NFL QB succession rankings: Will Packers' plan hit big like others recently?

It’s hard to find a competent quarterback in the NFL, and it’s even harder when a team has to move on from a Pro Bowl-level starter.

Teams have tried many different ways to do it, from drafting an heir apparent to signing a free agent or even trading for an established quarterback. One natural maneuver is to promote a backup after at least one year behind the incumbent. It’s the NFL’s version of a succession plan. Only a few teams have attempted it in recent years, and an even smaller number triumphed.

The Green Bay Packers are trying to do it for the second time in 15 years this season. When Green Bay traded Aaron Rodgers — who himself had taken over for Brett Favre in 2008 after he served as Favre’s backup for three seasons — to the New York Jets a few weeks ago, the Packers officially handed the keys of their franchise to 2020 first-round draft pick Jordan Love. The fourth-year quarterback has huge shoes to fill in Rodgers, a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer, and has started just one game and attempted only 83 passes during his first two seasons.

Recent history has actually boded well for teams embarking on succession plans. But that doesn’t mean everything will work for the Packers. There have been several noteworthy instances in the past 10 years of teams replacing their incumbent starter with a backup from the previous season. One note: We’re only counting quarterbacks who played seven or fewer games the season before he became the Week 1 starter.

Here’s how it worked out for them:

INC. Trey Lance taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo (San Francisco 49ers, 2022)

It’s hard to completely rank this move until we know what happens to Lance, but all signs point to this being a 49ers failure. Lance’s NFL career is still young and has been littered with injuries, but San Francisco paid a lot to trade up and draft him No. 3 overall in 2021. The 49ers handed control to Lance in 2022 after one year behind Garoppolo, but an ankle injury ended his sophomore season after two games. Brock Purdy, the 2022 seventh-rounder, likely surpassed Lance on the 49ers' depth chart after a great rookie campaign and San Francisco reportedly fielded trade offers for Lance this offseason.

The 49ers' Trey Lance succession plan is decidedly up in the air at the moment. (AP Photo/Scot Tucker)
The 49ers' Trey Lance succession plan is decidedly up in the air at the moment. (AP Photo/Scot Tucker)

7. Trevor Siemian taking over for Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos, 2016)

It’s almost impossible to replace a Hall of Fame quarterback, let alone replace one with a second-year seventh-round draft pick. But that’s exactly what the Broncos tried to do in 2016 after Manning’s main backup Brock Osweiler, signed with the Houston Texans the same offseason Manning retired from the NFL. Siemian beat out rookie Paxton Lynch and veteran Mark Sanchez for the job and played well enough to keep the job for 2017. But he lost it by Week 8 of that season and is now on his fourth team since 2018.

6. Jameis Winston taking over for Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints, 2021)

The Saints probably thought they had found an heir to Brees when Winston went 5-2 to open the 2021 season. Winston threw for 1,170 yards, 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions after he sat behind Brees in 2020. But an ACL tear derailed Winston’s first season as the Saints’ starter. The following year, Winston went 1-2 with more interceptions than touchdowns and didn’t play again after he injured his back before he lost the starting job to Andy Dalton. Now, Winston is the backup to Derek Carr in New Orleans.

5. Colin Kaepernick taking over for Alex Smith (San Francisco 49ers, 2013)

Kaepernick played for an injured Smith midway though the 2012 season and eventually won the job en route to the 49ers’ Super Bowl appearance that season. He officially took over as the starter in 2013 when San Francisco traded Smith to the Chiefs. Kaepernick started out hot with a 12-4 record, 3,197 passing yards, 25 total touchdowns and an NFC championship game berth, but lasted only three more seasons before he was out of the league. We all know why.

Geno Smith was a big hit last season in Seattle after taking over for Russell Wilson. (Photo by Jane Gershovich/Getty Images)

4. Geno Smith taking over for Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks, 2022)

Smith was a nine-year veteran before he won the Seahawks' starting job when Seattle traded Wilson to the Broncos. He hadn’t been a full-time starter since he played for the Jets from 2013-2014, but Smith proved in his limited time as Wilson’s backup that he could still play at a high level. Smith led the league with a 69.8 completion percentage in 2022 and finished with career highs in passing yards and passing touchdowns before he took the Seahawks to the playoffs. Seattle rewarded him with a new contract this offseason.

3. Jalen Hurts taking over for Carson Wentz (Philadelphia Eagles, 2021)

While the Eagles may not have drafted Hurts to eventually supplant Wentz, that’s exactly what he did in 2021 after Philadelphia traded Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts. Hurts didn’t have a spectacular season as the team’s full-time starter but became an elite quarterback in 2022 when he led the Eagles to the Super Bowl. Hurts played tremendously vs. the Chiefs even in defeat, and signed a five-year, $255 million extension with $179.4 million guaranteed this offseason.

2. Lamar Jackson taking over for Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens, 2019)

Jackson became the third quarterback in NFL history to win MVP in his first season as the team’s Week 1 starter a year after he started the final seven games for Flacco in Baltimore as a rookie. Since then, Jackson has been one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL with a 39-15 record over the past five seasons. He signed a five-year, $260 million deal with $185 million guaranteed this spring.

1. Patrick Mahomes taking over for Alex Smith (Kansas City Chiefs, 2018)

This might be the greatest succession story since Steve Young replaced an injured Joe Montana in 1991. Kansas City always planned to sit Mahomes behind Smith, even after the Chiefs traded up in the draft to No. 10 to take Mahomes in 2017 and he played one game his rookie season before taking over the NFL in his second year. Mahomes went 12-4 and won MVP in 2018 before the Chiefs lost to Patriots in AFC title game that season. He went on to sign a 10-year, $450 million deal with Kansas City, and win two Super Bowls and second MVP award over the next five seasons.