Nathan Peterman to Trace McSorley & Beyond: Ranking the NFL's 3rd-String Quarterbacks

May 25th 2023

Mike Tanier

Chicago Bears third-string quarterback Nathan Peterman is one of the 100 best quarterbacks on earth.

Peterman is probably, like, 96th. Or maybe 97th. Wait: are we counting Caleb Williams? Tom Brady? Taysom Hill? Maybe we need to rethink the calculations. But any way we slice it, Peterman is definitely in the top 150 or so out of about eight billion humans, placing him in the top .0000000018th percentile globally in his profession.

As an NFL starter, however, Peterson has never not been horrendous. His five-interception starting debut for the Bills in 2017 was the stuff of legend. Given two more spot starts in relief of rookie Josh Allen in 2018, Peterman threw five interceptions in games the Buffalo Bills lost by a combined score of 88-12. Given a Week 18 start for the Bears last year, Peterman threw for just 114 yards in a 29-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, whose starters were playing cornhole on the sideline after halftime.

Starting Peterman is better than tossing a rookie wide receiver who played a little quarterback in high school into the huddle and telling him to run the Wildcat, but not by much. Peterman earned his status as the NFL’s worst third-string quarterback by proving over and over again how ineffective he is, something few of his peers get a chance to do.

The NFL ratified a new rule on Monday allowing third-string quarterbacks to be active on game day without consuming a precious roster spot. That means that a team like the San Francisco 49ers won’t be forced to return an injured Brock Purdy to the NFC Championship Game and lose by 24 points. Instead, they can insert a Peterman type and lose by 20!

(The new rule would not have actually helped Purdy or the 49ers, who kept still-injured Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster and deactivated him for the NFC Championship game. Maybe Kyle Shanahan should not have asked Tyler Kroft to block Haason Reddick, given the gravity of the crisis? THAT’S NOT HOW NFL STRATEGY WORKS YOU ARMCHAIR BELICHICK).

Anyway, it’s time to rank the NFL’s third string quarterbacks, in honor of the new rule. I used Ourlads’ depth charts to determine who each team’s third stringer is entering minicamps. When in doubt, or if there are two interesting back-benchers, I listed them both.

32. Nathan Peterman, Chicago Bears

Peterman kicks off the first category of third-string quarterbacks: the guys who have proven that they are absolutely terrible.

31. Will Grier, Dallas Cowboys

Grier left West Virginia with some buzz and had a chance to become Cam Newton’s heir apparent for the Carolina Panthers in 2019. He threw three preseason interceptions, fell behind Kyle Allen on the depth chart, then threw four interceptions in two late-season starts that the Panthers lost by a combined 80-16 score. He beat Ben DiNucci for the Cowboys’ third-string role last year, but DiNucci ranks ahead of him on this list. You will see why in a few moments.

30. Jake Fromm, Washington Commanders

Joe Judge grabbed Fromm off the Bills practice squad and started him in what was either a power play or a plea for help late in the 2021 New York Giants season. Fromm threw three interceptions, drew six sacks and fumbled twice in those two games, plus a brief relief stint.

Mike Glennon was Judge’s other option – Daniel Jones was some combination of seriously injured and trapped in Judge’s Doghouse of Mystery – and the only way to gain a true appreciation of Glennon’s gifts is to watch Fromm.

29. John Wolford, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sean McVay’s budget-friendly Mini Me – Wolford looks a little like McVay – keeps getting spot starts in relief of Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford and doing nothing with them. Wolford has thrown one touchdown and five interceptions, with 10 sacks, in 104 career attempts. He also has a history of getting injured not long after he takes the field. There’s nothing like a third-string quarterback who forces you to have your fourth-string quarterback ready.

28. Tim Boyle, New York Jets

Boyle threw six interceptions in three starts for the Lions in 2021. But he’s not in Florham Park to throw footballs. Boyle has experience both in sitting next to Aaron Rodgers and absorbing rants about chemtrails and the fake moon landing and patting Nathaniel Hackett on the back and assuring him that everything is gonna be OK. In those respects, he may be the best third-stringer in the NFL. Or at least the most important.

27. Holton Ahlers, Seattle Seahawks

We have now entered the next category of third-string quarterbacks: the Nonthreatening Undrafted No-Names. The next few individuals are essentially interns for teams who don’t want to pay a third-stringer and don’t want anyone getting funny ideas about some buzzy prospect lurking deep on the bench.

Ahlers was a five-year starter at East Carolina who threw five touchdown passes against Coastal Carolina in the 2022 Birmingham Bowl, which probably should have been called the Carolina Bowl. He’s also probably related to a Wikipedia editor, based on this entry, which is slightly longer than the one for Alexander Hamilton.

Ahlers, like the next two guys, rank ahead of the Pederman group because of youth and unpredictability: for all we know, one of them might get the job done, or at least surprise an opponent, if forced to play a fourth quarter or two.

26. Tommy Devito, New York Giants

Not Danny DeVito’s son. Nor longtime Billy Joel drummer Liberty DeVitto’s nephew. Nor a DoorDash driver from Hackensack who got Dave Gettleman’s calzone order exactly right and earned a six-year contract. Devito is a local lad (Cedar Grove, NJ) who started for Syracuse and Illinois over a five-year college career.

Backing Daniel Jones up with Tyrod Taylor and Devito is Brian Daboll’s way of burning the boats behind them so there is no hope of retreat from Jones' long-term deal.

25. Nathan Rourke, Jacksonville Jaguars

Rourke was born in British Colombia and starred for the hometown BC Lions in 2022, earning the Most Outstanding Canadian award (probably a statue of Alex Trebek) and attracting the attention of Trent Baalke and Doug Pederson.

Rourke was a capable dual-threat MAC quarterback at Ohio University before returning to his strange native homeland, so maybe he can play a little. Starring in the CFL means slightly more than starring at some mid-major – Rourke got some exposure to the real world, or at least to Canada – but Rourke remains an unknown.

24. Ben DiNucci/Jarrett Guarantano, Denver Broncos

DiNucci, currently listed as the Broncos’ fourth stringer, had one spot start for the Cowboys in 2020 and lots of uneventful preseason playing time since. Guarantano was an on-and-off starter at Tennessee during the dreary Jeremy Pruitt era; he threw three touchdowns in late-game preseason action for the Cardinals last August.

The Guarantano/DiNucci combination, whose primary purpose is to work cheap and not threaten Russell Wilson in any way, forms a nice bridge between the last tier of third-stringers and the next one.

23. Danny Etling, Green Bay Packers

We’re now transitioning into the Glorified Assistant Coach category of third-string quarterbacks: guys trying to follow in the Chase Daniel career path by holding down a job for years but never playing.

The Patriots drafted Etling in the seventh round back in 2018, and the Falcons, Vikings, Seahawks, Broncos, Jaguars and Packers have all taken turns trying to figure out what Bill Belichick saw in the former Purdue/LSU quarterback.

Etling has never played an NFL down, and he bounced around so much that it’s hard to even make sense of his preseason record. (He went 10-of-13 for 97 yards for the Packers in the 2022 preseason; you cannot get info like that anywhere else, folks.) He’ll be parlaying “I sat next to Tom Brady in a meeting room” into a coaching job before you know it.

22. Jake Browning, Cincinnati Bengals

Browning threw 43 touchdown passes for University of Washington as a sophomore in 2016 and maintained a little bit of draftnik sleeper buzz until he spent three years with the Vikings getting shunted behind Sean Manning, Kyle Sloter and Kellen Mond on the depth chart. He found a home with the Bengals, who need every available nickel to pay Joe Burrow and expect their third-stringers to soak up preseason playing time (Browning attempted 64 passes last August) because they do not believe in playing their starters.

21. Shane Buechele, Kansas City Chiefs

Buechele threw for 422 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in the 2021 preseason and 335 yards, three touchdowns and 1 interception in the 2022 preseason. Those numbers are meaningless, of course, but there’s at least a body of evidence that shows Buechele can operate something approximating the Chiefs offense without hurting himself.

20. Logan Woodside, Atlanta Falcons

Woodside threw seven preseason touchdowns for the Titans in 2019 and 2021 (there was no preseason in 2020), but threw no touchdowns and three interceptions in the 2022 preseason, when he was primarily tasked with signaling Vrabel’s disappointment in Malik Willis.

Woodside has now rejoined Arthur Smith, where he will help install the offense (Smith needs lots of help saying “Here, Bijan”) and make sure that no one looks better than Desmond Ridder in training camp.

19. Brett Rypien, Los Angeles Rams

Rypien ranks a notch or two above the Peterman group and mystery men like Logan Woodside because he has enjoyed fleeting moments of almost-success in his spot starts.

Rypien helped the Broncos scratch out a win against the Cardinals in 2022 and has not humiliated himself in a pair of close losses to the Jets. It’s thin soup. and Rypien hurts his cause by managing to make unforced errors when mopping up lopsided losses. But the Broncos didn’t leave the tunnel looking to surrender when Rypien gets the call. That’s noteworthy, because the Broncos sometimes left the tunnel looking to surrender when Russell Wilson got the call.

18. Matt Corral, Carolina Panthers

It’s time for the Plucky Runaround Guys. Most of these third-string quarterbacks are undersized and have aerosol arms, which is why they are not second-stringers. But being able to scramble counts for something when you are the second guy off the bench.

The Panthers drafted Matt Corral in the third round for some reason last year – Matt Rhule was a treasure – then watched the pesky RPO machine from Mississippi go 1-of-9 in his preseason debut and get injured the following week. A smidge of upside keeps Corral from tanking his way down to the Peterman group.

17. Ian Book/Tanner McKee, Philadelphia Eagles

Book is Matt Corral with a weaker arm and one disastrous NFL start: a two-interception, six-sack debacle in a 20-3 loss to the Dolphins in 2021.

Book would rank lower if not for the chance that he will lose his roster spot to rookie Tanner McKee, a version of Davis Mills who does not look like a Gothic fresco of St. Aloysius the Giraffe Slayer.

16. Sam Ehlinger, Indianapolis Colts

Ehlinger joins Jake Fromm in the elite category of “quarterbacks who earned starts as a form of coaching protest.” Frank Reich replaced Matt Ryan with Ehlinger in 2022 as a not-so-subtle signal that he was weary of taking the fall for Chris Ballard’s annual quarterback wishcasting.

Ehlinger, a preseason fan favorite (four passing touchdowns and some scrambly fun last August) flailed around for two starts before Reich was fired, then returned to play semi-competent football late in the year.

Like Rypien, Ehlinger can point to the fact that he was never that much worse than the big-name starter he replaced.

15. Anthony Brown/Josh Johnson, Baltimore Ravens

If there were a Pro Football Hall of Fame for third-string quarterbacks, Josh Johnson would be the only member. Johnson’s presence on the bottom of the Ravens depth chart elevates Brown close to the top of the pesky scrambler tier.

Brown was dreadful in a brief appearance against the Steelers and a Week 18 start against the Bengals, but Johnson is on hand to provide the experience that comes from playing for 350 teams in 57 leagues over the course of his 44-year career.

14. Trace McSorley/Malik Cunningham, New England Patriots

Yes, we are all thinking the same thing: the Patriots view McSorley and Cunningham as Julian Edelman-type slot receivers. McSorley even dabbled in such a role when he was Lamar Jackson’s backup’s backup for the Ravens, which should give you a sense of his attributes as a quarterback.

In the event anything happens to Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe, the Patriots will be marginally more screwed at quarterback than they are if nothing happens to Jones and Zappe.

13. Max Duggan, Los Angeles Chargers

Welcome to the drafted rookie tier, where the inexperienced third-stringers must have something to offer that fellows named DeVito and Guarantano do not. In Duggan’s case: the lad led TCU to the national championship game last year. He got steamrolled by the Philadelphia Eagles AAA affiliate, but big game experience counts for something when you are likely to see your first action in the fourth quarter after Justin Herbert and Easton Stick have both been pulverized.

12. Jaren Hall, Minnesota Vikings

Hall looked like a polished signal caller with sound decision-making chops and half-decent wheels at BYU. Then he showed up at the Senior Bowl and practically had his helmet on backwards and shoelaces tied together: it was one of the worst weeks of practice in Mobile by a quarterback that I have ever seen.

A few bad days shouldn’t erase two seasons as a solid starter, and Hall has the potential to be better than most of the oddball backups and third-stringers (see the Jake Browning comment) the Vikings have auditioned in recent years.

11. Aidan O’Connell, Las Vegas Raiders

O’Connell looked efficient in a screens-and-slants heavy Purdue offense that featured skill-position talent like Charlie Jones (now with the Bengals) and Payne Durham (Buccaneers). He’s lead-footed and susceptible to brain cramps when the pocket breaks down, but he has enough positive attributes to max out as a decent NFL backup.

10. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Cleveland Browns

Thompson-Robinson is built like an offensive coordinator but tries to run like Derrick Henry, stiff-arming defenders 30 pounds heavier than him (sometimes successfully) at the ends of options and designed keepers. Hard-nosed scrambling could make him a preseason favorite and make him useful in an emergency relief appearance. It could also get him injured, causing someone else to make an emergency relief appearance.

9. Jake Haener, New Orleans Saints

Haener is the most creative and unpredictable of the B-minus-minus tier quarterback prospects; he could be a real wild card if forced to play, and a wild card is better than a Peterman or some coordinator-in-training.

Haener also enjoyed a Saints rookie photo shoot where he looked like he was channeling Adam Warlock from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3. But Haener ranks ahead of the other rookies largely because he would share snaps with Taysom Hill if forced into the lineup; laugh at the TaysomCat tactics which we have seen over the years if you like, but they work better than watching some rando throw the ball out of bounds on third-and-19.

8. Skyler Thompson, Miami Dolphins

We have finally reached the Maybe He is Not Awful tier of third-string quarterbacks, and Thompson is a highly probationary member. He was a preseason rock star as a rookie (five touchdowns), and while he was pretty dreadful when he played in the 2023 regular season, he played a LOT, usually when all heck was breaking loose around him.

Given more opportunities, Thompson could either elevate himself to “capable backup” status or join the Peterman brigade. The Dolphins really hope he is not given more opportunities.

7. Matt Barkley, Buffalo Bills

Most third-string quarterbacks strive to either dump the ball in the flat on third-and-15 or, at best, scramble their way into a little mischief. Barkley likes to throw it over the rainbow at every opportunity, making him a) Ken Dorsey’s spirit animal; b) a semi-convincing Josh Allen cosplayer; and c) a danger to himself and others. He ranks this high because of his decade of experience and the fact that the typical third-stringer is only a danger to himself.

6. Jeff Driskel/David Blough/Clayton Tune, Arizona Cardinals

Leave it to the Cardinals to obsessively horde deep-bench quarterbacks. At least they have a logical reason for it: Kyler Murray won’t be throwing in practice for a while, so the Cardinals need guys who can soak up reps. In the cases of Driskel (1-9 as a career starter, though with some OK stats) and Blough (who threw a 75-yard first-quarter touchdown to Kenny Golladay on Thanksgiving in 2019 and probably should have retired immediately), the Cardinals have a pair of camp arms who at least don’t need to be told how to hold a football. Tune is basically a cross between Haener and Duggan.

However you rank them, it’s inarguable that the Cardinals currently have the best fifth-string quarterback in the NFL.

5. Malik Willis, Tennessee Titans

Willis will never be the Cam Newton 2.0 some drafniks hyped him up to be based on their in-depth analysis of highlight reels of Liberty-Old Dominion games. But Willis can run, he throws hard, he’s big and he could still develop if the Titans staff doesn’t just push him out of the team bus and drive away like they clearly wanted to late last year (for whatever reason).

Who would you rather gameplan against: Willis or the dozens of guys you have read about so far? Thought so.

4. Hendon Hooker, Detroit Lions

This year’s version of Willis. Hooker reminds me of the young Ryan Tannehill and could probably become a top-25 starter if given a shot (once he heals from his ACL tear, of course). For now, he’s likely to make the second halves of Lions preseason games must-see TV.

3. Case Keenum, Houston Texans

Keenum would rank higher – he led the Vikings to the NFC Championship in 2017, after all – if he weren’t probably toast. Keenum has barely played in three years, and while he won a pair of spot starts for the 2021 Browns, one was against the Bengals backups in Week 18. (The other was the game where D’Ernest Johnson ran for six billion yards against the Broncos, who kept throwing red-zone interceptions and missing field goals).

All of that said, Keenum has real mentor value for C.J. Stroud, and that’s the only value the Texans really need from a third-string quarterback.

2. Mason Rudolph, Pittsburgh Steelers

Rudolph led the Steelers to a 5-3 record in 2019. That was the year he said something really bad to Myles Garrett, who slapped Rudolph in the face with his own helmet, and Delvin “Ducky” Hodges took over as the Steelers quarterback for a spell.

That could have been the end of the Rudolph story, but the Steelers like to keep their role players forever, and Rudolph was nominally in competition with Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky for a starting job in 2022 training camp.

Rudolph is entering his sixth year with the Steelers and has never totally embarrassed himself in the preseason or relief stints – except when he decided to sling slurs at one of the NFL’s toughest defenders.

1. Sam Darnold, San Francisco 49ers

Darnold led the Panthers to a 3-0 start in 2021, throwing the ball rather well in those games. He threw seven touchdown passes and just three interceptions in six starts after Matt Rhule was locked out of Panthers headquarters last year, leading a depleted offense to some defense-fueled wins. And Darnold doesn’t even turn 26 years old for another week or so, depending on when you read this.

Darnold may be a punchline compared to peers like Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, but he’s a superhero compared to Jake Fromm or Logan Woodside. In fact, there’s a chance that Darnold is the best quarterback on the 49ers roster. Trey Lance might still turn out to be an urban legend. As for Brock Purdy, what’s more impressive: a 7-1 record with some of the best talent in the NFL, or a 4-2 record for a team that was mismanaged by an escapee from the American Conference? OK, maybe the former. But Darnold has never had a game-planner or play-caller like Kyle Shanahan or a supporting cast like the 49ers.

And given the 49ers’ history with quarterback injuries, Darnold will likely get his chance.