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Offseason | 2021

Spagnola: Backup QB Dilemma Still Brewing


FRISCO, Texas – Where have all the quarterbacks gone?

Indeed, the quarterbacks.

Oh sure, the Cowboys have one, Dak Prescott signed for the next four seasons and should be far enough along with his right ankle rehabilitation to at least partially participate in next week's start to OTA practices. But more importantly, is fully expected to be ready for the start of training camp, the start of the preseason if the Cowboys so choose and for sure the start of the 2021 season on Sept. 9.

Their quarterback dilemma, though, is the backup position, a position we've come to realize is highly critical three times in the past six seasons, 2015, 2016 and then again in 2020, the Cowboys having lost their starting quarterback for 12 games, 16 and the final 11 last year, respectively.

So just who might that backup be?

Who can fill the shoes of last year's Andy Dalton, having moved on to sign a one-year, $10.5 million deal with the Chicago Bears, a price too rich for the Cowboys' dwindling salary-cap blood?

The choices are rather slim at this point with Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush and Ben DiNucci currently on the 90-man roster, but combined have played just 15 NFL games during their limited careers. The threesome has a combined two starts, one touchdown pass, one interception while attempting only 87 passes, with Gilbert officially entering his fourth NFL season, Rush his third and DiNucci his second.

With experience a prerequisite at this position – OK, the Cowboys were rather lucky with third-string rookie Dak Prescott taking over for the injured Tony Romo and Kellen Moore in training camp of 2016 to win 13 games – the Cowboys' on-premise backup candidates have very little, Gilbert starting his first NFL game last year as did the rookie DiNucci.

Just considering the "what if" is enough to give you acid reflux if these are the remaining backup choices come Sept. 9.

And looks as if the Cowboys aren't settled here, either. Two weeks ago they brought in Jeff Driskel for a visit. Driskel left without a contract and just latched on to his fifth team in six seasons (Houston) on a one-year, $2.5 million deal. He either wasn't very impressive during his visit or was too expensive for a team cuddling up to the salary cap limit.

On Friday, the Cowboys extensively worked out Brett Hundley, Mike McCarthy's 2015 fifth-round pick in Green Bay who flamed out there behind Aaron Rodgers, was traded to Seattle in 2018, but never played in a game that year. Hundley then signed with the Cardinals for 2019 (three appearances) and never played a game in 2020 backing up Kyler Murray. The Cardinals this offseason chose not to re-sign the former UCLA quarterback after snagging veteran Colt McCoy on a one-year, veteran-exception deal counting just $987,500 against the cap, with their two other roster quarterbacks currently Chris Steveler and Cole McDonald.

Hundley's only extensive playing experience came in 2017 after Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone. He went 3-6 with little-to-no experience and the Packers finished 7-9 that season, McCarthy's first losing record in 10 years. That means Hundley has spent three of his six NFL seasons totally on the bench and has played in just three games over the past three years.

Seems to have a live arm, accuracy a tad lacking, and left Friday afternoon without a deal, the Cowboys not ready to make a move on him just now. Still kicking tires.

But slim pickings out there when it comes to experienced veterans with guys such as A.J. McCarron, Case Keenum, Blaine Gabbert, Marcus Mariota, Chad Henne, Jacoby Brissett, Chase Daniel, Joe Flacco and Mason Rudolph all already spoken for.

Now then, there seemed to have been a good chance a few more backup type quarterbacks would come free after the draft, especially since five quarterbacks were selected among the top 15 picks during the 2021 NFL Draft.

But the majority of those teams do not have legitimately experienced castaways.

We likely can assume No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence will start in Jacksonville, and chances are former sometime starter Gardner Minshew isn't going anywhere since the other two quarterbacks on the roster are C.J. Beathard and Jake Luton.

As for the Jets, selecting Zach Wilson with the second pick after trading away Sam Darnold, their other two options are former Cowboys' 2015 fifth-round pick Mike White and James Morgan.

Then San Francisco, taking Trey Lance with the third pick. The Niners could bide their time grooming Lance by hanging on to Jimmy Garoppolo, but if not, their other choices behind Lance would be Josh Johnson, Nate Sudfeld and Josh Rosen. Either of those three set your pants on fire?

But then again, if the 49ers think they can't afford Garoppolo's $26.3 million cap hit for 2021 – they say they can – he would only cost them $2.6 million in dead money if released or traded. What you say and what you can afford against the salary cap usually are two different things.

Now, the other two teams drafting first-round quarterbacks, Chicago and New England, well, they might have to pare a couple of possibilities.

So the Bears trade up for Justin Fields when they already signed Dalton and had Nick Foles under contract. Will they be able to afford both guys as backups if Fields is a walk-in starter? Or even if he isn't, can they afford to keep one to start but the other to become the third guy if Fields is being groomed as the backup?

Which begs the question, how about this for a potential turnaround?

See, Foles' cap hit is a manageable $6.6 million. But to get rid of him would cost $14.3 million in dead money. And as for Dalton, and wouldn't this be something, as previously pointed out, Dalton's cap hit is $10.5 million, but only $5.5 million is guaranteed, the dead portion if released or traded.

If so would the Cowboys …

Hell yes, if Dalton would be willing to return home again and play for the same cap-manageable one-year deal he did last year at $3 million guaranteed, with incentives taking him to a potential $7 million.

Then there is New England, selecting Mac Jones with the 15th pick in the first round. The Patriots are adding the national champion QB to their quarterbacking threesome of Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer. Hmmm, they likely will not keep all three, and since Newton could end up starting or at least be retained as the veteran backup for a reasonable $5.4 million cap hit, either Stidham or Hoyer would be out. Hoyer has experience, having started 39 of 70 games played during his 12-year NFL career. As for Stidham, he has only played in three NFL games during his two-year tenure. One of those three most likely is out the door.

But see what I mean about finding an experienced backup? Not easy.

And the Cowboys aren't in this backup dilemma alone if an enticing possibility comes free. Check out some of this stuff, meaning other teams might be still looking for a potential experienced backup-type castaway:

In Detroit, behind Jared Goff are Tim Boyle and David Blough.

With the Rams, behind now Matthew Stafford are John Wolford, Delvin Hodges and Bryce Perkins.

In Carolina, behind Darnold are Will Grier and Phillip Wallace.

With Indianapolis, behind now Carson Wentz are Jacob Eason, Jalen Morton and Sam Ehlinger.

And how about Washington, assuming Ryan Fitzpatrick is now the starter, the potential backups are Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Allen and Steven Montez. Not exactly a plethora of experience, though Allen did start 12 of 13 games for Carolina in 2019 before giving way to Teddy Bridgewater, who has moved on to Denver to compete with Drew Lock for the starting job.

And as for still existing free agents, besides Hundley – and what does that say about you if you're without a job on May 21 – there are the likes of Robert Griffin III, Nick Mullens, Matt Barkley and, uh, ugh.

Slim pickin's at this point when compared to what the Cowboys currently have.

Hey, but who knows? Maybe, just maybe, as in the fading last scene to the 1953 produced western movie Shane (look it up), that might be the Cowboys eventually looking into the sunset if things don't work out so swell in Chicago, pleading, "Andy, come back … Andy, come back."

Might just need to sit tight for now … and cross their fingers.

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