Matt Miller's Scouting Notebook: Predicting the NFL's Biggest Position Battles

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterAugust 25, 2017

Blake Bortles (left) could be watching Chad Henne (right) from the sidelines this year.
Blake Bortles (left) could be watching Chad Henne (right) from the sidelines this year.Associated Press

Three weeks ago, NFL teams seemed to have everything, for the most part, figured out. That seems so long ago. Now we're looking at multiple teams headed into the pivotal third week of the preseason with major question marks and position battles to be fought. This week's Scouting Notebook will start with a look at the 10 biggest fights for starting jobs in the NFL. 

Every team wants to think it has an answer at quarterback once the NFL draft ends. Whether you've signed a big-money free agent such as Mike Glennon or traded up in the draft to select Mitch Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson, front offices want to feel comfortable with the guy under center. The Jacksonville Jaguars doubled-down on the incumbent starter only to realize too late that Blake Bortles is still a bad quarterback and their need at the position is more pressing than they thought.

Starting quarterbacks can be divided into tiers—elite, good, average, bad—and in too many locker rooms there are bad quarterbacks atop the depth chart. The Bears, Texans, Jaguars and New York Jets all enter the season with a bad passer heading the charge. The good news in Chicago and Houston at least is that a young quarterback is waiting in the wings.

In each instance listed above, a decision must be made as to whom the starter will be. Even if that decision can change throughout the season—and most likely all of them will—you have to enter Week 1 of the regular season with a direction. As the saying goes, "When you have two starting quarterbacks, you really have none."


Follow Mike Glennon vs Mitchell Trubisky, Tom Savage vs Deshaun Watson, Alex Smith vs Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the NFL's major QB battles with the new B/R app.


Starting quarterbacks aren't the only major position battles to watch, though. The Bengals, Chiefs and Seahawks are trying to decide which running back will get the most carries. In Detroit, the Lions need to figure out who the left tackle will be while they replace the injured Taylor Decker, who's recovering from shoulder surgery.

The third preseason game is the last dress rehearsal for the season. It's a time when you want your starters playing a solid half of football, and it's arguably the only instance in the preseason that teams spend time and resources game-planning and scheming for the opponent before letting the starters rest in Week 4.

How will the top 10 position battles shake out? Here are my predictions:

  • Browns QB: Brock Osweiler won't play in the third preseason game, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, and rookie DeShone Kizer has the No. 1 job for this week. That's a good indication of what the team sees in its second-rounder. Kizer has ideal size (6'4", 233 lbs), arm strength and mobility but struggles with decision-making and spot accuracy. He's still the best bet right now and long-term. The Browns also need to see what they have in Kizer before deciding if the top need for the coming offseason is a quarterback. Prediction: Kizer
  • Bears QB: Mike Glennon was signed in a free-agent move that left me scratching my head in confusion after they paid him $45 million over three years. It was even more confusing when they then traded up to the No. 2 pick in the draft to select Trubisky from North Carolina. Some may point back to the Seattle Seahawks' similar move to sign Matt Flynn before drafting Russell Wilson (in Round 3) and how well that worked for them. The Bears might be that lucky. Glennon has looked awful in the preseason while Trubisky continues to impress when running the offense with largely backups around him. As a one-year starter in college, Trubisky is still learning, which could give Glennon the job even if he hasn't earned it. I expect to see this job change hands midseason. Prediction: Glennon
  • Texans QB: Head coach Bill O'Brien has named Tom Savage the starter, but how long will he hold on to that gig? Watson was selected after a move up in the 2017 draft and has flashed enough in the preseason to give the front office hope. Watson, unlike Savage, can also move the ball with his legs behind an offensive line that hasn't been solid without holdout Duane Brown at left tackle. Savage is safer and won't turn the ball over—an important trait given the talented Houston defense—but it's only a matter of time before we see Watson running the offense. Prediction: Savage
  • Jaguars QB: Bortles is bad. Really bad. No matter how many fantasy points he got you in the past, it's time to accept that Jacksonville's decision to draft him No. 3 overall in the 2014 class was a mistake. Nothing better highlights that point than the fact that the Jaguars' starting quarterback job is back open between Bortles and the guy he was drafted to replace, Chad Henne. The Jags are truly stuck in quarterback purgatory with the same guys competing again for the starting job. Bortles' mechanics have fallen apart, and he's become timid as a passer. It's like you can see him doubting every pass as the ball leaves his hand. If any team is going to sign Colin Kaepernick, it should be Jacksonville (and it should have happened a month ago or more). Prediction: Henne
  • Jets QB: Josh McCown, Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg? That's the big question for the Jets this summer. Everything we've seen this preseason would point to McCown's being the starter—especially after Hackenberg struggled in preseason Week 2. Petty, for the most part, has been an afterthought and hasn't made a move toward the starting job. Whoever starts Week 1, the Jets have to find out if there's a future with Hackenberg, so expect to see him starting at some point in the regular season. Prediction: McCown
  • 49ers QB: Three new quarterbacks are taking snaps for the 49ers this season after new GM John Lynch gutted the depth chart. Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley were signed as free agents, with C.J. Beathard coming in via the NFL draft. The early order has Hoyer starting, but there has always been room for either Barkley or Beathard to replace him. While both have been solid in the preseason, this is Hoyer's job given his experience in Kyle Shanahan's offense. Prediction: Hoyer
  • Bengals RB: Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard are the incumbents, with rookie second-rounder Joe Mixon expected to take some touches. Mixon is a combination of the two veterans with Hill's power and downhill skills and Bernard's hands. But until the team is comfortable with him as a pass protector, we won't see him as the featured back. In due time, though, this will be Mixon's job. Just not right away. Prediction: Hill
  • Chiefs RB: The Chiefs let Jamaal Charles go, and they enter 2017 relying on Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West, C.J. Spiller and rookie Kareem Hunt. It's unlikely all four are active on game days, but all four could make the roster. Ware knows the offense and best fits what Andy Reid wants in a three-down back, but he lacks the athleticism of Spiller or Hunt. West, when healthy, can be a very good between-the-tackles back. Who gets the load of the touches early on? Prediction: Ware
  • Seahawks RB: There are a ton of backs looking to carry the rock in Seattle, and it's unlikely one or two will ever emerge as the "go-to" guys. Thomas Rawls is the most talented, but he can't stay healthy. Eddie Lacy is, well, Eddie Lacy. He's a fine short-yardage back if he's motivated. Alex Collins and Mike Davis are two backs I really liked coming out of college, but neither has emerged as a top guy yet. The player to watch is C.J. Prosise given his ability as a receiver out of the backfield. Prediction: Rawls
  • Lions LT: Decker was a first-round draft pick in the 2016 class and looked like a cornerstone on the offensive line. Then he got hurt. Decker will likely miss the season, and that opened the door for Detroit to acquire Greg Robinson in a trade and sign Cyrus Kouandjio. From talks I've had with scouts and coaches in Detroit, this job is Robinson's to lose. Prediction: Robinson

           

Here's what else is going on this week:

  • Top five under-the-radar prospects for next year's draft
  • Which NFL teams will need a new QB in 2018
  • College football Week 1 watch list
  • The nation's top pass-rusher likely to miss Week 1
  • Stick to Football Episode 20 with Kansas City Chiefs reporter BJ Kissel

The Scout's Report

—The Alabama defense is loaded with talent (again) and already scouts are talking about the upcoming group. Linebackers Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton have received third round marks from scouts I spoke to this summer. Defensive backs Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison and Anthony Averett all have Round 1 scores. Up-front, defensive tackles Da'Ron Payne and DaShaw Hand both have top 32 potential, but scouts have pegged them as Day 2 grades.

—Top pass-rusher Arden Key is expected sit out the LSU opener vs. BYU after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery. Key has legitimate top 10 talent.

—Andy Reid said what we've been saying all summer; the quarterback job in Kansas City isn't open. Reid, in a press conference, said Alex Smith will be the starter this year.

—Here's a name to watch this season. Pitt quarterback Max Browne, a transfer from USC, was named the starter. This is oddly similar to the paths Tom Savage and Nathan Peterman took to Pitt before becoming NFL quarterbacks.

Former USC starter Max Browne could be the next transfer to Pitt to find a home in the NFL.
Former USC starter Max Browne could be the next transfer to Pitt to find a home in the NFL.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press/Associated Press

—Arkansas center Frank Ragnow has All-American talent as a college center, but an NFL scout I spoke to this week liked him as a Day 3 talent citing Ragnow's lack of play power and hip flexibility as an issue.

Sam Darnold is already making a name for himself with scouts for his character. Said one high-level executive to me this week, "Darnold's football IQ, leadership and character are the best I've seen in five years. Higher than [Marcus] Mariota's were."

—Michigan's defensive line will be among the nation's best this season and already scouts are raving about tackle Mo Hurst. He was a rotational guy before this year, but one scout told me his first step and power will make him a first-rounder.

—Here's a scout's quote I completely disagree with currently: "You're too high on the Clemson kid (Christian Wilkins). He's small and only makes plays because of the talent around him." Wilkins is a top five player on my board.

           

5 Names to Know

Here are my early under-the-radar prospects for 2018's draft class:

           

5. Nick Fitzgerald, Quarterback (Mississippi State)

Fitzgerald is one to watch this season out of the SEC.
Fitzgerald is one to watch this season out of the SEC.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

We've spent all summer talking about Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Darnold. Now it's time to dig deep and look at some other potential quarterbacks in the 2018 draft class. Mississippi State redshirt junior Nick Fitzgerald took the starting job last season and was solid in his debut. He's big (6'5", 230 lbs) and has the arm strength to make all the throws. Fitzgerald is also a threat with his legs. He needs to be more accurate after completing only 54.3 percent of his passes and notching a 21-touchdown, 10-interception season, but the talent is there to watch. 

           

4. Mark Walton, Running Back (Miami)

Mark Walton burst onto the scene in 2016 when he rushed for over 100 yards in each of his first three games. The production slowed after that as Walton struggled to go over the century mark until November, when he once again ripped off three straight 100-yard games. With ideal balance, burst and vision, Walton looks like a future starting NFL back. He'll be asked to carry the Miami offense in 2017, which should give scouts a chance to see if he can improve his consistency.     

         

3. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Edge-Rusher (Oklahoma)

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo was a 210-pound recruit, but he's turned into a polished pass-rusher and carries a solid 240 pounds on a 6'1" frame. After posting nine sacks in 2016—and 54 pressures—it's clear Okoronkwo is one of the Big 12's best pass-rushers. He's a little undersized for a defensive end, but could be a nice fit as a 3-4 edge-rusher.

           

2. Kamryn Pettway, Running Back (Auburn)

Flying under the radar in a deep RB class, Pettway could be a star.
Flying under the radar in a deep RB class, Pettway could be a star.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

The 2018 running back class looks like it will be another good one. Derrius Guice and Saquon Barkley get a lot of the hype, but Auburn's Kamryn Pettway is another quality, pro-caliber back to watch. A bruiser at 6'0", 235 pounds, Pettway may remind fans of former Texas back D'Onta Foreman. He has to stay healthy in 2017 to become a top-100 pick.

            

1. Josey Jewell, Linebacker (Iowa)

A legitimate All-American candidate at linebacker, Josey Jewell (6'2", 236 lbs) has the range, toughness and instincts to walk into an NFL defense as a starting inside or weak-side linebacker. He's a machine who makes tackles all over the field and has shown an ability to run down mobile quarterbacks or play in coverage against tight ends.

             

Parting Shots

10. Let's just call this what it is in Jacksonville. It's a mistake. A huge one. And it won't be a surprise if general manager David Caldwell is fired for it with team president Tom Coughlin ultimately taking over.

In the 2014 NFL draft, the Jaguars held the No. 3 pick. Many people who worked there at that time have told me they expected the pick to be Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. But Caldwell kept his cards close to his vest and told no one of his love for Bortles.

The draft night surprise pick then worked his way into the starting lineup early in his rookie season. The early flashes from Bortles never materialized into consistent play, though. Even a sophomore season that saw him throw 35 touchdowns featured a league-leading 18 interceptions. It should also be mentioned that of those 35 touchdowns, he threw 29 while trailing.

Bortles could be pointing from the bench very soon.
Bortles could be pointing from the bench very soon.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Now Bortles is sitting on the bench while the man he was drafted to replace, Henne, takes the starting job to close out the meaningful preseason snaps. And as mentioned above, that's a change I expect to stick. 

The Jaguars need a franchise quarterback after spending a top-five pick on one just four drafts ago. You don't get to miss that big in the NFL and keep your job.

           

9. Speaking of bad quarterbacks, a lot of teams will need a new starter in 2018. Here's my short list of teams that will need to add a starting-caliber passer after this season due to either poor talent, free agency or aging starters:

  • Cardinals: Carson Palmer has only a few seasons left, and there is no clear-cut successor in place.
  • Bills: Tyrod Taylor is a good quarterback, but the Bills don't appear sold on that. He could be moved.
  • Browns: Maybe Kizer is the answer long term, but it's too early to say for sure.
  • Broncos: Here's another team that spent a first-rounder on a quarterback (Paxton Lynch), which hasn't worked out so far.
  • Jaguars: As mentioned, they're starting over.
  • Chargers: Identifying a quarterback of the future soon is a need.
  • Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill's contract can be voided after this season. Head coach Adam Gase might want to find his own man at the position.
  • Saints: Drew Brees is still great, but the end is near for him. 
  • Giants: Eli Manning will be 37 years old next offseason and has clearly regressed.
  • Jets: This is the worst quarterback depth chart outside of Cleveland.
  • 49ers: Despite spending a third-round pick on Beathard, the 49ers won't find a long-term answer there.
  • Washington: Unless Kirk Cousins is signed to a new deal, quarterback remains a yearly need.

            

8. Bortles is one of the biggest busts of the 2014 NFL draft, but now that we've seen three seasons of play from that class, it's prime time to point out a few other misses. Try not to lose your lunch remembering some of these picks.

  • Greg Robinson, No. 2 overall, St. Louis Rams
  • Justin Gilbert, No. 8 overall, Cleveland Browns
  • Kyle Fuller, No. 14 overall, Chicago Bears
  • Calvin Pryor, No. 18 overall, New York Jets
  • Johnny Manziel, No. 22 overall, Cleveland Browns
  • Marcus Smith, No. 26 overall, Philadelphia Eagles
  • Dominique Easley, No. 29 overall, New England Patriots

       

7. Hey! College football is back this weekend. There are only a handful of games, but that won't stop me from camping out on my couch with a fresh legal pad and a pot of chili all day. Here are a few players I'm excited to watch in the openers:

       

Oregon State at Colorado State

  • C Brayden Kearsley, S Brandon Arnold 
  • C Jake Bennett, OT Zack Golditch, QB Nick Stevens, WR Michael Gallup

         

Portland State at BYU

  • S Tyler Foreman
  • C Tejan Koroma, DT Kesni Tausinga, LB Fred Warner, OG Tuni Kanuch, OG Ului Lapuaho, S Micah Hannemann, TE Tanner Balderree

Hawaii at UMass

  • C John Waa, OG Dejon Allen, TE Metuisela Unga
  • DE Sha-Ki Holines, P Logan Laurent, QB Austin Whipple, TE Adam Breneman, TE Todd Stafford

         

South Florida at San Jose State

QB Quinton Flowers of South Florida is one of the top senior QBs in the country.
QB Quinton Flowers of South Florida is one of the top senior QBs in the country.Brandon Wade/Associated Press
  • (USF) CB Deatrick Nichols, DT Deadrin Senat, LB Auggie Sanchez, QB Quinton Flowers, S Tajee Fullwood, WR D'Ernest Johnson
  • (SJSU) CB Andre Chachere, P Michael Carrizosa, S Maurice McKnight

Stanford vs. Rice

CB Quenton Meeks, CB Alijah Holder, CB Terrence Alexander, DE Eric Cotton, FB Daniel Marx, LB Bobby Okereke, LB Peter Kalambayi, LB Kevin Palma, OG Brandon Fanaika, OT Casey Tucker, OT David Bright, QB Ryan Burns, TE Dalton Schultz, TE Greg Taboada, WR Trenton Irwin

C Trey Martin, LB Emmanuel Ellerbee

        

6.

I would bet on Christian Wilkins. He's close to perfect as an athlete, and his character and wiring are really, really strong. And unlike quarterbacks, defensive linemen rarely bust because of a poor supporting cast or bad coaches. 

        

5.

Heading into the season, I have Baker Mayfield ranked as a fourth-round pick and as the No. 8 quarterback in the class. 

Mayfield is a blast to watch, but his lack of elite size (6'1", 220 lbs) and his off-field run-in will cause questions as he moves to the NFL. It's also a huge change from that OU offense to what he'll be asked to do in the NFL.

         

4.

I'm pretty biased since Mike Thomas was my No. 1 ranked wide receiver in the 2016 draft class, but I honestly think he's in the top 10 right now. Let's sketch it out.

Julio Jones, Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. (in whatever order) are the top three. Mike Evans, A.J. Green, Jordy Nelson, Larry Fitzgerald, Amari Cooper and Dez Bryant are the next tier with a decline for Fitz possible this year. That puts Thomas sitting at No. 10 overall.

You could maybe put Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton, Brandin Cooks or DeAndre Hopkins up here as well, but it should be widely accepted that Thomas is already a top-15 receiver.

           

3.

Scot McCloughan is one of the three smartest football people I've ever been around. So if Scot says five, it's hard to disagree with that. We all know Josh Allen, Darnold and Rosen will be in the conversation there. To get to five you have to include some combination of Luke Falk (Washington State), Lamar Jackson (Louisville) and maybe a sleeper like Nick Fitzgerald (Miss. State) or Kyle Allen (Houston) that people are talking up right now.

Five would surprise me, but the demand is definitely out there.

         

2. 

The 2018 quarterback group does look very good, but I'm also excited about the talent at running back, offensive tackle, edge-rusher and safety. As for true franchise players, Clemson's Wilkins and Texas left tackle Connor Williams have that look to me.

        

1. Stick to Football Episode 20 is ready to download—and if you haven't already, go ahead and subscribe! This week, Connor Rogers and I talk to Kansas City Chiefs team reporter BJ Kissel with topics ranging from how BJ got his start to how fast he threw as a D-I pitcher back in the day.

We also break down the AFC and NFC West divisions, name a college player to know and as always bring in intern Kennedy for fan questions in the closing #DraftonDraft segment.

Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.