It’s the quarterback position that moves the needle in the NFL. That is the case in the regular season, in free agency, and in the draft and it will be the few quarterback battles taking place in the NFL that will likely capture much of the attention as training camp gets underway next month.
For most of the teams set to stage quarterback competitions in camp and preseason, playoff contention in 2022 is not a likely prospect. Yet the outcomes of these quarterback battles could have a big influence on the direction of their respective franchises in the coming years.
But which of the upcoming quarterback duels is deserving of the most intrigue?
Here we rank the four legitimate quarterback battles by their level of significance, while also spelling out why the attention around one high-profile quarterback situation has been sorely misplaced.
5. Trey Lance vs. Jimmy Garoppolo (nothing to see here)
It’s the quarterback battle that talking heads keep trying to sell as a quarterback battle but really isn’t a battle at all.
The 49ers traded three first-round picks for Lance, who has taken all the first-team reps throughout the spring while Garoppolo – who remains on the trade block – has rehabbed his shoulder injury away from the facility.
San Francisco has remained calm about its inability to trade Garoppolo to this point while head coach Kyle Shanahan has insisted it remains the 49ers’ intention to part company with the former New England Patriot.
Should they fail to land compensation for him, the Niners can simply cut Garoppolo and save over $25 million against the cap, useful room for a contender that may want to strike a mid-season trade amid a championship push.
The Niners also gave Nate Sudfeld a fully guaranteed $2 million contract for 2022. That points quite clearly to Sudfeld being on the roster as Lance’s backup.
It’s understandable to want to discuss the potentially awkward situation between the Niners and Garoppolo. However, the Niners have told the world what they are doing through their actions. As much as it’s fun to spin this into a quarterback battle, there simply isn’t one. Barring injury, Lance will be on the field Week 1.
4. Marcus Mariota vs. Desmond Ridder
There might not be a great deal of intrigue surrounding the Falcons in 2022. After all, Atlanta is likely competing for third place in the NFC South at best. However, their quarterback competition is one with high stakes.
Signed on a two-year contract to be the placeholder following Matt Ryan’s departure, this is probably Mariota’s last shot to prove he can be a viable NFL starting quarterback. Though he can aid Ridder’s development, the fact the rookie was not highly drafted means there shouldn’t be any reason to think he is keeping the seat warm and must mentor the third-round pick.
But a better outcome for the Falcons would be for Ridder to spectacularly emerge and make the job his own. That would give them a cheap quarterback for the next four years and allow Atlanta to continue its rebuild by focusing on other areas without having to throw money at the quarterback position.
Mariota is on a team-friendly contract with an average annual salary of $8.8 million. However, there is no doubt he is a stopgap for the Falcons and would have to exceed expectations to be anything but. If he loses out to Ridder, Mariota will likely have to reconcile himself with being a backup for the rest of his career. Yet, for the long-term future of the Falcons, that is the outcome for which fans will be rooting.
3. Sam Darnold vs. Matt Corral
It’s a similar scenario in Carolina unless the Panthers eventually strike a trade for Garoppolo or Baker Mayfield, and there is more on the line for the staff potentially set to make the decision between Darnold and third-round rookie Corral.
The case for Corral starting over Darnold is not a tough one to make. Darnold was 33rd of 34 qualifying quarterbacks in Football Outsiders DVOA and DYAR efficiency metrics last season. He struggled under pressure and did not push the ball downfield with regularity.
Corral has his flaws but was a decisive thrower in his time with Ole Miss, displaying poise under pressure and showcasing big-play upside badly needed by a Panthers offense that does have weapons in the form of D.J. Moore, Robbie Anderson, and Terrance Marshall.
A trade for the two quarterbacks still looking for a landing spot would render this battle moot but, if it does come down to Darnold vs. Corral, the decision head coach Matt Rhule makes will have a huge say in whether he is back for a fourth year in the job.
2. Mitchell Trubisky vs. Kenny Pickett
Trubisky vs. Pickett would have been in the number one slot – as it impacts a Steelers team that has the talent to contend for a playoff spot in the AFC – were it not for a recent report that indicates the latter is some way behind.
The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly wrote that Pickett practiced exclusively with the third-team offense throughout the spring. There is time for things to change, but it is hard to envision Pickett earning the starting role when he is seemingly some way adrift of Trubisky.
It is a bemusing state of affairs given Pickett was seen by many as the most ‘pro-ready’ quarterback in the class and may already raise questions about Pittsburgh’s wisdom in taking him 20th overall.
Mike Tomlin has produced winning season after winning season in his tremendous head coaching career. He will not care about outside assessments if Pickett cannot bridge the apparent gap to Trubisky in training camp and preseason. Yet the questions will grow more pointed if Trubisky flounders and Pickett is not ready to step into the breach.
1. Drew Lock vs. Geno Smith
Regardless of which quarterback wins the battle for the Seahawks’ starting job in Seattle, they will have an extremely tough act to follow in the wake of Russell Wilson’s departure via trade to the Denver Broncos.
The Seahawks are unlikely to contend in the NFC West in the immediate aftermath of that franchise-altering deal. However, there are several reasons why their quarterback battle is the most interesting.
First, it figures to be the closest, with both players having the benefit of experience and Lock – having arrived in the Wilson trade – perhaps having something of a gap to narrow given how highly Pete Carroll appears to think of Smith.
The opportunity to start will almost certainly be the last for Smith and it is fair to wonder whether Lock will get another chance to play with an offense with this level of skill-position talent should he fail to claim the job.
Seattle’s weaponry is another reason why the Seahawks’ quarterback competition is worthy of significant interest. The presence of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett gives the Seahawks the opportunity to play berserker in an NFC West division where the games are always hard-fought. A battle between Lock and Smith might not seem overly fascinating right now, but the result of the competition may prove a lot more important if the winner is hurting the playoff chances of their division rivals late in the season.