During the NFL preseason, there’s nothing quite like a quarterback battle in training camp.
Whether it’s an incumbent veteran trying to fend off a hot-shot rookie, or previous back-ups fighting for the chance to finally be starters, the battles dominate the narrative in August.
With that said, here’s a look at the five quarterback battles that will be front and centre over the next month.
Even though the quarterback hierarchy in Baltimore isn’t likely to change by the time the season starts, this situation is worth mentioning because it could evolve during the year.
Since his magical Super Bowl run in 2013, Flacco has looked like nothing more than an average quarterback, with his passer rating topping out at 83.5 in the past three years.
Baltimore went 9-7 last season, while boasting a defence that ranked sixth in fewest point allowed (18.9) and first in takeaways (34). Their offence, on the other hand, accumulated the sixth-fewest total yards – in part due to a meager air attack.
If that side of the ball under Flacco is holding the Ravens back to start the season, Jackson could get an opportunity to jump-start things. But for that to happen, the rookie likely needs to earn the coaching staff’s trust with a decent preseason showing – and not just as a runner, but as a pocket passer.
Jackson is the future. His unseating of Flacco is a matter of when, not if.
The Browns are in a bit of conundrum. They have two quarterbacks who, based on their talent and the circumstances around their arrival to Cleveland, should theoretically start.
In March, the team traded a 2018 third-round pick for Tyrod Taylor, who was unwanted in Buffalo despite having a better passer rating than Dak Prescott, Andy Dalton and Derek Carr last season, all while adding 427 rushing yards with his legs.
The price the Browns paid for Taylor made it seem like he was the shoe-in starter for the coming season, but they then drafted Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick to complicate their decision.
If Mayfield lights up the preseason and looks ready to grab the reins of the offence, Cleveland will have a hard time keeping him on the bench, which appears to be the plan at the moment.
It’s not a bad problem to have by any means, especially for a team that won all of one game the past two years.
There’s a three-way battle going on in Buffalo, where veterans A.J. McCarron and Nathan Peterman are going against each other and rookie Josh Allen.
Peterman is the only returning Bills quarterback from that group, but he showed little last season to suggest he’s the long-term answer, even though the coaching staff confusingly preferred him to Taylor for a stretch.
Buffalo signed McCarron in March to a two-year deal worth $10 million, so it’s not as if they committed significant money to the former Cincinnati Bengal. But they must have seen something in McCarron to pursue him in free agency.
They clearly love Allen though, because they traded up from 12 to eight in the draft to select the Wyoming product, who has all the physical tools to succeed, but has been criticised for his accuracy issues and decision-making.
Allen may not be ready to start from day one, even if he does have a strong preseason, but the other options aren’t all that inspiring.
Of all the rookie quarterbacks taken in the draft, Josh Rosen may be the most ready to play right away, with his polish and accuracy making him an intriguing option to start.
However, the Cardinals didn’t hand veteran Sam Bradford a one-year, $20m deal (with a second-year option) to have the most expensive back-up in the league.
He’s seemingly never healthy, having missed 48 games over his eight-year career, but when has been on the field, Bradford has shown enough to suggest he can be an above-average signal caller.
Arizona are in a transition year after the retirement of head coach Bruce Arians and starting quarterback Carson Palmer, yet the roster is still talented enough to compete. For that reason, Bradford makes the most sense as a steady hand.
If he goes down though, which isn’t just possible but, based on his history, somewhat likely, Rosen could step in and keep the show going.
Say what you will about journeyman McCown and his limited upside, but the 39-year-old was effective last season as the Jets starter to lead one of the weakest rosters in the league to five wins.
Treading water isn’t what the Jets should be aiming for, however. Which is why Bridgewater and Darnold, at the very least, give the team a fresh start and something to believe in.
Bridgewater is a complete unknown at this point, having attempted all of two passes over the past two years. The strides he showed in his sophomore campaign were promising though, and the pedigree is there as a first-round pick.
Pedigree is something Darnold isn’t lacking either, with the strong-armed quarterback possessing tantalising upside. His brief holdout to start camp isn’t likely to hurt his prospects of starting, but he’ll have to really stand out in the preseason to move ahead of two players in front of him on the depth chart.
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Smith’s holdout is the second-longest for a rookie under the current CBA (collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and players’ union) behind Joey Bosa’s 31 days in 2016, when the pass rusher and the San Diego Chargers didn’t reach an agreement until late August.
Rookie holdouts have become an uncommon occurrence since the current CBA was implemented in 2011, which created a wage scale for draft picks. That leaves little room for negotiation as each player now receives a four-year deal with a fifth-year option, while earning a salary that is allocated for the pick they are selected.
The only dispute in rookie contract negotiations under the current CBA is offset language, which essentially protects a team in the event a player joins another team if they are released before the end of the deal.
Smith’s case, however, is extremely unorthodox. The Bears are trying to insert language into his contract, but it’s centred on him losing guaranteed money if he’s subjected to fines or suspensions for on-field actions, specifically because of the new helmet-to-helmet contract rule, according to the Chicago Tribune.
As a linebacker, Smith will be involved in countless collisions on the field, so it’s likely he’ll brush up against the rule at some point, which can disqualify a player if he lowers his head to initiate contact and makes contact with his helmet. If he were to be ejected from a game or suspended, that would rob the Bears of an impact playmaker on the defensive side of the ball.
But by playing hardball with Smith regarding a rule that has yet to even be enforced, Chicago are proving to be sticklers.
The Philadelphia Eagles were left confused by a recent meeting with NFL officials in which they went over the new rule, so it’s entirely possible every defender in the league will require an adjustment period to eliminate illegal hits.
The other part of this from the Bears perspective is that it could have the unintended consequence of neutering Smith’s aggressiveness and physicality. With the potential of losing money on the back of his mind, he may not engage ball-carriers with the same verve.
The dispute between Chicago and Smith is minor enough to be resolved before the regular season, but for a team aiming to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010, it’s not the shrewdest handling of a key player.
For Minnesota, the deal locks up Diggs through the 2023 season, giving the team the comfort that one of their top playmakers will be in the fold for the foreseeable future.
For Diggs, it’s a significant payday for a player who was in line to earn just $1.9 million on the final year of his rookie deal for 2018.
The extension is worth around $14 million per season, according to the Star Tribune, which would put Diggs’ contract in the same region as Chicago Bears receiver Allen Robinson (three years, $42m) and Green Bay Packers wideout Davante Adams (four years, $58m).
Stefon Diggs is the best receiver in the NFL on contested targets. pic.twitter.com/3u7gsn78Dl— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 8, 2018
Diggs will forever be entrenched in Vikings lore after being on the receiving end of the ‘Minneapolis Miracle’ in January, when Minnesota pulled off a jaw-dropping comeback in the final seconds as Case Keenum connected with the wideout for a 61-yard catch-and-run score.
By handing Diggs a rich extension right now, however, the Vikings have put themselves in a position where they’ll have to make a tough call on fellow receiver Adam Thielen.
Though Thielen – who out-produced Diggs with 91 receptions, 1,276 yards and four touchdowns last season – is still under contract for three more seasons, he’s making just $4.8m annually. It’s possible he looks to rework his deal over the next year so it aligns closer to what his value is.
For the coming season at least, the Vikings have one of the most talented rosters in the league and should once again be serious Super Bowl contenders.