Meet the replacements: The 2023 NFL season becomes the year of the backup


The 2023 NFL season is the year of the backup quarterback. 

Injuries early on, including Aaron Rodgers’ devastating Achilles injury just four plays into his debut with the New York Jets in Week 1, and lackluster performances by others have led to a busy quarterback carousel this year. 

Some familiar faces have returned to the field, while other, lesser known players have stepped into the spotlight. 

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Will Levis, Tennessee Titans 

Will Levis of the Tennessee Titans warms up before kickoff against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium Dec. 11, 2023, in Miami Gardens, Fla.  (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Will Levis was passed over in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft. Looking back, several NFL teams may be dealing with a bit of regret. 

The former Kentucky quarterback started out the season as the third-string quarterback behind veteran Ryan Tannehill. But after Tannehill left with a high ankle sprain in the Titans’ loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Levis was bumped up behind Malik Willis. 

Ahead of Tennessee’s next matchup, head coach Mike Vrabel announced the rookie second-round pick would take over as the team’s starting quarterback, a position he’s maintained through Week 15. 

Levis is 3-4 as a starter and has completed 130 passes for 1,593 yards and eight touchdowns and thrown three interceptions. He has kept the Titans’ playoff hopes alive, most recently with an improbable comeback victory over the Miami Dolphins Monday night. 

Mitch Trubisky, Pittsburgh Steelers

Mitch Trubisky looks on during an NFL game

Mitch Trubisky of the Pittsburgh Steelers during a game against the New England Patriots at Acrisure Stadium Dec. 7, 2023, in Pittsburgh. (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Mitch Trubisky spent several years as a starter during his time with the Chicago Bears before he served in backup roles both with the Buffalo Bills and eventually the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But in his first season with the Steelers, Trubisky was named the starter over 2022 first-round draft pick Kenny Pickett. Eventually, head coach Mike Tomlin benched Trubisky in favor of Pickett, but the veteran was given another chance to prove himself when Pickett went down with an ankle injury in Week 13 this season. 

Trubisky lost his first game as a starter this season in a 21-18 loss to the struggling New England Patriots. He completed 22 passes for 190 yards and threw one touchdown and one interception. 

If Pittsburgh can keep its playoff chances alive, Trubisky could make his return to the postseason with Pickett out indefinitely after undergoing ankle surgery. 

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Bailey Zappe, New England Patriots

Bailey Zappe celebrates the Steelers

Bailey Zappe (4) of the New England Patriots celebrates during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Acrisure Stadium Dec. 7, 2023, in Pittsburgh.  (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Opportunity, not injury, has Bailey Zappe back as a starter. 

Drafted in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft out of Western Kentucky, Zappe went 2-0 in his starts for the New England Patriots in place of an injured Mac Jones during his rookie season.

But Jones’ repeated benching throughout the season this year resulted in head coach Bill Belichick announcing before a Week 13 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers that Zappe would be the starter. Despite losing the game, Zappe rebounded against the Steelers the following week, which included three first-half touchdowns, to improve to 3-1 as the team’s starter. 

Questions surrounding Jones’ abilities have led to speculation around Zappe and the position, but Belichick has declined to name a starter beyond last week’s game. 

Jake Browning, Cincinnati Bengals

Jake Browning throws a pass against the Colts

Jake Browning of the Cincinnati Bengals throws during the second half of a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Paycor Stadium Dec. 10, 2023, in Cincinnati.  (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Cincinnati Bengals are hoping to make the playoffs behind former Washington star Jake Browning, who has won two straight games as the team’s starter. 

Browning, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the Minnesota Vikings in 2019, wasn’t widely known around the league when he made his NFL debut with a brief appearance in the Bengals’ Week 1 loss to the Cleveland Browns. 

But a season-ending injury to franchise quarterback Joe Burrow in Week 11 allowed Browning to make a name for himself.

He is 2-1 as a starter, completing 77 passes for 924 yards and five touchdowns in five appearances. 

Joe Flacco, Cleveland Browns 

Joe Flacco looks to make a pass

Quarterback Joe Flacco (15) of the Cleveland Browns passes during the second quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Cleveland Browns Stadium Dec. 10, 2023, in Cleveland. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

A Super Bowl champion and MVP, Joe Flacco needs little introduction. 

The veteran signal-caller was a late addition to the Cleveland Browns’ roster after the team saw three different quarterbacks rotate in and out of the position. Deshaun Watson’s season-ending shoulder injury and rookie starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson entering concussion protocol gave way to Flacco’s return. 

At 38, his career seems far from over. 

Flacco completed 26 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns in the Browns’ victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday. It was just his second start with the team and enough for head coach Kevin Stefanski to commit to him for the remainder of the season, and possibly the playoffs. 

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Gardner Minshew, Indianapolis Colts 

Gardner Minshew II throws a pass

Gardner Minshew II of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass during a game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium Dec. 3, 2023, in Nashville. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Considered a journeyman quarterback, Gardner Minshew has proven he can be a starter in the NFL. 

Drafted in the sixth round of the 2019 draft, Minshew took over as the Jaguars starting quarterback when Nick Foles went down with an injury in Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs. He took over as the starter the following year but was benched at times due to injury and performance. 

After serving as a backup for Jalen Hurts during the 2021 and 2022 seasons, Minshew signed with the Indianapolis Colts, giving him a chance to prove himself after rookie Anthony Richardson was ruled out with a season-ending injury in Week 5. 

Minshew struggled initially, losing the next three games, but he quickly turned it around to win four straight and help keep the Colts’ playoff hopes alive. 

He’s completed 239 passes for 2,524 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for three scores in his 12 appearances this season.  

Aidan O’Connell, Las Vegas Raiders

Aidan O'Connell hands off the ball

Quarterback Aidan O’Connell (4) of the Las Vegas Raiders hands the ball off to running back Zamir White (35) in the third quarter of a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Allegiant Stadium Dec. 10, 2023, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The Las Vegas Raiders’ tumultuous season has had changes at both head coach and quarterback.

Sitting at the bottom of the AFC West, the Raiders parted ways with head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Zieglar in late October. Linebackers coach Antonio Pierce was named interim head coach, and Jimmy Garoppolo was benched in favor of rookie Aidan O’Connell. 

O’Connell won his first two starts, but the Raiders have dropped three straight since. He is 2-4 as a starter and has completed 134 passes for 1,365 yards and four touchdowns and thrown seven interceptions. 

After the team’s latest loss to the Vikings, Pierce said he’s continuing to evaluate the quarterback situation, suggesting the position is still up for grabs. 

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Tommy DeVito, New York Giants 

Tommy DeVito dives for yardage

Tommy DeVito (15) of the New York Giants dives and reaches for yardage during a game against the Green Bay Packers at MetLife Stadium Dec. 11, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J. (Michael Owens/Getty Images)

The New York Giants’ season went from bad to worse when Daniel Jones and his backup Tyrod Taylor both went down with injuries, adding to the team’s offensive woes. An unknown New Jersey native by the name of Tommy DeVito stepped in and has given Giants fans something to hold on to. 

An undrafted rookie out of Syracuse, DeVito took over for Taylor in Week 8 and again in Week 9 when Jones went down with what would be a season-ending ACL tear. 

DeVito lost his first NFL start to the Dallas Cowboys but ha since won three straight, including a narrow victory over the Green Bay Packers Monday night. 

Head coach Brian Daboll has committed to DeVito for the remainder of the season despite Taylor’s return. 

Nick Mullens, Minnesota Vikings 

Nick Mullens yells on field

Nick Mullens of the Minnesota Vikings yells while walking off the field after his team’s 3-0 win against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium Dec. 10, 2023, in Las Vegas. (Ian Maule/Getty Images)

Nick Mullens will be the fourth starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings after head coach Kevin O’Connell announced that the team would be going with the veteran journeyman over Joshua Dobbs following a brutal 3-0 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders. 

“There’s a reason we went out and got Nick when we did, to really solidify that position. Anytime we’re going out to try to find a quarterback that you feel like, when he’s one snap away, can win you some football games, you look for certain traits. Nick has them all,” O’Connell told reporters. 

He will take over for Dobbs, who went 2-2 as a starter.

Mullens, 28, was acquired by the Vikings in a trade with the Raiders during the 2022 offseason. 

Easton Stick, Los Angeles Chargers

Easton Stick stands on the sideline

Easton Stick of the Los Angeles Chargers during the fourth quarter of a game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium Nov. 6, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J.   (Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Chargers will be without quarterback Justin Herbert for the remainder of the season after he underwent surgery to repair a broken index finger on his right hand. The team placed the fourth-year signal-caller on injured reserve Tuesday, and Easton Stick was promoted. 

Stick, a four-time FCS champion out of North Dakota State, was drafted in the fifth round in 2019 and made his brief debut with the Chargers in 2020. He played his first NFL snap, however, in last week’s loss to the Denver Broncos after Herbert was ruled out in the second quarter. 

Stick completed 13 passes for 179 yards.

Zach Wilson, New York Jets 

Zach Wilson celebrates defeating the Texans

Zach Wilson of the New York Jets reacts after a 30-6 win over the Houston Texans at MetLife Stadium Dec. 10, 2023 in East Rutherford, N.J. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

From starter to backup and back to starter. That’s been Zach Wilson’s journey with the New York Jets, which took an unfortunate turn in Week 1 when Aaron Rodgers ruptured his Achilles after just four plays. 

Wilson managed to keep the team afloat through their bye week. But after five straight loses, he was eventually sent back to the bench – this time as the third stringER. Another brutal loss to the Atlanta Falcons brought Wilson back under center, and he put on a stellar performance in Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans.

Wilson has completed 217 passes for 2,245 yards and eight touchdowns and thrown seven interceptions in 12 appearances. 

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