How many starting quarterback jobs are up for grabs entering NFL training camps? That's up for debate, but we do know that at least three teams—the Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints and Washington Football Team—haven't publicly stated they've got a starter locked in.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears, New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers have made declarations about veterans slated to serve as starters, but Andy Dalton, Cam Newton and Jimmy Garoppolo are likely to have rookie first-round picks breathing down their necks in each of those spots.
With training camps now on the horizon, let's make some predictions regarding each of those six potential or inevitable battles.
Chicago Bears: Andy Dalton vs. Justin Fields
Despite the fact that they traded up to select Justin Fields 11th overall in April's draft, the Bears continue to insist they're rolling with Dalton.
On the surface, that seems ludicrous because, at 33, Dalton is a backup-caliber player with an 84.8 passer rating the last four seasons, and Fields looks ready to rock coming out of Ohio State. But consider a few factors:
1. The Bears didn't immediately start No. 2 overall selection Mitchell Trubisky in 2017.
2. Matt Nagy's Kansas City Chiefs didn't immediately play No. 10 overall pick Patrick Mahomes that same year.
3. Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace might figure they can buy themselves more time from an employment standpoint if they slow-play the transition to Fields.
4. Critically, the Bears open the regular season with a prime-time road game against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the fierce Los Angeles Rams.
I don't believe they'll want to throw Fields to those wolves, so they'll likely hold off for early September, let Dalton bomb against the Rams in Week 1 and then finally succumb to the pressure and start Fields in a low-pressure spot in Week 2 at home against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Winner: Dalton, but not for long
Denver Broncos: Teddy Bridgewater vs. Drew Lock
It's possible a trade for Aaron Rodgers or Deshaun Watson could bring a sudden end to this battle, but for now we can only focus on who's on the roster.
Bridgewater is the safe choice with lots of starting experience and a reputation for making smart decisions, but that's also the boring choice because his ceiling is clearly defined, and he might lack the game-changing ability you want in a starting quarterback.
Lock is on the other end of the spectrum. He's got the arm talent but hasn't proved to be trustworthy after posting the highest interception rate in the AFC as sophomore in 2020.
The trade for Bridgewater indicates the front office is losing patience with Lock, but the reality is it's a lot easier to conceal gunslinger-related flaws when the sample size is relatively small and tainted by a lot of snaps against second- and third-teamers during training camp and the preseason.
Broncos head coach Vic Fangio told the media last month this is a coin flip, but I get the feeling they'll gamble first on Lock's potential by giving him one last shot.
Winner: Lock, with a short leash
New England Patriots: Cam Newton vs. Mac Jones
This one's particularly complicated since we've never seen Bill Belichick with a rookie first-round pick at the quarterback position. Because the Pats appear to be all-in for a Super Bowl run and a rookie quarterback has never won a championship as a starter, you might expect Belichick to take the safer route with the former MVP, especially considering he said in June that Newton is "way ahead of where he was" during the 2020 offseason.
He also told the media on draft night that "Cam's our quarterback."
However, Newton struggled so much as a passer in 2020 and has been so ineffective and untrustworthy the last few years that it's easy to wonder if he might actually represent the larger risk than the pro-ready Jones coming out of the SEC. For what it's worth, Jeff Howe of The Athletic reported last week that Jones took more first-team reps than Newton at at least one minicamp practice and "was the best QB on the field" in consecutive sessions.
Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer believes the No. 15 overall selection "has done enough in the spring to merit a real competition with Cam Newton in the summer." And I keep thinking that it would be odd for Belichick to throw away a first-round pick in an all-in year on a player who won't make a difference during said season.
Let's go out on a limb.
New Orleans Saints: Jameis Winston vs. Taysom Hill
On the surface, you'd think the 2015 No. 1 overall pick and 2019 league passing yardage leader would have the advantage over a gadget player with extremely limited passing experience like Hill in this spot, but Sean Payton has shown us time and again that he loves Hill.
Hill also put up solid numbers in a short run as a starter in place of an injured Drew Brees in 2020, but the reality is Winston's ceiling is way higher, and he's actually three-and-a-half years younger than Hill.
DraftKings gives him a pretty clear edge in terms of odds (Winston is -175; bet $175 to win $100), and I'm inclined to agree with them for now. Payton would be silly not to at least see if the 2015 Pro Bowler can finally put it all together with more support than he's ever had.
Barring a disastrous August, Winston should get the nod Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers. That said, I'd expect to see plenty of both players throughout the season.
San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Trey Lance
The 49ers didn't keep Garoppolo around at a rate of $26.4 million to be a backup, which is one reason the odds are stacked against Lance starting from the get-go in 2021. The 49ers have stated publicly that Jimmy G is the starter, and Lance likely needs that time because he threw just 318 passes in college (none of which came at the FBS level and only 30 came in 2020).
But I'm really starting to wonder about Lance.
In May, Touchdown Wire's Mark Schofield wrote that the North Dakota State product "might start for the 49ers sooner than you think." And in June, Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports stated that the 21-year-old "will be given every opportunity to rise up the team's depth chart." The early returns have been promising, and it's important to keep in mind that the 49ers can save nearly $25 million by picking Lance and dumping Garoppolo.
Come September, if they feel they're going to hand it over to Lance in a matter of weeks anyway, it probably makes sense to just make the move immediately and pocket all of that cash. Let's test another limb.
Winner: Lance, and Garoppolo is traded or released
Washington Football Team: Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Taylor Heinicke vs. Kyle Allen
This is the ugliest camp battle, so much so that DraftKings doesn't even have odds listed despite the fact the team hasn't crowned anybody. The edge naturally belongs to Fitzpatrick because he signed a $10 million contract this offseason, but it's hard to imagine the brass is rooting for a 38-year-old journeyman who has never started a playoff game.
Head coach Ron Rivera has spent plenty of time with both Heinicke and Allen in Carolina and Washington. Neither look like future stars, but Heinicke performed quite impressively in a playoff start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January, and Allen had some nice moments while starting in place of an injured Newton with the Carolina Panthers in 2019.
The former is 28, the latter is 25. There's still some potential there.
Still, Fitzpatrick is the safer option for a team that might just want to avoid a mess on offense while the defense takes care of business. Because they paid him handsomely this offseason, I figure they still roll with him early. But he's been extremely inconsistent throughout his career so expect multiple quarterbacks to start multiple games for the WFT in 2021.
Winner: Fitzpatrick, but he won't hold on
Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.
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