Carolina lost in their final six contests.
Kellen Clemens: Another lousy journeyman nearing 30.
Seneca Wallace: Wallace (33 years old in August) could actually make sense as an emergency 1 year stopgap option should everything else fall through.
Troy Smith: Smith is a lot like an older, more experienced Josh Portis. I’ll admit to being a fan, both at Ohio State and during his time with the 49ers in the Singletary era. Unfortunately, the last time that Smith made a 53 man roster was during said era (2010). He was a highly inconsistent quarterback, but he had his moments. He has a terrific arm and is famous for his speed. Unfortunately, he’s probably too old to flip for a pick down the road. He turns 29 this July, and is a long way away from reaching his potential.
Tarvaris Jackson (if released in August): With comments from up on high in Buffalo hinting at a move for a quarterback in the draft and the addition of Kevin Kolb for competition, the odds of Tarvaris Jackson making the 53 man roster seem to be on shaky ground. His contract is only for $1.75 million though, which could act as great job security even if he fails to earn the starting job. That said, none of that money is guaranteed, and if Jackson ends up the odd man out if Buffalo drafts a quarterback and only carries two on the roster. Jackson has obvious familiarity here and posted a 93 passer rating over his final five starts (when he was approaching full health) during the 2011 season in Seattle.
Darron Thomas: Undrafted and unsigned, Thomas has a point guard skillset at quarterback. He was highly productive in a read option system and (in my opinion) his flaws were blown far out of proportion, although I am not privy to the interviews and private investigator reports NFL teams have. He was part of the Calgary Stampeders practice roster last season. Chandler Harnish and Case Keenum are currently on practice squads and could be worth keeping an eye on as it’s not uncommon for teams to release fringe-roster players in June.
Tim Tebow (if released): His completion rate is 48% for his career. Yet he also has a respectable career 17/9 TD/INT ratio and a 75.2 career passer rating. Tebow’s intangibles and leadership are legendary, as his college career and 2011 season put on full display. If Tebow was very low cost, I think he could be worth a flier on the 90 man preseason roster, but trading for him would require a draft pick of some kind and would mean assuming his $2.6 million cap hit in 2013. There is no way trading for Tebow makes sense, but in the event he is released he could be worth considering for the purposes of preseason competition.
Tomorrow I’ll have a follow up post discussing some of the draft options. As you can see, it’s not likely that Seattle will find much from free agency, though I do think Seattle will at least add a body or two from the list above for the sake of competition.