Among the Bills' key free agent decisions to make is what to do at backup QB

Sal Maiorana
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

By all accounts, Buffalo Bills backup quarterback Matt Barkley is the consummate professional, not to mention an outstanding teammate and valuable sounding board for starter Josh Allen.

All of that is exactly what NFL teams look for in their backup at the most important position in sports. However, there’s also another key factor that must be folded into the recipe: Can we win with this guy if he had to play?

As important as those aforementioned intangibles are, if Allen were to get hurt — shudder the thought — and have to miss extended time, could Barkley step in and keep the Buffalo offense humming?

Barkley has been with the Bills since the middle of the 2018 season, that crazy year when he was one of four quarterbacks to start games for Buffalo, a group that also included Allen, Nathan Peterman and Derek Anderson.

Barkley started one game — the last before Allen returned to action after suffering an elbow injury — and completed 15 of 25 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns as the Bills blew out the Jets 41-10. That single performance landed him a two-year, $4 million free agent contract with the Bills in 2019.

In two-plus years with the Bills, Matt Barkley has started just one game.

Since then, Allen has not missed a start and Barkley’s only playing time has been limited to the fourth quarter of the 2019 home game against New England when Allen was knocked out with a concussion; fourth-quarter mop-up duty in two already-decided games; and the season finales in 2019 and 2020 when coach Sean McDermott pulled Allen to protect him for the upcoming playoffs.

None of those situations provide a true assessment of Barkley because with the exception of that game against New York, he wasn’t the quarterback getting the reps in the practice week and he came off the bench in less than ideal circumstances. 

Still, while he has seen very little from Barkley on the field, general manager Brandon Beane spoke highly of him during his season-ending Zoom conference with reporters.

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“I mean, what a selfless guy,” Beane said. “Some guys are the backup and they’re itching to play. Matt’s a competitor, he wants to play, but his first thing every day he walks in this door is to help Josh Allen be the best version of himself and that’s why it’s been so great to have him.”

And then, came the key portion of that quote as Beane ended it saying, “We’ll see on the business side where that ends up.”

As the start of free agency approaches, the Bills have several key decisions to make and one that can’t be overlooked — even though it’s one involving a backup — is what to do in the quarterback room.

► Do they re-sign Barkley as an unrestricted free agent and enter 2021 with the same three players — he, Davis Webb and Jake Fromm — competing to be Allen’s backup?

► Do they let Barkley walk, save money in a tight salary cap year, and roll the dice with Webb and Fromm, neither of whom has ever taken a snap in an NFL regular-season game?

► Or do they move on from Barkley and invest a little more capital to bring in another veteran, one with a higher profile and more playing experience?

The Bills are in a win-now mode with a roster that, as we found out in 2020, is capable of challenging for a Super Bowl berth. They have been extremely fortunate the past two years that Allen — despite his occasionally reckless style of play — has not suffered an injury that knocked him out for an extended period of time.

If Allen’s luck runs out in 2021 and he gets hurt, which avenue would give them the best chance to move forward in his absence? If I was making the call, I’d bring in someone new.

Let’s start by taking Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Mitchell Trubisky, Jacoby Brissett, Jaemis Winston, and Cam Newton off the table. They’re probably all hoping to either be the starter or at least compete for the job somewhere, and they would also cost too much.

Then, let’s eliminate guys like Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III, Geno Smith, Brian Hoyer who are all 31 years old or more but more important, just aren’t very good.

What’s left? Here are three possibilities for the Bills that I believe would be signable as well as upgrades over Barkley.

Tyrod Taylor

Tyrod Taylor was the Bills' starting quarterback from 2015-17.

Hey, don’t laugh. Taylor has settled into the role of backup quarterback in his two stops since leaving Buffalo, with the Browns and Chargers. In fact, in both cases, he was supposed to be the starter and gave way to high first-round picks Baker Mayfield and Justin Herbert in their rookie seasons only because he got hurt.

Taylor gave Buffalo three decent seasons and he was the quarterback on the team that ended the 17-year playoff drought. He’ll be 32 in August, but he can still play, and he’d be able to adapt to Brian Daboll’s scheme because of his mobility.

He made $11 million on his two-year deal with the Chargers, but it seems like the Bills could get him for less than that, unless he has hard feelings about Beane and McDermott moving on from him after he’d just led Buffalo to the postseason.

Ryan Fitzpatrick

Ryan Fitzpatrick spent four seasons in Buffalo as both a backup and a starter.

Yes, another former Bill, one with 16 years of NFL experience and 146 starts who could certainly steer the ship if Allen were out. I’ve been saying for several years that Fitz would be the ideal backup in Buffalo, but he kept winning starting jobs with the Titans, Texans, Jets, Buccaneers and Dolphins.

Now, whether he wants to believe it or not, those opportunities may be over and if he was willing to come back to Buffalo — which he has long stated was his favorite place to play — understanding that he was doing so strictly as a backup, I’d definitely try to work something out.

Allen doesn’t need a mentor now that he’s three years into Daboll’s system. The 38-year-old Fitz, who has reportedly considered retirement, would obviously be helpful in that role, but he would be here more as a short-term viable insurance policy, a guy you know can go in and succeed and keep the ship afloat.

Colt McCoy

Cleveland Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon (54) puts pressure on New York Giants quarterback Colt McCoy (12) during a game at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, December 20, 2020, in East Rutherford.

He’ll be 35 in September, and this might feel like a lateral move from the 31-year-old Barkley, maybe even a step back if age is a hang up. But like Barkley, McCoy has plenty of tread on his tires having played only 23 games (9 starts) since 2012.

The difference between the two is that McCoy has had more valuable playing time the past three years as he made five starts with the Redskins and Giants and he completed 62.5% of his passes. And McCoy might command less money than Barkley as his last contract was a one-year, $2.25 million deal with the Giants last year.

There are other names out there such as A.J. McCarron, Mike Glennon, C.J. Beathard, Blake Bortles, Brandon Allen, Nate Sudfeld and Blaine Gabbert, but it’s tough to envision any of them out-performing Barkley, so what’s the point in signing them?

All that said, if I had to guess what the Bills will do, the quarterback room will look the same as it did in 2020 and Barkley will be back.

Sal Maiorana can be reached at maiorana@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.