Although coaches dislike media and fan scrutiny, along with a lack of clarity at the team’s most important position, there’s nothing like a starting quarterback battle to spice up a training camp and preseason.
Three such situations are unfolding around the league this month — in Tampa Bay, Washington and Indianapolis. There are a couple more teams — San Francisco and Tennessee — where the presumed starting quarterback could be waylaid by injury or performance, opening the door for whoever emerges in the backup spot.
As preseason games and joint practices are in full swing, here’s how these competitions are shaping up and my prediction of who will emerge as the starter in regular-season openers only a month away.
3 Quarterback Competitions to Watch
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Baker Mayfield vs. Kyle Trask
Entering training camp, Baker Mayfield was assumed to be the clear front-runner in this race, but recent performances by both players have made this a closer competition. In early Tampa Bay Buccaneers practices, Mayfield threw twice as many interceptions as Kyle Trask, which continues Mayfield’s tendency to throw too many picks.
He averaged 14 per year in his four years as the Cleveland Browns‘ starter after being the first-overall pick in the 2018 draft. Trask has shown improvement in camp with his decision-making and getting the ball out quicker.
Mayfield has 69 career starts (31-38 record) with an All-Rookie team selection and a 2020 road playoff win at Pittsburgh on his résumé. Then injuries and the trade for Deshaun Watson ended his Browns’ career. He was unimpressive last season in Carolina before being released and landing with the Los Angeles Rams. He played reasonably well late to earn his shot in Tampa Bay on a one-year, $4 million contract with $4.5 million in available incentives.
Trask played briefly in only one game last season as he learned the ropes behind Tom Brady. So Mayfield has the edge in NFL experience.
Coach Todd Bowles has named Mayfield the starter for the preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Friday night. Bowles also said Trask, a 2021 second-round pick, will start the following week against the New York Jets.
Bowles is likely on the hot seat after his first season in Tampa Bay. They won the lousy NFC South with just an 8-9 record last season and were quickly eliminated from the playoffs after a 31-14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys (and that was with Brady). The Buccaneers’ run game ranked last in the league in 2022, so even though it’s an area of emphasis in camp, the passing game and a top-10 defense from a year ago will likely have to carry the team.
Buccaneers Starting QB Prediction
Will Bowles turn the keys over to a third-year quarterback with no NFL starts in the season opener before a raucous crowd in Minnesota? New offensive coordinator Dave Canales, who helped Geno Smith to a career year in Seattle in 2022, will have plenty of input in this decision.
If Mayfield plays fairly well in the preseason games and joint practices next week with the Jets, I think Bowles will go with the more experienced option to start the season. However, Mayfield will be on a short leash if he doesn’t play well and Trask continues to ascend.
Washington Commanders: Sam Howell vs. Jacoby Brissett
Sam Howell was the Washington Commanders’ fifth-round pick last year and started only one game, but it was a win in the season finale against the Cowboys. Howell threw for 169 yards, one touchdown, one interception and ran for a TD. New offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy says, “Sam is actually doing a hell of a job.” Howell has been getting more of the first-team reps in camp, and he will start the preseason opener in Cleveland.
Jacoby Brissett, an eight-year vet, signed to compete with Howell. Brissett started 11 games for the Browns last season (4-7 record, 88.9 passer rating) before Watson returned from suspension. Brissett has 48 career starts with four teams and signed a one-year deal for $8 million plus incentives. Coach Ron Rivera said this week, “Don’t sleep on Jacoby; he’s done a nice job as well. We’ve got some really good quarterback play going on right now.”
Commanders Starting QB Prediction
The 23-year-old Howell has more upside than Brissett at this stage of their careers. Despite Brissett being paid significantly more than Howell, who is on his inexpensive rookie deal, it’s apparent the Commanders would like Howell to win this job. If he does, Howell is a low-cost starter, which will allow the Commanders to continue investing a lot of money in his supporting cast and high-priced defensive line.
Howell’s performance in the preseason opener and next week’s joint practices with the Baltimore Ravens is critical to solidifying his starter status. Like Bowles, Rivera needs a good season to impress his new owner, Josh Harris, after missing the playoffs the past two years.
As long as things go OK for Howell in his upcoming tests, Rivera will name him the opening-day starter against Arizona. Brissett will be ready in the wings if Howell falters or gets hurt.
>>READ Commanders Season Preview
Indianapolis Colts: Anthony Richardson vs. Gardner Minshew
This is another case of a young quarterback in Anthony Richardson trying to hold off a vet in Gardner Minshew. Minshew entered camp with the advantage of playing under new Indianapolis Colts coach Shane Steichen the past two seasons when Steichen was the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia and Minshew backed up Jalen Hurts.
Minshew has 24 NFL starts in Jacksonville and Philadelphia, but his record is an unimpressive 8-16. He has a decent 93.1 career passer rating and rushed for 344 yards in his rookie season of 2019 after being a sixth-round pick.
The Colts invested the fourth-overall pick this year in Richardson and signed him to a four-year, $34 million contract, while Minshew is on a one-year, $3.5 million deal. Richardson has been a bit inconsistent in camp. That’s not surprising for a player who was a one-year starter at Florida and completed only 53.8 percent of his passes with 17 TD passes and nine interceptions last season. However, he also ran for 654 yards and nine TDs in 2022.
Richardson is big (6-foot-4, 244 pounds) and has had some wow moments in Colts camp when he has shown his great arm strength and athleticism. Steichen has been splitting first-team reps between Richardson and Minshew but named Richardson the starter for the preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills.
Steichen said of Richardson this week, “I think he’s gaining confidence in the system and gaining confidence with his teammates, and when you have that and the talent he has, it’s usually a good thing.”
Colts Starting QB Prediction
This is similar to Howell’s situation. Richardson has more upside, and the Colts seemingly would like to get him as much experience as possible in his rookie year, even if there will be some uneven moments. You don’t draft a player in the top five, pay him big bucks and want him to sit on the bench where it’s difficult to improve unless he’s clearly not ready for the big stage.
The Colts have a big divisional matchup at home against the defending AFC South champion Jaguars in Week 1, and I think Richardson will start that game. He should get a ton of playing time in the three preseason games and the joint practices next week with the Chicago Bears.
The Colts are fortunate to have one of the league’s best No. 2 quarterbacks in Minshew if that is to be his role this season.
>> READ: Top 10 Backup Quarterbacks
2 QB Situations to Keep an Eye On
San Francisco 49ers
Brock Purdy is on track to start the regular season opener at Pittsburgh, as he is practicing after his recovery from elbow surgery. As long as Purdy has no setbacks, the drama in the San Francisco 49ers camp is who will emerge as the backup between two former No. 3 overall picks — Trey Lance (49ers in 2021) and Sam Darnold (Jets in 2018).
Coach Kyle Shanahan says Purdy is doubtful to play in the preseason opener against the Raiders, but he might play some in the ensuing preseason games. Lance is currently listed as the No. 2 quarterback, but preseason depth charts are very fluid.
Lance and Darnold are said to be having good camps, so the preseason games are important for them. The loser of their competition could be traded. A key factor is Lance would give the 49ers more salary cap relief and bring back more in draft choice/player compensation.
Ryan Tannehill is a solid vet who led the Tennessee Titans to the playoffs for three consecutive years from 2019-2021. He will be the regular-season opening-day starter in New Orleans if he stays healthy. That is the big question after he missed five games last season because of an ankle injury and wound up on injured reserve as the Titans lost their last seven games.
The battle is for the No. 2 QB spot between 2022 third-rounder Malik Willis and this year’s second-round pick Will Levis, who had a draft-day slide from a projected first-round pick. Willis looks much improved in camp after a dismal rookie season in which he started three games (1-2 record), played in eight games and completed only 50.3 percent of his passes with no TDs and three interceptions.
He is listed as the backup, ahead of Levis, who coach Mike Vrabel says also is improving. The preseason games and joint practices in Minnesota next week will help Vrabel decide who will be called upon if the 35-year-old Tannehill can’t stay on the field and produce.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.