We’re in the midst of Training Camp Season. With about a month before the regular season begins, these practices, combined with pre-season games, will help determine the depth chart heading into the regular season. Over the next four pieces, I’ll be looking at a few battles at QB, RB, WR and TE, considering the competitors, the situation and offering a prediction. Today I start with quarterbacks, looking at four competitions that could have a big impact on the 2021 NFL season.
The Denver Broncos
- Teddy Bridgwater: 69.1 percent completion, 3,733 yards, 15 TDs, 11 INTs (2020 in Carolina)
- Drew Lock: 57.3 percent completion, 2,933 yards, 16 TDs, 15 INTs (2020 13 starts for Denver, 4-9)
Situation: All off-season the questions have swirled around Lock and his role with the Broncos. The team offered Lock for Matthew Stafford before his trade to the Rams. The team was rumored to be in on Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson. In the end, the team stuck with Lock and as had reportedly been the plan, added veteran competition.
Just prior to the 2021 NFL Draft, the Broncos traded for Bridgewater, who began his career in Minnesota, had a good stint as a backup in New Orleans and signed a lucrative deal with the Panthers last off-season. His one year as a starter in Carolina didn’t go as planned. Despite a career high 15 TD passes, Bridgewater was just 4-11 in his 15 starts and the team moved on. The Broncos sent a sixth-round pick to Carolina, who agreed to pay out a large chunk of Bridgewater’s salary in 2021 to have him move on. A few days later in the draft, the Broncos passed on taking Justin Fields or Mac Jones, both of whom were on the board when the Broncos picked at nine. It seemed they were set on riding out a crucial 2021 season with Lock or Bridgewater, and the camp battle was set.
What a battle it’s been, as neither player has taken a definitive lead. Broncos’ coach Vic Fangio suggested the battle likely won’t be decided until the team’s three pre-season games are in the books, meaning this will come down to the wire. There wasn’t a big spread between them in 2020, either, as Bridgewater finished as QB19 and Lock QB23. The Broncos have great young receivers in Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler and Tim Patrick, as well as tight end Noah Fant and running backs Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. The pieces for a successful offense are in place, the team just needs decent quarterback play.
Prediction: I’ve said it all off-season, I think this is Lock’s team. I believe part of the reason the team didn’t draft a QB is that the fate of Fangio and Lock are tied together. If they succeed in 2021, they move into the future. If not, it could be a house cleaning. I think Lock wins the job, starts at least 12 games, finishes as a low-end QB2 and the Broncos squeak into the playoffs.
The Chicago Bears
- Andy Dalton: 62.2 percent completion, 33,764 yards, 218 TDs, 126 INTs (10 NFL Seasons)
- Justin Fields: 68.4 percent completion, 5,373 yards, 63 TDs, 9 INTs (2 Seasons at Ohio State University)
Situation: The Bears finished 8-8 in Matt Nagy’s third season, making the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. But it was an up-and-down season that went to the wire, only to see a flat Chicago offense stymied in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. It was clear Mitch Trubisky, a former second overall pick, and veteran Nick Foles weren’t the answer. So, the Bears let Trubisky head to Buffalo, where he’ll back up Josh Allen. They signed the veteran Dalton, who spent nine years with the Bengals before starting nine games in 2020 for the Dallas Cowboys. Then the position got a huge makeover during the first round of the NFL Draft, as the Bears moved up to the No. 11 slot and snagged Fields, a top prospect out of Ohio State.
Heading into Camp, Nagy maintained that Dalton is the starter, something the Bears’ Social Media pronounced almost immediately after his arrival. But the pressure is on Nagy this year and will be on Dalton with Fields waiting in the wings.
Prediction: Dalton will start Week 1. In fact, I suspect he’ll start for a few weeks. But the Bears have a tough schedule and Fields is a more dynamic player. By late October, I suspect the rookie is on the field and ends up with the better 2021 season finish.
The San Francisco 49ers
- Jimmy Garoppolo: 67.1 percent completion, 1,096 yards, 7 TDs, 5 INTs (Six 2020 starts for the 49ers)
- Trey Lance: 66.9 percent completion, 2,786 yards, 28 TDs, 0 INTs (2019 season at North Dakota State)
Situation: The 49ers have been an NFL yo-yo the past three seasons. In 2018, Garoppolo got injured, and the 49ers finished in last place in the NFC West. In 2019, Garoppolo lasted the season and the 49ers won the NFC West, won the NFC and came up just short in the Super Bowl. Then, in 2020, Garoppolo played only six games, and the 49ers again fell to the basement of the division. Clearly tired of riding the Garoppolo coaster, the team made a bold move in the off-season, training three first-round picks to move up to the third spot in the first round of the NFL Draft. There, the team grabbed Lance, the third QB off the board and perhaps the biggest gamble. Lance was a star in 2019 at North Dakota State but didn’t get a 2020 season. Lance doesn’t have a wealth of college experience, nor did he play in a big program, but he has plenty of raw talent.
But what does that mean for 2021? Usually, you don’t see a team trade up to No. 3 to let a prospect sit on the bench, but the 49ers still have Garoppolo, who has a 22-8 record as a starter with the 49ers. Kyle Shanahan seems content to roll with Garoppolo as the starter, letting Lance accrue experience this season. He also has indicated Garoppolo is the best quarterback on the roster right now. The 49ers have a talented roster but play in a competitive division. The question is whether the rookie can surpass the veteran this season.
Prediction: I think we see Garoppolo for most, if not all, of the 2021 season. I believe the 49ers will be competitive in a tough division. I even think they can make the playoffs. Garoppolo doesn’t put up eye-popping numbers, but he’s been solid enough to help the 49ers win. I think that happens again. Barring injury, I don’t expect to see more than a game or two from Lance as a rookie.
The New Orleans Saints
- Jameis Winston: 60.7 percent completion, 5,109 yards, 33 TDs, 30 INTs (2019 with the Buccaneers)
- Taysom Hill: 72.7 percent completion, 928 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs (4 Starts in 2020)
Situation: The Saints won the NFC South for the fourth year in a row in 2020. And in what has become a trend, the team fell short in the playoffs. The Saints lost to the Buccaneers—a team they beat twice in the regular season—in the Divisional Round of the NFC Playoffs. That proved to be the final game for Drew Brees, who’s sure to be in the Hall of Fame. So, for the first time in 15 years, the Saints have an opening at quarterback.
This off-season the team drafted Notre Dame’s Ian Book later in the draft, but also retained the veteran Winston and Swiss Army Knife Hill, who figure to compete for the starting job. Winston is a former No. 1 overall pick who left the team that drafted him—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—due in large part to his inability to curb his turnovers. He signed with the Saints last off-season to work with coach Sean Payton but rarely saw the field. Hill, meanwhile, is a player that’s competed in a variety of roles in his time with the Saints, including being the player tapped to start four games Brees missed in 2020 with broken ribs. Hill, a dynamic runner, went 3-1 in those starts.
So, what does it mean for the Saints in 2021? Both players could well be gone after this year, meaning that this season is an audition for the future. Payton liked Winston enough to bring him back despite the fact it was Hill who got the call in 2020. Meanwhile, there are plenty of questions about whether Hill can be the starting quarterback of a playoff team. Then there’s the questions about the Saints’ offense, which returns star running back Alvin Kamara but has already lost receiver Michael Thomas for the first part of the season while veteran Jared Cook departed for the Los Angeles Chargers. That leaves a young and inexperienced group led by receivers Tre’Quan Smith and Marquez Callaway, along with second-year tight end Adam Trautman for whoever wins the job.
Prediction: There hasn’t been a lot of buzz about this competition, likely because many expect this to be a split, myself included. I think nominally Winston “starts,” but if Brees was pulled off the field for Hill, Winston will be, too. It’s hard to believe Winston’s turnover issues are behind him, and with a receiving corps that’s a work in progress, I believe Hill will be a big factor this season, too. As a result, both likely finish as QB3s for the 2021 season. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Saints move in a different direction in 2022.
Matthew Fox is a die-hard NFL Fan and Broncos’ homer. He’s a member of the FSWA. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a part of the Campus2Canton Network.