Who should be Joe Burrow’s backup? Weighing Bengals’ options and most likely move


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CINCINNATI — In a few short weeks, the opportunity to properly vet and develop a backup quarterback for Joe Burrow morphed from a silver lining to a black cloud.

The play of Trevor Siemian and Jake Browning throughout camp and two preseason games has left much to be desired and opened the question of what exactly the Cincinnati Bengals plan to do for franchise star insurance policy.

Nobody is saying the backup quarterback must be able to arrive and lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl, although Nick Foles did just that once upon a time for Carson Wentz (more on them in a minute).

No, this is about serviceability. If needed to start over the course of a month, can they man the ship to .500 or better?

The Bengals are considering all options right now, but the concept of anyone arriving and being forced to learn the system on the fly cuts off potential paths. As do financial expectations placed on the value of the position.

Let’s start with assessing where Browning versus Siemian stands right now approaching the final preseason game Saturday in Washington.

The in-house battle

To be clear, neither Browning nor Sieman played well enough to declare the competition anything other than what head coach Zac Taylor did on Monday.

“That race is not over yet,” Taylor said. “We’ve talked to both those guys. We’ll keep that in-house where it stands today and let them get through this game. That decision has not been made. But we’ve got three days of work left this week and then we got a game and … certainly after this game, we have to make a decision because time is running out.”

Taylor said the competition has included mostly even split reps over three days and the game, with fourth quarterback Reid Sinnett earning a chance to play late.

As far as who has been better to this point, there’s no denying the 27-year-old Browning has proven more effective than the veteran Siemian in his game opportunities.

This chart shows the key stat ranks against each other as well as rank among the 29 quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts this preseason.

Browning vs. Siemian

Player Jake Browning Trevor Siemian


46 (11th)

42 (17th)


6.0 (19th)

4.4 (29th)


12.8% (14th)

19.0% (28th)


47.8% (7th)

33.3% (27th)


-0.08 (20th)

-0.28 (28th)

Not only does Siemian rank last in yards per attempt, he’s a full yard less than 28th-ranked Kellen Mond in Cleveland at 5.4 yards per attempt. Siemian ranks in the bottom three in all these categories.

Meanwhile, Browning enjoyed his moments and drove for the team’s lone touchdown in the tie in Atlanta. The overall passing success percentage is notable and Taylor noticed an important trend in his tempo within the offense translating paper concepts to field production.

“Jake has now been here for several years,” Taylor said. “He understands the system and how you want to operate it. That’s an advantage he’s had from the jump. I think his urgency has continued to increase lately. I really like that. He does a great job just as a leader. Guys believe in him and as he moves around and operates there is a confidence there that guys have. You see that from Trevor as well. Jake, you can see why he’s had a really successful high school career, a really successful college career and he’s getting these opportunities in the league to fight his way up a depth chart really has been the story of his career.”

Beyond throwing, also keep in mind Browning has added six scrambles for 55 yards and Siemian has yet to take off running. Browning’s ugly, scrambling interception in the fourth quarter against the Falcons weighs heavily as the most egregious mistake by either QB through two games.

It partially highlights a notable difference in styles between the two when it comes to avoiding pressure behind a backup offensive line that’s experienced a significant amount of issues. Siemian reverted to getting the ball out immediately while Browning stayed dedicated to making plays.

Browning vs. Siemian, pressure

Stat Browning Siemian


2.75 (22nd)

2.25 (2nd)

Pressure% (PFF)

50% (29th)

31.0% (13th)


4.3% (12th)

0% (t-1st)

Air Yards/Attempt

8.62 (9th)

7.67 (16th)

Nothing is wrong with Siemian’s style of getting the ball out fast, as a veteran you would expect as much. The problem is the ball coming out fast needs to produce completions and much more positive yardage.

Quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher preached the need for more consistency from the position in order to feel confident in the backup. That’s where Browning has tried to ride a line and differentiated his approach.

“I’ve been in some quarterback competitions where they keep preaching consistency and then you start playing too conservative,” he said. “That’s not good, either. For me, yeah, play consistent, but if the ball is supposed to go somewhere, I’m not afraid to rip it there and make those throws. We need to make those throws with how our offense is.”

Paying veteran backups?

There is a handful of experienced backups still available in free agency. Foles and Wentz would both be considered an upper tier of potential backups because of their recent experience and levels of success.

The problem for the Bengals would be the cost. Both would likely require a salary much higher than the Bengals will be willing to go. That’s normal for backup quarterbacks of stars across the league.

Here’s a look at backup quarterback salaries for the top-paid quarterbacks (average annual value) in the NFL.

• Justin Herbert–Easton Stick: $1.2 million
• Lamar Jackson–Tyler Huntley: $2.7 million (RFA tender)
• Jalen Hurts–Marcus Mariota: $5 million (cap hit $1.9 million, four void years)
• Russell Wilson–Jarrett Stidham: $3 million (Wilson insurance)
• Kyler Murray–Colt McCoy: $5 million (Murray hurt)
• Deshaun Watson-Josh Dobbs: $2 million
• Patrick Mahomes–Blaine Gabbert: $1.1 million
• Josh Allen–Kyle Allen: $1.1 million

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but the Bengals don’t have exceptions. They have Burrow. They also have a host of bills to pay on prominent players. The idea of entering the Stidham-Mariota world doesn’t make sense.

Also, consider anyone they add from the outside at this point would need to learn the system and start over building chemistry with the starting receivers. If the biggest concern entering this year is an aggravation of the calf injury, then the ability of that quarterback to pick up quickly and win games the first month of the season matters more than it would in an average situation.

Carson Wentz’s price tag would likely be too high to be the Bengals’ backup QB. (Brad Mills / USA Today)

Taylor didn’t completely rule out a new quarterback being able to enter the building and quickly get up to speed, but the daunting challenge is a clear advantage for Browning and Siemian.

“I think anything’s feasible,” Taylor said. “But at the same time, there are a lot of nuances to our offense when you’re asking that guy to learn that quickly and be able to operate it in a game, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge in any system. I think it’s a challenge in our system. These guys, I like where they’re headed mentally with our system. I like where they’re headed physically in terms of operating with the urgency and the communication that we want, and the accuracy.”

That said, are the Bengals considering other options? Of course they are. The play has not been good enough and they do that at every position, especially the most important spot in sports.

One name on other rosters stands out above the rest: Brandon Allen. He was the backup for Burrow the last two years and one with whom everybody has comfort. He had the trust of his teammates for the success he enjoyed during portions of the 2020 season when asked to play.

Most importantly, he knows the offense.

He’s fourth on the depth chart in San Francisco behind Brock Purdy, Trey Lance and Sam Darnold. Keeping three quarterbacks makes slightly more sense this year with the ability to keep a third active as an extra player if on the 53. That rule was put in place this year specifically because of what happened to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. More than likely, they will be taking advantage. Allen played well enough, according to reports, but has seen his snaps fade dramatically. The chances of any of the top three SF quarterbacks being dealt are considered slim. As is the chance they keep four.

“I think four on a 53 would be very challenging,” general manager John Lynch said on Aug. 1. “Four in the building is certainly possible. And it’s one of those things, I think we just want to throw it all out there, let things unfold, and then we’ll figure out the details as we go. We’re all product of our experiences and that experience wasn’t real cool last year.”

If Allen ends up being cut as anticipated, a reunion with the Bengals would make a ton of sense. It also wouldn’t necessarily mean the end for Browning or Siemian. You could see Cincinnati running with three quarterbacks early in the year as they figure out what to do next or shift one to the practice squad after a week or two.

Other options and a best-case scenario?

When canvassing the rest of the league, a few names with potential could end up on the chopping block and be exposed to waivers.

PJ Walker (Bears), Brett Rypien (Rams), Nate Sudfeld (Lions), Kellen Mond (Browns), Will Grier (Cowboys) and Jake Fromm (Commanders) are the most notable candidates to potentially be let go from across the league. Would any of those be a better option than Browning, Siemian or Allen if called upon in the third quarter in Cleveland on Sept. 10? Probably not.

Could they be picked up and given a chance to learn and be an option down the line? More likely. That’s probably how any waiver-wire solution would unfold.

With the new third QB rule this year, it’s a small incentive to keep three instead of two. The uncertainties of the current backup situation provide a larger reason.

Unexpected moves can happen with veteran quarterbacks potentially being available for trade, but there’s not exactly an inventory of veterans on reasonable backup contracts where the team is looking to gut depth.

The best-case scenario for the Bengals at this moment would be Browning building off the solid conclusion to the Atlanta game and decisively winning the job, developing trust among coaches and teammates this week that he can hold down the role of No. 2. In that scenario, Cincinnati will still be looking to add a quarterback to develop behind him at final cuts.

One fact we know for sure, the situation must improve for anybody in the building to think the Bengals can hold it together if Burrow missed a chunk of time. In that regard, a significant week lies ahead.

“I think both of them have gotten better over training camp,” Taylor said. “I’ve been really pleased with that. So again, (they’re) two guys that are really headed in the right direction. We’ve got plenty of opportunities in practice that we build in to be able to assess those guys. We’ll take in the full picture and make a decision from there.”

(Top photos: Brandon Allen: Robert Edwards / USA Today; Trevor Siemian: Kareem Elgazzar / USA Today; Jake Browning: Katie Stratman / USA Today)

“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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