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How season-ending injuries to Joe Burrow, Aaron Rodgers and top QBs will impact the NFL’s future

The 2023 NFL season isn’t over, but its lasting memory for many around the league will be the unprecedented season-ending injuries to star quarterbacks. With Joe Burrow, Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins and so many others out for the year, the future of roster construction and spending could change dramatically.

Looking around the league, the list of star quarterbacks who suffered season-ending injuries is like nothing we’ve seen before. Assuming Rodgers doesn’t return from a torn Achilles, he’ll join Burrow, Cousins, Anthony Richardson, Deshaun Watson and Daniel Jones as quarterbacks who landed on IR.

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Just like with everything in professional sports, instances like this change how things are done. The NFL is a multi-billion dollar business with quarterbacks most critical to a team’s success. These injuries won’t just change the future for signal-callers across the league, it will influence how much teams spend at the position and the importance of the backup quarterback moving forward.

Revisiting NFL teams’ offseason decisions at backup quarterback

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at New York Jets
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In many cases, hindsight is an unfair tool to judge teams. There’s no way to predict injuries, especially at a position that the NFL has worked hard to protect for years. However, several of these teams are guilty of failing to think critically about a worst-case scenario.

The Jets and Bengals are two perfect examples. Burrow suffered a severe calf injury at the start of training camp that jeopardized his availability for the start of the regular season. At the time, Ja’Marr Chase advocated for resting Burrow in September and we highlighted backup quarterback options to pursue.

Instead, Cincinnati rolled with Jake Browning. He was a 2019 undrafted free agent who had never appeared in a regular-season game. However, the Bengals’ front office and coaching staff determined it didn’t need a viable backup in case Burrow suffered a setback or experienced another devastating injury. The Bengals’ season is now effectively over.

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The Jets’ situation isn’t that different. Ownership invested heavily in the roster to win now, sacrificing the future to build a Super Bowl contender. Everything would be great if Rodgers didn’t get healthy. Despite Zach Wilson proving in two seasons he wasn’t a starting-caliber quarterback and despite Rodgers’ injury history entering his age-39 season, the Jets never pursued a viable backup in the offseason nor did they go after one after Rodgers’ injury.

Things are a lot different for the Vikings, Giants and Colts. New York already had Tyrod Taylor, a proven fill-in starter who knew Brian Dabool’s system. When Jones went down, Taylor stepped up with a 92.1 QB rating and made the Giants competitive.

It’s no different with Indianapolis or Minnesota. The Colts paired Anthony Richardson with Gardner Minshew, providing a reliable veteran for their rookie to lean on and a starting option if the first-round pick struggled or went down with an injury. After Cousins’ injury, the Vikings acquired Joshua Dobbs and he’s kept them in playoff contention.

As for Cleveland, it has its unique situation. The Browns had Dobbs on the roster and the coaching staff wanted to keep him. However, as hinted by Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson on the Inside Coverage podcast, general manager Andrew Berry might’ve been overruled by chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta. The decision to trade Dobbs might cost Cleveland a shot at the AFC North.

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Look at where each of these teams are today. Preparing for the worst-case scenario or biting the bullet and giving up draft capital to acquire a proven quarterback saved Minnesota and it helped both the Giants and Colts. Meanwhile, failing to prepare and not responding to injuries has ruined promising seasons for the Browns, Jets and Bengals.

Gardner Minshew, backup NFL QBs will cash in this offseason

NFL: Frankfurt Games-Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
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The season-ending injuries have been devastating for the Jets, Bengals, Browns, Vikings, Colts and Giants. However, like with any domino effect in the NFL, some will benefit long-term from the unprecedented injuries. The biggest winner will be proven backup quarterbacks who have demonstrated they can be capable fill-in starters.

NFL free agent QBs in 2024

  • Kirk Cousins
  • Ryan Tannehill
  • Jacoby Brissett
  • Joshua Dobbs
  • Tyler Huntley
  • Gardner Minsew
  • Teddy Bridgewater
  • Drew Lock
  • Sam Darnold
  • Jameis Winston
  • Baker Mayfield
  • Tyrod Taylor

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When Minshew, Brissett, Darnold and Bridgewater were NFL free agents this past offseason, they faced a moderate market of interest. Many NFL teams were willing to offer one-year deals and either offered a chance to compete for the quarterback job or assurances that they’d be the guy if an injury struck. In 2024, these same quarterbacks will be in much greater demand.

Consider that in 2023, Brissett ($8 million) and Mitchell Trubisky were the highest-paid backup quarterbacks in the league. Taylor received $5.5 million total this year, while Andy Dalton ($6 million), Marcus Mariota ($5 million), Darnold ($4.5 million) and Mike White ($4.5 million). Backup quarterbacks generally made as much as the league’s top kickers.

That’s changing in 2024. At a time when more than 20 starting quarterbacks have an average annual salary of $20-plus million, the pay for their backups hasn’t quite matched the growth. Because of the plethora of injuries, general managers and team owners are going to place a far greater emphasis on having a proven backup quarterback moving forward.

For agents representing the likes of Dobbs, Brissett, Minshew, Huntley and others, it means driving up asking prices. The best backups can demand anywhere from $10-$14 million per season, a salary that aligns with their value if another injury strikes a contending team.

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