Meet The NFL’s Most Expendable Quarterbacks

Eli Manning is a four-time Pro Bowler, a two-time Super Bowl champion and the 2016 Walter Payton Man of the Year. But when he takes the field as the Giants’ Week 1 starter — as he has every season for the past 14 — he may be ready for a new title: “Expendable.”

Every year, 32 quarterbacks line up for the first snap of the first game of the season. That player is supposed to be the best quarterback on the team.1 But sometimes, that quarterback isn’t the best by very much. Or he gets hurt, and his backup gets hot enough to win the job away. Or he’s just marking time while a highly drafted rookie gets up to speed.

That was the situation in 2004, when two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner took the field for the Giants as their nominal starter — but many on the field, in the stands and watching at home on TV knew he was just there to hold down the fort until their grinning greenhorn of a No. 1 overall draft pick was ready.

That 2004 No. 1 overall draft pick? Manning himself.

But Warner and Manning, highly decorated veterans, don’t fit the typical profile of an Expendable. These are often journeymen brought in because they have a relationship with a coach, or they’re unheralded draft picks from a few years ago who won a war of attrition with players higher on the depth chart.

Over the past 10 seasons, 46 different quarterbacks have qualified — and a few have carved out a niche for themselves as professional Expendables.

The most Expendable QBs

NFL quarterbacks from 2009 to 2018 who started the first game of a season at least twice but were displaced as No. 1

Quarterback No. Times Benched Avg. starts
Shaun Hill 3 2.7
Ryan Fitzpatrick 3 6.3
Brian Hoyer 3 6.7
Sam Bradford 2 2.5
Josh McCown 2 5.0
Nick Foles 2 5.5
Tyrod Taylor 2 6.0
Donovan McNabb 2 9.5

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

For our purposes, we’re calling a quarterback an Expendable if he a) started Week 1 of a given season, b) was benched while healthy (or did not get his job back after returning from injury) and c) did not go on to start Week 1 for that same team the following season. Backups filling in for unquestioned starters during injury or suspension, like Jimmy Garoppolo for Tom Brady in 2016, were not counted.

But Shaun Hill did get the honor in 2016: He was the No. 2 for the Minnesota Vikings when starter Teddy Bridgewater went down with a preseason injury, and he filled in well even though the Vikings had just swung a panicked trade for Sam Bradford. His performance was good enough to buy him just one start. Combined with losing his 2014 starting gig with the then-St. Louis Rams and getting benched in San Francisco for Alex Smith, Hill has been an Expendable for three different teams (and lasted an average of just 2.7 games over those three seasons).

It makes sense that well-traveled journeymen like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh McCown have served multiple tours of duty as an Expendable. But Brian Hoyer also parlayed his time backing up Tom Brady into Expendable stints with his hometown Browns, the Houston Texans and the 49ers. Donovan McNabb seems like another surprising inclusion — but it’s no surprise that after his 11-year run in Philadelphia, during which he went to the Pro Bowl six times, his back-to-back Expendable tours in Washington and Minnesota are often forgotten.

Our exceptions for injuries mean that former No. 1 overall pick Bradford qualified for the Expendable badge only twice,2 but he merits a mention here, too. In 2018, he received a $20 million contract to steer a listless Arizona Cardinals team while first-round pick Josh Rosen learned the ropes. After three woeful starts, Bradford was demoted to No. 3 on the depth chart, and Rosen was thrown into the fire.

Compared with the rest of the past decade, NFL head coaches have been quick to yank starting quarterbacks in the last two seasons — or maybe NFL general managers have been further off the mark about who’s really capable of starting in the first place.

Number of NFL quarterbacks benched per year and the average number of starts before benching

Season No. of QBs Benched Avg. Starts
2009 5 5.4
2010 6 5.0
2011 5 4.8
2012 4 7.5
2013 5 4.8
2014 8 5.3
2015 4 6.5
2016 5 6.2
2017 8 4.4
2018 7 4.7

From 2009 to 2016, an average of 5.3 Week 1 starters relinquished their gigs to their backups; it happened after an average of 5.6 games. But in 2017 and 2018, an average of 7.5 starters were demoted — and after an average of just 4.5 games. How will that play out in 2019?

For Manning and the Giants, Vegas sportsbooks initially set the over/under on the number of games Daniel Jones will start this season at 7.5. In Tennessee, former No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota is reportedly on a “short leash,” so Ryan Tannehill could turn him into an Expendable before the season ends.

After those two, there aren’t many obvious possibilities. Rookie Drew Lock, a second-round draft pick, is buried at third on the depth chart in Denver. It’s possible the Tampa Bay Buccaneers give up on Jameis Winston, but it’s hard to see Blaine Gabbert taking his job by outperforming him in practice.

The next possible Expendable, though, is an intriguing one: Fitzpatrick.

The Cardinals gave up on Rosen less than a year after they gave up on Bradford. They drafted Rosen’s successor, Kyler Murray, No. 1 overall, but they’re not making Rosen an Expendable — they’ve traded him away.

But look who they traded him to: the Miami Dolphins, who just signed Fitzpatrick to a two-year deal. Though Fitzpatrick was tabbed as the Week 1 starter, Rosen’s impressive preseason play had many calling for him to start in the season opener. Can Rosen, a second-year quarterback showing flashes, push Fitzpatrick to the bench the way Winston, Geno Smith and Ryan Mallett did?

If that happens, Fitzpatrick will officially be the most Expendable quarterback in the NFL, a dubious — yet somehow still impressive — honor.

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