There is no position on a football team more important than the quarterback. By that logic, you could make an argument that the second most important position is the backup quarterback. In Dallas, that feeling has been prevalent in each of the last two years, as the Cowboys cycled through three different backups in 2020 and had to roll with their backup for a game in 2021.
As of right now, the Cowboys have three candidates for the top backup spot on the roster. The leader is Cooper Rush, who started against the Vikings last year and threw a game-winning touchdown to Amari Cooper. Then there’s Will Grier, a former third-round pick who the team claimed on waivers during preseason cuts last year, and Ben DiNucci, a seventh-round pick from 2020 who started a game in his rookie year but was well behind where he needed to be.
It wouldn’t be the end of the world if the team goes into training camp hosting a battle between those three. Rush played well in his one spot start last year, and Grier hasn’t had a chance to show what he’s capable of in Dallas. DiNucci is well-liked by the staff, and his combination of athleticism and poise make him an intriguing prospect if he can just get the football part down.
But the Cowboys could easily upgrade this position. The Colts recently did this by signing former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles to serve as the backup to Matt Ryan. Dallas did something similar in 2020 when they signed Andy Dalton. And there are still several options out there who could, at the very least, provide legitimate competition in the backup quarterback race.
One name in free agency is Cam Newton. As the former first overall pick, Newton was the face of the Panthers franchise for nine seasons, winning an MVP and leading his team to the Super Bowl. An up-and-down year with the Patriots in 2020 and a bad, but brief, stretch with a pretty terrible Panthers team last year reminded us all that Newton isn’t what he once was.
That’s why we’re talking about him as a backup option and not a starter. Stylistically speaking, Newton is a better fit to backup Dak Prescott than any other available options. Newton’s size and physicality mirror that of Prescott without losing the mobility that make him a viable dual threat when necessary. Additionally, his wealth of experience in the NFL would provide for a less significant drop-off in the event he ever ended up actually playing.
When the Patriots cut Newton at the end of the preseason last year, there was reportedly interest from the Cowboys. He ended up back for a poor end with the Panthers but there are rumors he could return there. Or maybe the Cowboys could call.
Why not bring back a familiar face? Garrett Gilbert played for the Cowboys in 2020, a panic grab off of the Browns’ practice squad when Andy Dalton went down with a concussion. Two weeks later, Gilbert started for the Cowboys against an elite Steelers defense. Gilbert played well, contextually speaking, and nearly handed the Steelers their first loss of the season.
Gilbert didn’t play again that year, as Dalton returned soon after, and lost his roster spot to Rush during 2021 roster cuts. He found his way to the Patriots’ practice squad before the Washington Football Team signed him for an emergency start. Gilbert once again played well, but ultimately ended up on the losing side. Washington didn’t retain him going into this season.
Gilbert doesn’t have a ton of history in Dallas, but the coaching staff liked him enough back in 2020 and he does know the scheme already. He’s already lost out to Rush once before, but it couldn’t hurt to give him another shot.
A.J. McCarron has been a lifelong backup quarterback in the NFL, and coincidentally he spent the first three years of his career backing up Dalton in Cincinnati. He spent a year behind Derek Carr in Oakland before going to the Texans for two seasons. McCarron joined the Falcons last year, but tore his ACL in the preseason, ending the year for him.
Of course, prior to his college career McCarron was a decorated college quarterback at Alabama. He never set the world on fire playing within Alabama’s conservative, pro-style offense but McCarron shepherded an efficient offense for three seasons on a team that won a national title in his final two years there.
That combination of experiences is why McCarron fits a prototypical profile as a backup quarterback. His injury status is obviously a concern, but McCarron seemed to be in great shape back in April. If he’s medically cleared, McCarron would immediately offer a better profile as a backup than those currently on the Cowboys’ roster.
At this point, it seems as if Josh Rosen will go down in history as one of the biggest draft busts of all time. That’s a real shame, as few high draft picks have been set up to fail as much as Rosen has been. Drafted tenth overall in 2018, Rosen was hailed by many as the most pro-ready quarterback in what was considered to be a stacked quarterback class.
But after winning just three games in 2018, Arizona fired their head coach after just one season and shipped Rosen off to Miami, a team that everyone believed to be tanking that year. Rosen was then cut by the Dolphins a year later, after they drafted Tua Tagovailoa, and he bounced around until landing in Atlanta as the primary backup last year after McCarron’s ACL injury.
If you’re not convinced on Rosen being set up to fail, just take a look at the kind of offensive lines he’s played with thus far:
Josh Rosen’s Offensive Line Performances
|Pressure Rate||Rank||Sack Rate||Rank||Adjusted Sack Rate||Rank||Pass Block Win Rate||Rank|
The Cowboys’ offensive line performed well below the franchise’s standard in 2021, but they were still better than anything Rosen has had thus far in his career. And it’s difficult, if not entirely impossible, to evaluate a young quarterback prospect when they’re under that much duress.
Simply put, Rosen was a well-regarded prospect coming out of UCLA for a reason. He was considered highly intelligent and fundamentally sound, two important factors for a quarterback. In Dallas, Rosen wouldn’t have to worry about protection constantly breaking down, which would enable his best traits to finally shine.
If the Cowboys were able to get the Rosen we saw in college, he’d automatically become one of the best backups in the league, and potentially turn into a hot trade commodity down the road.