Dougherty: Packers must prioritize backup QB spot

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis.

Maybe Nick Foles will change the way a lot of NFL teams view backup quarterbacks.

Regardless of whether Foles played over his head during the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl run, the fact is Eagles general manager Howie Roseman made an uncommonly big investment last year when he signed Foles to back up Carson Wentz for $11 million over two years.

Roseman’s reward was a Super Bowl win with Foles at quarterback after Wentz’s season ended in December because of a knee injury.

It’s also a fact that Roseman had a luxury the Green Bay Packers and others don’t: Wentz is on his rookie contract with cap numbers ranging from $6 million to about $8.5 million through 2019.

The Packers, on the other hand, will devote about $20.5 million to $21 million in cap space to Aaron Rodgers the next two seasons, and his future numbers will shoot up $10 million or more if and when he signs a contract extension this offseason.

Still, Foles’ performance and Rodgers’ broken collarbone in 2017 are stark reminders that the No. 2 quarterback matters.

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It’s a tough call to put valuable resources into a backup quarterback in a league where there aren’t enough good starters to go around. But insurance isn’t free, and as Foles showed, it sometimes can pay off in a huge way.

A scout for an NFC team told me this past week he’d hold onto Foles if he were the Eagles even though a team looking for a starter might cough up a high draft pick for him.

“If (Roseman) trades Foles he’s out of his mind,” the scout said. “The backup quarterback just won you a Super Bowl, and if you didn’t have a good one with experience like that you’d be sunk. It’s a fine line.”

Following the Packers during Brett Favre’s ironman run made it easy to dismiss the backup quarterback position, though former Packers GM Ron Wolf didn’t. After trading for Favre in 1992, Wolf selected seven quarterbacks (all in the fourth round or later) in his nine drafts with the team.

In contrast, in the 12 drafts after Ted Thompson picked Aaron Rodgers in the first round in 2005, the former GM selected only five quarterbacks. That includes three (Ingle Martin, Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn) before Rodgers became a starter. In other words, once Thompson saw that Rodgers was his quarterback for the long term, he drafted only two quarterbacks in nine years. Two.

I have to admit, during most of that run I saw nothing wrong with Thompson’s approach. Looking back, Favre probably lulled me into thinking the backup position just didn’t matter. Thompson wasn’t going to find anyone nearly as good as Rodgers in the later rounds, so if the Packers lost him to injury, all was lost anyway.

But that’s the wrong way to look at it. While nobody is going to question Rodgers’ toughness, he has shown he will get hurt. He has sustained relatively serious injuries (two broken collarbones and a badly strained calf) and missed 16 games combined over the last five years. The Packers’ backup matters. And Foles showed that all doesn’t have to be lost with the No. 2 at the helm for a few games, even the biggest games.

I asked two NFL scouts their view of the backup quarterback job and both happened to consider it a priority. One said that if he were the Packers he’d consider drafting a backup as high as the second round; the other said he’d use a pick in any round and considers the backup job on par with left tackle.

“I know that sounds crazy,” he said.

It does, and I can’t say I’d go quite as far as either, but point taken. If I’m new Packers GM Brian Gutekunst, I’m doing two things at quarterback this offseason: signing a veteran to compete with Brett Hundley for the backup job, and selecting one from the fourth through seventh rounds in this year’s draft.

Then, like Wolf, I’d draft a quarterback almost every year. Because to find your princes (Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks and Matt Hasselbeck), you have to kiss a lot of frogs (Jay Barker, Kyle Wachholtz and Ronnie McAda).

As for the veteran backup to compete with Hundley, here’s a list of the top names available: Josh McCown, Tom Savage, A.J. McCarron, Sam Bradford, Jay Cutler, Brock Osweiler, Geno Smith, Teddy Bridgewater, Matt Barkley, Blaine Gabbert, Matt Moore and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

One of the scouts went through that list and eliminated Savage, Cutler, Osweiler, Barkley, Smith and Gabbert as not good enough. Bridgewater was too great a risk coming off a severe knee injury in 2016, and McCarron and McCown are likely to sign where they have a shot at starting.

Maybe the most interesting if long-shot possibility is the 30-year-old Bradford. He’ll be looking for a shot at starting, too, and maybe he’ll get it. But his scary injury history means that’s not a given. If it doesn’t happen, maybe he’d be interested in joining a team such as the Packers.

Bradford probably would insist on only a one-year deal and wouldn’t be cheap — the highest-paid veteran backup after Foles ($5.5 million a year) is Atlanta’s Matt Schaub at $4 million per. But Bradford has made $99.45 million in his career, so salary wouldn’t necessarily be a deal breaker.

Bradford has no mobility so he’s a much different quarterback than Rodgers, meaning the offense would have to change radically if he ever played. But he’s among the better pure throwers in the NFL.

“If (a shot at starting) doesn’t happen he’ll go to the best team possible,” the scout predicted. “He might even go to who has the best (chance) to win a Super Bowl. He’s already made enough money.”

Assuming Bradford goes elsewhere as a possible starter, the only two backups left standing on the scout’s list were Moore and Fitzpatrick.

Moore, 33, has a 15-15 record as a starter with Carolina and Miami. His career rating is 81.2.

Fitzpatrick, 35, is 48-70-1 overall with seven teams (St. Louis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tennessee, Houston, New York Jets and Tampa Bay). But he went 10-6 as the Jets’ starter in 2015 and was 2-1 filling in for an injured Jameis Winston with Tampa Bay last season.

The Bucs paid Fitzpatrick $3 million on a one-year deal last season; Miami paid Moore $3.55 million over the last two years

“They’re natural career backups,” the scout said. “Fitzpatrick has had some starts, just never panned out. But they have experience. They can get you lined up, get you in and out of the huddle. They can win a game or two for you. They’re just not going to be able to carry that load as a starter.”

Philadelphia had the luxury of paying Foles because of Wentz’s rookie deal. We’ll really know what value Roseman puts on his No. 2 after he has to pay Wentz.

But Foles was an object lesson for the league. If he’d been the Eagles’ quarterback all season, would they have won the Super Bowl? I’d bet not. But he was as good as any backup in the league, and that was just good enough to win the Eagles a championship.

As the scout put it, “If you don’t have a backup quarterback, what the hell are you doing?"

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