The 2020 NFL draft highlighted one of the most dramatic divergences of opinion in sport, and it has nothing to do with analytics or Michael Jordan.
The subject currently separating NFL thinkers into disparate camps is the backup quarterback.
Traditionally, backup quarterbacks were either young and promising passers waiting their turn, or veterans who might be able to guide a team in case of injury to the starter.
Those categories still exist, but this draft indicated there are myriad ways to use, or not use, your backup quarterback, which is either the second-most important position on the team or the most irrelevant.
Let’s look at the approaches of a few teams willing to deal with potential headaches and potentially greater production out of their backup quarterbacks:
The Vikings have used the position traditionally. They like having a true starter and a backup who won’t make waves. To quote former Viking Jeff George, they don’t want the backup to be a “Slappy,” what he called a backup who would slap you on the back while trying to take your job.
Kirk Cousins is the unquestioned starter. Sean Mannion is the veteran backup the Vikings hope never sees the field. With Mannion, they save money and potential headaches, but also are completely dependent on Cousins to stay healthy.
The team’s best season since 2009 came when its clear-cut veteran backup, Case Keenum, had the season of his life in 2017, replacing an injured Sam Bradford and leading the Vikings to a 13-3 record. Then they let Keenum leave and spent big money on Cousins.
Upside: Cousins isn’t looking over his shoulder, and the Vikings aren’t spending much on Mannion.
Downside: If Cousins is injured, the season might be over, and there is no successor in place for when Cousins eventually leaves.
My opinion: This is an uninspiring use of the position.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers ensured decades of competitiveness by trading for Brett Favre in 1992 and drafting Aaron Rodgers in 2005, while Favre was still in his prime.
Last week, they attempted to reprise that history by trading up to draft Utah State quarterback Jordan Love while Rodgers remains in his prime.
The Packers want their backup, when possible, to be part of a succession plan.
Upside: If Love is as good as the Packers think he is, they could go for three decades without having to desperately search for a quarterback.
Downside: Love could turn into a wasted pick who offends Rodgers.
My opinion: The Packers reached for Love and will regret this.
Carson Wentz is one of the best quarterbacks ever produced by our region. The Eagles chose him with the second pick in the 2016 draft, and last summer signed him to a four-year contract extension for $128 million.
That is how you express complete commitment to your young, multitalented starting quarterback.
Here’s how you call that commitment into question: By taking quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 draft.
Whatever the Eagles say publicly, this pick means they either are hedging their bet on Wentz, overvaluing the backup quarterback role or overvaluing the gadget quarterback role most notably filled by the Saints’ Taysom Hill.
Reminder: The Saints didn’t spend a draft pick on Hill, and recently added Jameis Winston to their roster as a true backup quarterback. They don’t value Hill as much as the Eagles value Hurts, a strong runner whose passing skills remain in question.
Upside: The Eagles creatively use Hurts to improve their offense, or he becomes their starter at some point.
Downside: They wasted a high pick on a backup quarterback.
My opinion: They wasted a high pick on a backup quarterback.
New Orleans Saints
Saints coach Sean Payton has turned Hill, an undrafted free agent out of college, into a valuable player. But he hasn’t made Hill his backup quarterback.
Payton wisely signed Teddy Bridgewater as Drew Brees’ backup, and Bridge-water went 5-0 when Brees was injured last season.
This week, Payton signed Winston as Brees’ backup, giving the team a possible successor if Winston can reduce his turnovers.
Upside: Winston learns from Brees and Payton and retains his big-play ability while reducing interceptions and fumbles, and the Saints remain an offensive powerhouse after Brees, now 41, retires.
Downside: Payton’s ego allows him to believe he can change Winston, and he winds up being wrong.
My opinion: Given the state of backup quarterbacks around the league, any team taking a chance on Winston, or free agent Cam Newton, is taking the right kind of gamble.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org