Quarterback battles to watch for in the 2023 NFL season

Quarterback battles to watch for in the 2023 NFL season originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The NFL calendar is quickly approaching the beginning of offseason on-field prep ahead of the 2023 regular season. 

Freshly drafted rookies will be joining new signings and veterans, regardless of their respective year, on the field to compete for a spot on the team’s 53-man roster for the league campaign.

Players in each position will participate in various drills to hone their craft and illustrate how much – or little – they’ve improved while being away from the team the past few months.

Perhaps the most intriguing battle in training camp involves the heartbeat of a team, the player who represents the difference from being a title contender to any other tier below that: the quarterback.

Most teams have a clear-cut starter going into Week 1 even before the preseason commences, but that’s not the case for every franchise. Let’s look into the teams who will closely analyze their options at quarterback as the next few months progress:

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have the most riveting battle across the league, and it’s not exactly close. Former No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance was touted to be the long-term starter in 2022 after taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo, but a season-ending injury eventually led to last year’s Mr. Irrelevant, the last pick in the 2022 draft, Brock Purdy reviving the franchise’s quest for a sixth Super Bowl before falling short.

Lance is in a make-or-break year in the Bay following an offseason clouded with trade speculation, while Purdy, who suffered a UCL injury in the NFC Championship loss, continues to recover from the setback. Then, with Garoppolo going to Las Vegas and the team in need of a decent third option for depth, they turned to 2018’s No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold, who is also in the mix as a wild card to start with hype around him amplifying

For the QBs who lose out, it wouldn’t be surprising if other teams in need of a quality option come calling.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints’ situation isn’t as exciting given we know who Derek Carr and Jameis Winston are as quarterbacks at this stage of their respective careers.

It’s quite likely Carr will be the starter given the four-year, $150 million contract New Orleans forked out after his departure from Sin City, but the 32-year-old will definitely face competition.

Winston, 29, enjoyed a hot start with New Orleans in 2021 when he led the team to a 5-2 record through Week 8, throwing 14 touchdowns and three picks for 1,170 yards in the process. But then he tore his ACL that exact week that ended his season. If he can recover that form and display flashes these next few months, the battle in the Bayou could get interesting.

Washington Commanders

The Commanders’ situation starts a chain of a veteran bridge QB going up against an up-and-comer, no matter how high their ceiling appears to be. 

Washington will see Jacoby Brissett suiting up for his fifth team in eight seasons after inking a one-year, $8 million deal this spring. In 15 games with Indianapolis in 2019, Brissett recorded his best career year throwing for 2,942 yards, 18 touchdowns and six picks on a 60.8% completion percentage. The Colts, unfortunately, finished third in the AFC South.

His main competition in 2023 will be Sam Howell, a 2022 fifth-round pick by Washington who started just one game last year: the 26-6 Week 18 win vs. Dallas. Howell threw for 169 yards (11-for-19, 57.9% passing), one touchdown and one pick while also rushing five times for 35 yards and a touchdown. Can Howell build off that and earn a starting nod for a team with a playoff-caliber defense?

Indianapolis Colts

Speaking of Indianapolis, the Colts are going into offseason training with three quarterbacks, two of whom have starting experience. Gardner Minshew, on a one-year deal, has so far been a one-hit wonder since breaking out as a rookie in Jacksonville in 2019. Sam Ehlinger, a 2021 sixth-rounder, benched a struggling Matt Ryan last season but didn’t push the needle, either.

Those two will be in the picture, but the other candidate is 2023 No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson, whose unique blend of size, athleticism, speed and arm strength as a QB can shape him into something extraordinary. 

The question first-year head coach Shane Steichen will need to ponder soon revolves around Richardson’s readiness to take the mantle of a young offense or letting one of Minshew or Ehlinger kick things off.

Tennessee Titans

Sticking with the AFC South, the Titans may not have a battle that will be settled this season, but one that could foreshadow their long-term future. Ryan Tannehill, 34, can be moved on from at the end of the season if Tennessee wants to cut him and save millions against the hard cap, and the franchise’s recent movements hint at taking that route.

Malik Willis went to Tennessee as a third-round pick last year, but the Liberty product failed to record a passing touchdown in eight appearances, compared to three picks. If he’s not deemed as the guy for the future, the Titans took Kentucky product Will Levis in the second round of the 2023 draft following a surprise fall from a potential top-10 selection.

Only time will tell if teams got it right or wrong on the soon-to-be 24-year-old, but there will be eyes evaluating his potential to take over from Tannehill and beat out Willis.

Houston Texans

Whereas Carolina will ease 2023 No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young into the role as Andy Dalton serves as the bridge QB, the scenario in Houston is slightly different for the No. 2 overall selection.

C.J. Stroud is going into camp under first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans competing against Davis Mills and Case Keenum. Mills started the last two seasons in Houston and did not log desirable statistics or wins, while Keenum now primarily operates as a veteran backup.

Stroud, despite not yet playing in the NFL, has a much higher ceiling in comparison to the two aforementioned signal callers, but the Texans won’t straight up hand Stroud the starting role – the team wants him to earn it. The former Buckeye will need to demonstrate his level going forward.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The post-Tom Brady era in Tampa Bay is underway. With Brady announcing his retirement for the second time after the team’s playoff elimination, the Buccaneers picked up 2018 No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield on a one-year deal to presumably start in 2023.

But, as the contract indicates, the 28-year-old hasn’t lived up to expectations as a top pick and isn’t set in stone as a long-term starter. The other two options as of now are Kyle Trask and John Wolford

The latter, 27, briefly spent time with Mayfield as a teammate last year with the Los Angeles Rams but has just one career passing touchdown in 104 attempts spread across three seasons.

The likely top competitor to Mayfield’s spot is Trask, a 6-foot-5 25-year-old who Tampa Bay selected as a 2021 second-rounder. But since being drafted, Trask has thrown just nine passes – all in one game coming last season in which he completed only three. This is Trask’s best chance at proving he belongs after being behind Brady the last two seasons, which may give him personal motivation to emerge as a gem in a murky NFC South.