We spend a lot of time talking about the starting quarterbacks in the league, in part because when the starter goes down, a team will find itself in serious trouble. The San Francisco 49ers were an exception to that back in 2012, when Colin Kaepernick quickly supplanted Alex Smith as the starting quarterback after Smith suffered a concussion. Of course, when you've got the prospect in place, it makes for a solid backup.
Now seems as good a time as any to take a look at the backup quarterbacks around the NFC West. All four teams would generally seem to know who their starting quarterback is heading into training camp. Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, and Sam Bradford all seem just about locked in for the 49ers, Seahawks, Cardinals, and Rams, respectively. Bradford is returning from a Week 7 ACL tear, and facing a bit of a make-or-break year, but it would be an upset if he was not starting Week 1.
Here is a rundown of each quarterback situation after the starter. I will reference the starter in some instances, but they are not included in the list of quarterbacks for each team.
We've had discussion about the 49ers backup quarterback situation, and we'll have plenty more, so I won't go into a ton of detail. Blaine Gabbert is likely the front-runner for the backup role. Matt Maiocco reported he has put together strong performances this offseason. When I was at minicamp, he certainly looked solid enough, but I didn't really put a whole lot into it.
With this coaching staff, Gabbert very well could improve and start to reach his potential. But even if he is kinda meh, odds are still pretty good he ends up with the No. 2 spot. Josh Johnson is back for another shot, having previously been a training camp cut. He spent last season with the Cincinnati Bengals, and talked about how he improved as a quarterback. Additionally, he mentioned being excited about the current style of play in San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick starting instead of Alex Smith.
The most interesting part of this roster might end up being what they do with Kory Faulkner. The Southern Illinois quarterback signed as an undrafted free agent. It's hard to tell what kind of work he'll get in the preseason. He got no 11-on-11 work in minicamp, and with four slightly more accomplished quarterbacks on the roster, the 49ers could just stash him and eventually add him to the practice squad. If the 49ers go into their preseason opener with all five quarterbacks, I doubt we see more than a handful of snaps from Faulkner.
This group is probably as interesting as any in the NFC West. I may be in the minority in thinking that Carson Palmer remains a solid option for Arizona. The key is keeping him on his feet, and getting guard Jonathan Cooper back will be a big help. But even if Palmer suffers an injury, the Cardinals have an adequate backup in Drew Stanton. The Cardinals signed him to a 3-year contract last year, a few weeks before they acquired Carson Palmer from the Raiders. Stanton isn't spectacular, but as a backup, I'd argue he is as serviceable as most across the league.
Ryan Lindley will compete for an opportunity, but the Cardinals more interesting prospect is long-term project Logan Thomas. When the Cardinals drafted him this past May, there were a lot of jokes about him likely just ending up as a tight end or something along those lines. Carson Palmer is not the worst QB to learn from, and it will be interesting to see how many opportunities he gets in the preseason.
The strongest backup in the NFC West would probably go to the Rams, with former 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill. He's got his weaknesses, but Hill has had as much starting success as any of the backups in the division. Of course, given the question marks that perpetually surround Sam Bradford, maybe Hill ends up slipping into the starting job. I suspect Bradford gets plenty of opportunities this year, but Hill will be waiting in the wings.
The developmental options behind Hill are fliers at best. Austin Davis has bounced around practice squads, before getting some time on the Rams roster after Sam Bradford tore his ACL. Garrett Gilbert is a raw prospect who will need some time to put together a complete NFL skillset. But with Shaun Hill on the roster, there is no rush from a backup perspective.
Doesn't it seem like Tarvaris Jackson has been around the NFL forever? I was going back to see when he entered the league (2006), and I was kind of stunned to see that he was a second round pick. The Minnesota Vikings actually traded two third round picks to select Jackson with the final pick of the second round. That just kind of baffles my mind now.
And yet, he is a perfectly solid backup. I would probably rank him behind Shaun Hill and somewhere near Drew Stanton in this grouping. He's an adequate fill-in if needed, but like with most backups, I would not want him in the starting lineup for more than a single game. I realize that's not exactly a shocking revelation, but take it how you want.
Things get interesting for the Seahawks behind Jackson, with a pair of ex-Bay Area quarterbacks. The Seahawks acquired Terrelle Pryor from the Raiders for a seventh round pick, and they claimed B.J. Daniels off waivers early last season when the 49ers waived him. Pryor has great speed, and is dangerous when he gets out in the open field, but he also can struggle mightily in the passing game. Considering Pryor cost Seattle a seventh round pick, it's a flier with little downside.
And of course, there is our old friend B.J. Daniels. He looked sharp in preseason play, and when the 49ers released him in October, quite a few people screamed bloody murder. The 49ers had an opportunity to claim him back when the Seahawks waived him in November, but they along with the rest of the league passed, and Daniels finished the year on the Seahawks practice squad.
If I were just ranking the likely primary backup, I'd probably go with something like this:
1. Shaun Hill
2. Drew Stanton
3. Tarvaris Jackson
4. Blaine Gabbert
Gabbert has potential, but he is arguably the biggest question mark in this group. None of the other three has much upside, but we kind of know what to expect from them if they are forced into the game. With Gabbert, we know what he did in Jacksonville, but we have no idea what an offseason and training camp with Jim Harbaugh, Geep Chryst, and George Whitfield will mean.
If I were ranking the entire group covering both the primary backup and the developmental prospects, I'd probably go with something like this:
I thought about bumping the Rams up a little further, but I think the Seahawks and Cardinals have more intriguing developmental prospects. It's enough to overcome the Rams having the more solid primary backup. In reality, I think they're all pretty close in the rankings. I guess Pryor/Daniels just does more for me than Stanton/Thomas/Lindley or Hill/Davis/Gilbert. I'm sure some will disagree.
As for the 49ers? Well, Kory Faulkner is intriguing primarily because we have no idea what he can do, and Jim Harbaugh is hoping to do something with his hopeful Midas Touch. The 49ers primary backup is too big a question mark for now, while their developmental prospects don't exactly jump out at you right away.