Who Is Winning Each NFL QB Battle in Training Camp, Preseason so Far?

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistAugust 16, 2021

Who Is Winning Each NFL QB Battle in Training Camp, Preseason so Far?

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The first full week of the NFL preseason is complete, and we've gotten deep into training-camp season. This means that we have a better idea—though not a fully focused picture—on which players are winning positional battles around the league.

    Naturally, quarterback battles are the biggest draws of camp and the preseason, and we have several good ones in 2021. Many of them involve rookie first-round picks, which adds to the excitement.

    Here, we'll examine how the biggest quarterback battles are unfolding and make predictions for Week 1 starters based on local media reports, coaches' comments and early preseason performances.

    Things change quickly in the NFL, though, and it's important to remember that early leaders can fall behind as opposing defenses ramp up their preseason intensity.

    Teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Chicago Bears: Andy Dalton vs. Justin Fields

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears moved on from Mitchell Trubisky this offseason, letting him walk and replacing him with three-time Pro Bowler Andy Dalton. Chicago then traded up to grab Ohio State's Justin Fields, stopping his first-round slide at 11th overall.

    While the plan was to allow Fields to learn under Dalton, Fields has quickly gained ground in camp.

    "Oh, man, he's catching on quick," running back Damien Williams said, per Adam Hoge of NBC Sports Chicago. "He's learning from when I first seen him. Coming in, till now, it's a big improvement. Then you start to see him being comfortable and being able to play with your swag. You see that in him now."

    Fields may have separated himself in the preseason opener against the Miami Dolphins. While Dalton went 2-of-4 for 18 yards, Fields was an impressive 14-of-20 for 142 yards and a touchdown. He also ran five times for 33 yards and another score.

    Throughout the game, Fields flashed his potential while staying in complete command of the Bears offense. At no point did he appear out of place on the NFL game field.

    "The rookie first-round draft pick didn’t look jittery," Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune wrote. "If you could see through the visor he wears on his helmet, surely he didn’t have big eyes for the moment. Veteran tight end Jesse James said Fields did a good job of taking control of the huddle, not a small task for a player who didn’t use a huddle at Ohio State."

    It's only one game, of course, and Fields will have to continue proving himself over the next two weeks. However, he is the future for Chicago, and if he's up to the challenge now, the Bears have no reason to keep Fields on the bench in favor of a vet who went 4-5 as a starter last season.

    Prediction: Fields starts Week 1.

Denver Broncos: Drew Lock vs. Teddy Bridgewater

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    Based on 2020 performances, the Denver Broncos might have the league's most underwhelming quarterback competition. They bring back Drew Lock, who was arguably the NFL's worst starter in 2020—he had a quarterback rating of 75.4 while tying for the league lead in interceptions with 15. To push Lock, Denver brought in Teddy Bridgewater, who went 4-11 as a starter for the Carolina Panthers in 2020 and was ousted after only one season.

    Neither quarterback has pulled ahead in camp.

    "During the first seven camp practices, Lock has had good days, the same with Bridgewater. Lock has had subpar days, the same with Bridgewater," Ryan O'Halloran of the Denver Post wrote. "Translation: Nothing much, if anything, has been settled."

    However, both Bridgewater and Lock were impressive in the preseason opener against the Minnesota Vikings. Lock got the start and went 5-of-7 for 151 yards and two touchdowns. Bridgewater relieved Lock and went 7-of-8 for 74 yards and a touchdown.

    "I thought they both played very well," head coach Vic Fangio said, per Jon Heath of Broncos Wire. "Kind of validated what I've been saying all camp, that they’re even-steven."

    On its surface, this competition is too close to call. However, Lock is the incumbent and four years younger than Bridgewater and under contract through 2022. He has the better chance of being a long-term answer, so unless Lock is completely outshined over the next two weeks, he'll probably get the first opportunity in the regular season.

    Prediction: Lock starts Week 1.

Indianapolis Colts: Sam Ehlinger vs. Jacob Eason

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    To be fair, the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback competition may not mean anything in the regular season. Carson Wentz is recovering from surgery on his left foot but may be ready for Week 1.

    "Jacob Eason and Sam Ehlinger are competing for the backup role," ESPN's Chris Mortensen tweeted. "Yes, the backup role. Carson Wentz trending to open the season as the starter with All-Pro G Quenton Nelson on same path after foot surgeries."

    Still, it pays to have a Plan B in place, and for Indy, that plan could either involve rookie sixth-round pick Sam Ehlinger or 2020 fourth-round pick Jacob Eason. Both signal-callers played in the preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers. Each had ups and downs.

    Eason went 10-of-15 for 155 yards but also threw an interception. Eason went 15-of-21 for 183 yards and led a touchdown drive inside of two minutes before the half. Eason may have pulled ahead slightly in the competition to be the No. 2 on Sunday.

    "Eason, who earned the start Sunday, was far from perfect, but there's little doubt he played with the kind of poise and confidence coach Frank Reich wants to see out of one of his quarterbacks," Jim Ayello of the Indianapolis Star wrote. "He led the Colts to 10 points during his two quarters on the field, including a touchdown drive in the two-minute drill to end the half."

    While things could easily go in a different direction over the next two weeks, Eason played well in his first NFL start and has the edge in experience. Ideally, though, both he and Ehlinger will be watching from the sideline in Week 1.

    Prediction: Eason wins backup job and could start Week 1.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence vs. Gardner Minshew II

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Presumably, No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence and No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson will be Week 1 starters. One of them, however, has legitimate competition.

    While the New York Jets don't have anyone to challenge Wilson, the Jacksonville Jaguars have Gardner Minshew II. Minshew started 20 games for the Jags over the past two seasons and can hold down the starting job if Lawrence isn't ready to go.

    With Lawrence steadily progressing in camp, that's probably not going to happen.

    "I feel like I've come a long way, especially in camp, of just owning [the offense], knowing where my answers are and being able to make adjustments," Lawrence said, per John Oehser of the team's official website.

    Indeed, Lawrence appeared relatively comfortable in Jacksonville's preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns. While he did show some hesitancy early—and took a sack on each of his first two drives—he responded with a couple of gutty throws, including a 35-yarder to Marvin Jones Jr.

    "He certainly wasn't awestruck," head coach Urban Meyer said of Lawrence, per ESPN's Michael DiRocco.

    Lawrence finished 6-of-9 for 71 yards, while Minshew went 4-of-8 for 47 yards with an interception.

    At this point, Lawrence will have to fall completely flat over the next two weeks to lose the starting role. There's merit to sitting a rookie who is ill-prepared for the NFL game, but Lawrence has yet to show signs of serious concern.

    Prediction: Lawrence starts Week 1.

New England Patriots: Cam Newton vs. Mac Jones

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots brought back 2020 starter Cam Newton in free agency this offseason. While Newton wasn't particularly impressive as a passer last season—he finished with 2,657 yards, eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions—he was effective as a runner and helped deliver seven wins.

    However, the Patriots also drafted Alabama's Mac Jones 15th overall, and Jones has stood out to teammates during training camp.

    "I think he can be special," offensive tackle Trent Brown said, per Bernd Buchmasser of Pats Pulpit. "... To be so young, I think he makes some throws that not a lot of young guys can make."

    Jones continued to push Newton in New England's preseason opener against the Washington Football Team. While Newton wasn't bad—he went 4-of-7 for 49 yards—Jones certainly looked the part of a future starter. He went 13-of-19 for 87 yards and made several crisp, on-time deliveries perfect for Josh McDaniels' timing-based offense.

    In short, the offense looked more like a traditional McDaniels scheme when Jones was on the field.

    "There's just something about how the offense looks when Jones is at the helm," Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald wrote. "There's more of a rhythm and tempo to it, and the fit is obvious. ... The biggest takeaway from Jones' performance here is that what he's displayed every day on the practice field also showed up in game action."

    Bill Belichick and the Patriots may opt for the veteran Newton to start the season just because of his experience. However, if Jones continues to produce over the next couple of weeks, New England may have no choice but to see what it has in its new franchise quarterback.

    Prediction: Jones starts Week 1.

New Orleans Saints: Taysom Hill vs. Jameis Winston

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    The New Orleans Saints have a very intriguing quarterback battle on their hands. They have to replace future Hall of Famer Drew Brees and are counting on one of 2020's depth quarterbacks to be "the guy" this season.

    Winston has the edge in experience, having 70 starts on his NFL resume. Hill has been with the organization longer and went 3-1 as a starter for New Orleans last year. Winston is more of a traditional pocket passer, while Hill is an unorthodox dual-threat.

    Neither quarterback seems to have separated himself.

    "Hopefully it's something we begin to see a little more clarity on," head coach Sean Payton said, per ESPN's Mike Triplett. "Both of these guys are working their tail off, they're both well-respected by their teammates, they're really, really good leaders. And that's a good thing."

    Clarity was not to be found in New Orleans' preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens. Neither quarterback was particularly impressive. Hill finished 8-of-12 for 81 yards with an interception, while Winston went 7-of-12 for 96 yards with a touchdown and a pick.

    This is a competition likely to last throughout the preseason, and it's still anyone's job. In a close race, however, logic suggests that Winston will claim the starting role.

    Hill has served as a utility player, change-of-pace quarterback and tight end for the Saints for three seasons. Starting Winston will allow New Orleans to continue utilizing Hill in that role. If Hill becomes the starter, the Saints aren't going to get that extra value out of Winston. Platooning the two quarterbacks with Winston as the primary starter would make the most sense.

    Prediction: Winston starts Week 1.

San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Trey Lance

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    At some point, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is going to cede the starting job to rookie Trey Lance. The 49ers traded up to No. 3 overall to nab the North Dakota State product this offseason, and Lance showed flashes of his potential in the preseason opener against the Kansas City chiefs.

    Lance uncorked a beautiful 80-yard touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield late in the first quarter that showed exactly why the 49ers were eager to land him.

    However, Lance also showed some inconsistency, going 5-of-14 for 128 yards and taking four sacks along the way. Garoppolo, meanwhile, was a solid if underwhelming 3-of-3 for 26 yards in limited action.

    The reality is that while Lance oozes upside, Garoppolo is the steady hand. When healthy in 2019, he helped the 49ers reach the Super Bowl, and he came only a few plays away from winning it. Because of Garoppolo's experience, his fit in the offense and his capability when healthy, Lance will have to clearly outplay him over the next two weeks to win the job by Week 1.

    "I think it's gonna be tough for [Lance] to win the job, just in terms of it being two different styles of quarterbacks, and maybe a little different style of offense for both of them," head coach Kyle Shanahan said, per Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated. "I'd be very surprised if he did with the way Jimmy's playing. It'd put a lot on a kid to do that. He's doing everything he can. I'm very impressed with him so far, but I'd be very surprised if that happened."

    It won't be a shock to see Lance claim the starting job at some point this season—Garoppolo has a noteworthy injury history, having missed 23 games over the last three seasons—but it isn't likely to happen before September.

    Prediction: Garoppolo starts Week 1.

Washington Football Team: Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Taylor Heinicke

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    The Football Team brought in journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick to be its 2021 starter. However, head coach Ron Rivera made it clear back in April that there would be a competition.

    "This time I know who we have as the starter, but he's going to go in and compete with everybody else," Rivera told reporters. "I want to play the guy that's going to give us the best opportunity to win, the best opportunity to develop and grow as a football team."

    The main competition for Fitzpatrick is Taylor Heinicke, who started and performed well in Washington's playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. Both quarterbacks performed reasonably well in their preseason opener—Fitzpatrick went 5-of-8 for 58 yards, while Heinicke was 9-of-15 for 86—so Heinicke didn't make up any ground there.

    And Heinicke has been the clear No. 2 behind Fitzpatrick at camp, as Sam Fortier of the Washington Post noted:

    "In his first few days at training camp with the Washington Football Team, Ryan Fitzpatrick has looked, acted and been treated like the starting quarterback. The 38-year-old with the $10 million deal has taken the most first-team reps in practice, spoken to the media in the starter’s slot and been a focus of several teammates when they were discussing how the offense can improve from last season."

    Heinicke will have a chance to unseat Fitzpatrick over the final two weeks of the preseason. At 28 years old, he also has a better chance of being a long-term piece of the puzzle than the 38-year-old Fitzpatrick. However, this has always been Fitzpatrick's job to lose, and he hasn't done that yet.

    Prediction: Fitzpatrick starts Week 1.