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NFL Draft

Who Will Win NFL’s 5 QB1 Battles?

  • The Draft Network
  • August 24, 2021
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Every NFL offseason, teams across the league get new quarterbacks, either in the form of trading for/signing veterans or drafting some of college football’s best prospects. What often happens because of these acquisitions is a quarterback battle, in which the incumbent starter makes his best effort to fight off the newcomer gunning for the starting job.

These battles are usually the most fun part of watching the NFL’s slate of preseason games. While much of the action shows backup players fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster, quarterback battles give us all a chance to find out what that hyped rookie can really do. Or what that newcomer veteran can still do. Or how that incumbent starter can perform once he’s on the hot seat. With these quarterback battles come drama, head coaches playing coy about who has the upper hand, and fans living and dying with every pass attempt. It’s nothing if not entertaining.

Lucky for us, this year has brought five such battles. Through two weeks of the preseason and fewer than three weeks from the start of regular-season action, none of them have a clear answer yet. Here are my predictions for each battle’s victor––i.e., the quarterbacks who will start Week 1 for their respective teams.

San Francisco 49ers (Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Trey Lance)

There’s a lot to like about Trey Lance. The 49ers knew that; that’s why they traded up nine spots to draft the North Dakota State phenom with the third overall pick. Through two preseason games for San Francisco, Lance has done just about everything he can to show why the 49ers made the right decision. But have his performances been enough to emerge victorious as San Francisco’s Week 1 starter?

His main competition, returning starter Jimmy Garoppolo, hasn’t gotten as much action as Lance in the preseason. For Lance, that means more pressure to outshine Garoppolo’s smaller sample size over longer lengths of a game. When the latter threw a pick at the end of his one and only drive against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, Lance had the perfect chance to step up. Instead, he began slowly.

Lance was just 1-of-5 for nine yards and an interception through his first three drives. His following drives looked much more impressive, and he finished the night 8-of-14 with 102 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Lance’s slow start on Sunday night was a setback for his case to be the Week 1 starter. The 49ers know what they’re getting out of Garoppolo, and if Lance can’t yet show he’s reached the level of consistency head coach Kyle Shanahan hopes for, he’ll have a harder time winning the job.

That said, Lance’s flashes of greatness––the 80-yard touchdown in his debut and his two-minute drill drive, to name a few––make Shanahan’s decision harder. Regardless, I predict the 49ers will play it safe early here and go with Garoppolo. Lance is still just a bit too raw, and San Francisco will want the chance to build up Garoppolo’s trade value in the early season as well.

Winner: Jimmy Garoppolo for now, but don’t expect him to be a 17-game starter this year.

Chicago Bears (Andy Dalton vs. Justin Fields)

The Bears find themselves with one of the more unique battles this year. Chicago signed former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton to a one-year deal in March, and two days later, Mitch Trubisky, their 2020 starter, left for Buffalo in free agency.

For months, it looked like Dalton would be the Bears’ full-time starter in 2021 with Trubisky gone and Chicago’s first-round pick too low in the draft to select one of this year’s top quarterback prospects. Dalton himself said he signed with Chicago since he’d been promised the starter role. Then, of course, Justin Fields slipped out of the top 10, and Bears general manager Ryan Pace traded up to the 11th pick to take him off the board. The move threw a wrench in what I’ll call The Dalton Plan, and suddenly there was a quarterback competition in Chicago.

Through two weeks of the preseason, Fields has done a lot to show head coach Matt Nagy why he deserves that starting spot. He shined in his debut against the Miami Dolphins––14-of-20 for 142 yards and a touchdown, plus another 33 yards and a touchdown on the ground––and while he looked a little shakier against the Buffalo Bills, it’s hard to say Dalton inspired more confidence with the offense. The Bears’ offense looked mediocre at best with Dalton under center, beginning the game with three three-and-outs and a fumble while Trubisky lit up Chicago’s defense. It was a tough look for the Bears at home.

Still, Nagy will not let up on committing to The Dalton Plan for 2021. I’ve got a feeling that has a lot more to do with the promise they made to Dalton when they signed him than the quarterback’s performance on the field. Solely because of the lack of any indication Nagy will let up on this, I see Dalton starting in Los Angeles Week 1. At the same time, I’m calling a transition to Fields as the starter by the Bears’ Week 4 matchup against the Detroit Lions.

Winner: Andy Dalton, sort of.

Denver Broncos (Drew Lock vs. Teddy Bridgewater)

The Broncos have had a rough time finding a permanent answer at starting quarterback since Peyton Manning’s retirement in 2016. Since then, nine quarterbacks have started a game for Denver in just five seasons. This year looks like it may bring even more shakeup.

Teddy Bridgewater arrived from Carolina in a trade this offseason after the Panthers traded for Sam Darnold. The addition of Bridgewater sent a message to returning starter Drew Lock: if you want to be our starting quarterback, it’s time to prove it.

To Lock’s credit, he’s done a lot to show that he has improved after a disappointing and turnover-filled 2020 season. For every impressive Bridgewater performance this preseason, Lock has stepped up and put up numbers of his own. Through two weeks, he’s 14-for-21 with 231 yards and two touchdowns. Bridgewater is 16-of-19 for 179 yards and two touchdowns of his own. It’s about as close a battle as we’ve seen during this preseason, which is a good problem to have for Denver. Bridgewater has the completion percentage edge (84.2 v. 66.7%), but Lock has a slight advantage in average yards per attempt (11.0 v. 9.4 YPA).

Broncos head coach Vic Fangio has said that the decision could be announced anywhere from early this week to the end of next week. For right now, I think Denver goes with Bridgewater here, barring a horrendous outing in the Broncos’ final preseason game against the Rams. His ridiculous completion percentage likely won’t last, but his additional experience as an NFL starter along with his brilliance in the preseason make him the better option. He’s also still young––he’ll turn 29 in November––so Denver may be able to lock him down as a long-term solution should he find success in 2021.

Don’t count out Lock though, as the Broncos now know that they have a good backup solution if Bridgewater falters early on. Whoever is named the starter will have to keep up their success if they don’t want to be replaced.

Winner: Teddy Bridgewater

New England Patriots (Cam Newton vs. Mac Jones)

For the past few weeks, the starting quarterback position in New England seemed to be Cam Newton’s to lose. He’s looked solid in camp and in the Patriots’ two preseason games so far. In their preseason Week 2 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, he completed three passes that traveled more than 10 yards in the air in one drive, something he only did on a single drive twice for the whole 2020 season. Newton’s line of 12-of-16 for 152 yards and a touchdown through two games proved he was more than capable of remaining the starter in New England, giving rookie Mac Jones time to learn and develop.

Jones has had solid moments of his own in his two outings. Though he has yet to throw his first NFL touchdown, he’s looked confident in the pocket and showed off his ability to make tight throws under pressure. He’s 26-of-38 with 233 yards so far, and the Patriots seem happy with their first-round pick. Even so, there didn’t seem to be any indication from New England’s coaching staff that Jones had done enough to beat out Newton for the starting job. Bill Belichick stated early Monday morning that “somebody is going to have to play better than” Newton to take over the role, noting that the incumbent is still QB1 on the depth chart.

Late Monday morning, the situation changed. Due to a “misunderstanding” of the NFL’s COVID-19 testing policy, Newton will have to sit out from the Patriots’ training camp practices until Thursday. It’s the perfect opportunity for Jones to show why he might be a better option to start. 

Will he take advantage of it? We won’t know for sure until Newton returns on Thursday, but for now, he’ll be taking first-team reps. I’m still thinking that Newton will start Week 1 under center, but Jones has been handed a perfect opportunity to prove me wrong.

Winner: Cam Newton

New Orleans Saints (Taysom Hill vs. Jameis Winston)

Well, it sure looks like that Lasik surgery worked out for Jameis Winston, huh?

When I began writing this article Monday morning, the Taysom Hill-Jameis Winston battle seemed like it would be one of the tighter races for the QB1 spot this preseason. Neither quarterback had performed significantly better than the other through one week of preseason action. After the Saints’ Monday night victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, it’s looking like Winston has the starter spot all but locked up.

The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback put on an absolute show Monday night. In his first chance to play with New Orleans’ starters, he finished the night 9-of-10 for 123 yards and two beautiful touchdowns, good for a passer rating of 157.5. The best possible passer rating a quarterback can have in a game, by the way, is 158.3.

Meanwhile, the birthday boy Taysom Hill’s performance couldn’t hold a candle to Winston’s in the game. He finished 11-of-20 with some really bad incompletions, 138 yards, and a touchdown. It wasn’t really even a competition. Sure, Hill didn’t get as much time with the starters on offense this week, but Winston looked that much better with them than Hill did when he started last week.

The only way I see Hill starting under center is if Sean Payton refuses to swallow his pride. We know he loves Hill, but the starter spot so clearly belongs to Winston now if Payton wants to win. It’s not too early to call this one.

Winner: Jameis Winston

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