Playing second (or third or fourth) fiddle as an NFL QB may mean a lot of standing on the sidelines, but it can also mean a lot of money.
The 2021 class of NFL backup quarterbacks, consisting of a mix of known veterans and unproven types, represent roughly $153 million in average annual salary commitments across the league’s 32 teams.
In short, some of these backups earn absolute bank without much of any threat of edge rushers flying in to squash them on down after down. Some do make league-minimum wages and may not even be on a roster once the preseason ends, butother No. 2s are actually make more than legitimate NFL starters.
With that in mind, there’s an argument to be made that reliable reserve quarterbacks have the best job in football.
NFL Backup QB Salary Breakdown
According to the NFL quarterback salary rankings from Spotrac, this year’s bill of backups collectively make $153,273,788 in combined average annual salary as of this writing.
This total average salary figure will likely change as the preseason winds down, particularly as some players get cut and the quarterback competitions in places like Denver, Jacksonville, and New Orleans become more clear.
But for now, we’re going off the assumption that Drew Lock is the Broncos’ starter (UPDATE 8/25: It’s Teddy Bridgewater in Week 1), Trevor Lawrence will take first-team snaps for the Jags, and Jameis Winston wins the race with the Saints. And, of course, we all know that Justin Fields will have to wait his turn in Chicago.
(At least for Week 1.)
If all of this holds true, there are certainly a few signal-callers who can’t complain about what they’re getting paid to occupy a second-string spot on offense.
Let’s take a look at the highest average salaries for NFL quarterbacks not currently listed as starters.
10 Highest-paid Backup QBs in the NFL
(Average Annual Salary)
|Player||Team||Avg. Annual $|
This top tier of backups boasts a combined $70 million in total average earnings — almost half the amount of the entire total salary of the full list of 84 backup quarterbacks included in Sportrac’s salary rankings we’re taking into account today.
And while the top 10 is made up mostly of veteran quarterbacks who have had a taste of the starting job at one point in their career, three rookies are on the list thanks to favorable draft positions that earned them generous salaries despite never having played a snap: Trey Lance (49ers), Justin Fields (Bears), and Mac Jones (Patriots).
For posterity, the bottom of the backup barrel in terms of average annual salary includes a handful of names you may have never heard before.
10 Lowest-paid Backup QBs in the NFL
(Average Annual Salary)
|Player||Team||Avg. Annual $|
While many of these names have yet to make major headlines, a few have been in the news recently.
Former XFL quarterback Jordan Ta’amu just made the list after signing with Detroit on Aug. 17 due to injuries in the QB room, and Trace McSorley may not make it out of the preseason due to a back injury he suffered while competing for the job understudying for Lamar Jackson in Baltimore.
And who could forget Danny Etling’s 86-yard touchdown scramble in the 2018 preseason with the Patriots?
Backups Who Can Back it Up
Not all backup quarterbacks are created equally.
Taysom Hill, for example, is much more than just a quarterback. He’s the inspector gadget of the Saints’ offense, but he also makes more in average salary than half of the starters in the NFL.
But his $12 million number doesn’t tell the whole story. Hill signed a massive $140 million contract extension in the offseason, and NFL pundits were quick to point out that the contract reflected some truly creative accounting by New Orleans to get below the salary cap.
Yes, Hill has proven he can play. Despite that, he likely doesn’t top too many lists of the best backup QBs in the league if the rubric is based on ability to deliver wins. But remember — when Drew Brees went down with a hand injury early in the 2019 season, it was Teddy Bridgewater who stepped in for the Saints and went 5-0 as a starter, not Hill.
By comparison, names that have consistently popped up in the conversation for either the best or the highest-upside backups in the league would be more likely to include a combination of vets like Bridgewater and Case Keenum or vaunted rookies like Fields and Trey Lance.
And that matters. Because the reserve QB role, unlike any other position in the league, is the ultimate insurance policy.
Just ask Philadelphia Eagles fans, who watched in horror as MVP candidate Carson Wentz went down late in the 2017 regular season with a torn ACL only to witness Nick Foles deliver them their first-ever Super Bowl title (and take game MVP honors to boot).
But looking at the list of backups currently cashing checks across the league, it’s clear some teams are still figuring out who will be waiting in the wings.
And with Week 1 arriving in just over two weeks, there’s not a ton of time left to whittle things down.
A Backlog of Backups
NFL teams are all required to have a backup quarterback on the roster, but some teams opt to have a third QB on the team just in case. And while there are still many cuts to be made until the regular season kicks off, Minnesota boasts four names in their quarterback room beyond incumbent starter Kirk Cousins.
According to Sportrac, the Vikings are still paying the following:
|Player||Avg. Annual $|
A total of 17 NFL teams currently have three listed backups competing for a job, including the Super Bowl champions. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Trask, and Ryan Griffin all looking to hold the clipboard for the GOAT.
Then, there are the Chicago Bears. They have more salary invested in their backups than any other team.
With Justin Fields ($4.7 million average annual salary) as the heir apparent to Andy Dalton ($10 million), it’s fair to say that Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles ($6 million) could be a candidate for the trade block.
Either that, or he misses out on the final cut when Matt Nagy has to trim his roster in just a few short weeks.
While there’s still much that could change between now and the kickoff of the 2021 regular season on Sept. 9, from injuries to trades to cuts to surprise retirements, one thing is clear: with $153 million between them, it can really, really pay to be a backup quarterback in the National Football League.