Few things offer more excitement or intrigue during the NFL preseason than a good quarterback battle.
There is no position in sports more tied to the success of a team or the trajectory of a franchise than the quarterback. The 2023 campaign will be no different.
Sure, there are elite cemented starting quarterbacks leading the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles, and Buffalo Bills that have their teams positioned to make a legitimate Super Bowl run this fall. But, there are several quarterback situations across the league with far less stability.
Bring on the battles for the starting jobs.
Here’s a look at the four most fascinating quarterback battles to watch this spring and summer, and a prediction for who emerges as the Week 1 starter from each:
San Francisco 49ers
QBs: Trey Lance, Brock Purdy, Sam Darnold
Last season, the 49ers rode a historically dominant defense all the way to the NFC Championship Game, masking a season’s worth of quarterback injuries and inconsistency … until the wheels fell off in Philadelphia.
Brock Purdy was one of the sensational storylines of the 2022 campaign.
Emerging from the carnage of injuries to Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance to, last year’s “Mr. Irrelevant” led San Francisco to the doorstep of the Super Bowl.
However, Purdy is recovering from offseason elbow surgery, repairing an injury that knocked him from the NFC Championship Game against the Eagles, so his health and availability could play a role.
Meanwhile, Lance is coming off a fractured ankle that ended his season in Week 2, but after being chosen No. 3 overall in the 2021 NFL draft, he figures to mount a charge for the starting job.
49ers predicted starter: Brock Purdy
There seems to be palpable confidence and belief in Purdy within the 49ers organization, and even before suffering his injury early last season, there was a healthy amount of skepticism about Lance’s readiness and upside. Don’t be surprised if 2023 serves as Purdy’s audition to be San Francisco’s long-term solution at quarterback.
QBs: Ryan Tannehill, Will Levis
Is this the end of the line for Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee? The Titans have drafted a quarterback each of the past two seasons, including trading up to pick No. 33 overall to stop Will Levis’ slide in the second round of this past April’s draft.
Last season, at age 34, Tannehill passed for 2,536 yards with 13 touchdowns to 6 interceptions through 12 games last season for the underachieving Titans.
Meanwhile, Levis was hailed by many as one of the top-four quarterbacks in this year’s draft class, offering significant mobility and athleticism along with plenty of arm strength shown off during his time at Kentucky and Penn State.
Titans predicted starter: Will Levis
Call it a bold prediction, or perhaps just reading the tea leaves, but the Titans situation feels like a flashback to the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback conundrum in 2016.
That spring and summer, rookie Carson Wentz looked pro-ready and completely capable of leading Doug Pederson’s offense, at times outplaying veteran Sam Bradford during training camp, leading Philadelphia to deal Bradford to the Vikings eight days before the season-opener.
Who knows if Tennessee will wind up trading Tannehill, but with a strong summer. But, it would be hard to blame head coach Mike Vrabel if he wants to start fresh with a rookie with upside, rather than make another go-round with Tannehill.
New England Patriots
QBs: Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe
The Patriots have two young quarterback options, but do they have any great quarterback options?
For a spell last season, Mac Jones was benched for Baily Zappe, and the Western Kentucky product captured the hearts of Patriots’ Nation and seemed to inspire confidence from his teammates. In four games, Zappe completed 70.7% of his passes for 781 yards with 5 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. New England was also 2-0 in the games he started.
However, Jones has the pedigree, of being a former first-round pick, and while he struggled mightily at times last season, it’s almost unfair to judge the former Alabama standout while getting such inconsistent coaching from Matt Patricia and Joe Judge in 2022. Bill O’Brien’s arrival as offensive coordinator should provide some stability for Jones, who passed for 2,997 yards with just 14 touchdowns to 11 interceptions last season.
Patriots predicted starter: Mac Jones
There will likely be a very legitimate battle for the starting job in Foxboro this summer. Zappe has a very real possibility of stealing this job. But, because of pedigree, and the Patriots betting on O’Brien getting the most out of the former No. 15 overall draft pick, Jones could emerge as the starter. Albeit one on a very short leash.
QBs: Gardner Minshew, Anthony Richardson
The Colts’ selection of Anthony Richardson with the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft was nearly universally hailed as Indianapolis landing one of the more fascinating and athletic quarterback prospects in a generation.
However, Richardson, who passed for 2,549 yards with 17 touchdowns to 9 interceptions while rushing for 654 yards and 9 scores is raw.
Meanwhile, Gardner Minshew is one of the NFL’s steadier and more competent backups. Boasting a career 8-16 record, Minshew passed for 3 touchdowns with 3 interceptions last season in Philadelphia, when pressed into action after Jalen Hurts suffered a shoulder injury. The Colts likely scooped Minshew up off the free agent market as a bridge quarterback, but that might turn out to be one short bridge.
Colts predicted starter: Anthony Richardson
Look, does Richardson have a lot of growing and maturing to do as a quarterback? Absolutely. But, he’s 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, and as a current NFL general manager recently told Heavy “is a total freak with the work ethic to match.”
The days are over of highly touted, and highly drafted, quarterbacks sitting on the bench and learning behind quarterbacks of Minshew’s status and stature. Make no mistake, Minshew will be an asset to Richardson both on the practice field, in the meeting rooms, and on game days, as another set of veteran eyes as the Florida standout develops as a quarterback. But, if the Colts are smart, they’ll let Richardson develop on the field, as the starter, this season, in a division that is wide open for the taking.