Commentary

Buyer's market for backup QBs

Thanks to new economics, teams can get good values and needed insurance

Originally Published: May 22, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

One of the big mistakes of the 2011 season was at backup quarterback.

Fifteen teams went into the regular season with backups who had four or fewer career starts. For the Bears, not having the right backup behind Jay Cutler led to a change at offensive coordinator and possibly at general manager. Putting Curtis Painter behind Kerry Collins in Indianapolis after Peyton Manning's neck problems aided the Colts' collapse.

Those days may be temporarily over. Thanks to the way the new collective bargaining agreement is working out, experienced backups are available in abundance and they aren't that expensive. With relatively flat salary caps in the forecast for the next two or three years, that trend is going to continue because many of the veteran quarterbacks signed one-year deals and will be back on the market next year.

Overall, general managers are in a period in which there will be 400 to 500 free agents each year as long as the caps remain flat. Such volume shortens the length of contracts and lowers the price of players.

That may not be great for the players involved, but it's good for teams. It gives them options. Football decisions, and not economic decisions, are being made on a more regular basis.

[+] EnlargeVince Young
Debby Wong/US PresswireNot satisfied with their options at QB, the Bills landed Vince Young for only $1.9875 million.

Look at what the Buffalo Bills did last week: They signed Vince Young as a possible backup to Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Bills appeared to be set with Tyler Thigpen as their backup, after he signed a three-year, $9 million contract last year based on his experience with Chan Gailey in Kansas City.

The Bills believe in Fitzpatrick as a starter but their concern was if Fitzpatrick suffered an injury that would knock him out five or six weeks. Thigpen is 1-11 in starts. With the defensive additions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson along with a relatively easy schedule, the Bills believe they can contend for a playoff spot.

Young signed a one-year, $1.9875 million contract. They can look at him in training camp and determine if Young would minimize the drop-off in the event that Fitzpatrick is injured. That could allow the Bills to drop Thigpen's $3 million-a-year salary.

Moves such as this have happened throughout the offseason. Putting aside quarterbacks such as the Seahawks' Matt Flynn or the 49ers' Alex Smith, who were signed as starters, 20 unrestricted free agents were signed or re-signed as potential backups. Sixteen signed for less than $2 million a year.

Playoff-caliber teams such as the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons were able to re-sign backups such as David Carr, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman for minimum-salary contracts, freeing up cap room for other positions.

The trend doesn't prohibit franchises from putting more money into backup quarterbacks of their preference. With Jon Kitna retiring, the Dallas Cowboys gave Kyle Orton a three-year, $10.5 million deal. The Jacksonville Jaguars gave Chad Henne a two-year, $6.75 million deal.

Not wanting to repeat last year's problem associated with inexperienced backups, the Bears gave Jason Campbell a one-year, $3.5 million contract.

Teams with patience, though, can sign backups at good prices as insurance policies. Rookie T.J. Yates did an incredible job last season filling in for injured Texans quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart and established himself as a good backup. Still, the Texans signed John Beck to a one-year, $765,000 deal.

Leinart went to the Raiders to be with new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and become Carson Palmer's backup. The price was only a one-year deal at $750,000.

The low costs of quarterbacks aren't robbing young drafted quarterbacks of a chance to be groomed -- Jake Locker (Tennessee) and Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco) are being developed as future starters -- but the low prices are allowing franchises to be prepared if those young quarterbacks aren't ready.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh didn't mind bringing in Josh Johnson in free agency just in case. It cost the team only a two-year, $2.115 million contract.

One downside of the abundance of quarterbacks is trying to find value in the trade market for an expendable quarterback. The Browns realized that after putting in calls during the draft for Colt McCoy, who is expected to lose his starting job to rookie Brandon Weeden.

Because most teams filled backup options with experienced veterans, the only logical trade targets for McCoy were Green Bay and New Orleans. The Packers have inexperienced Graham Harrell and the Saints have Chase Daniel. The Packers ended up using a seventh-round pick on B.J. Coleman and weren't interested. The Saints, for the moment, are going with their current backups.

I can see scenarios over the next couple of seasons in which teams have their low-priced veteran quarterbacks as backups and commit second- or third-day draft choices on prospects who can be developed during their four-year contracts.

What would be better is for the NFL to pair up with a developmental league in which those young quarterbacks would get a chance to play. In this quarterback-driven league, it's not a bad idea to have the option of going to an experienced backup instead of rushing one who isn't ready into games.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer