Predicting 10 NFL starting quarterback battles: Who is QB1?

Nothing spices up NFL training camp like a good old quarterback competition. And while there may not be a ton of outright battles under center this year, the NFL has more than a few teams whose QB1 situation is, for one reason or another, at least mildly unsettled.

So we wanted to take a look at 10 of those and make predictions for how they might come out. Some of these are true mysteries. Some of them do not appear, on their faces, to be mysterious at all. But we believe we've compiled a list of teams whose QB situations have come with at least a question or two at some point this offseason. And if only for those who might not be paying as close attention as the most rabid fans of these teams do, we felt like it was worth breaking them down.

As camps kick off, we broke down each situation based on what we're hearing around the league. They are ordered below from the most wide-open competitions to the basically-already-settled situations, starting with a fascinating situation in Tampa Bay.

Jump to team:
LV | SF | TB | TEN | WSH

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Candidates: Baker Mayfield, Kyle Trask

The race to succeed Tom Brady in Tampa Bay comes down to Mayfield, the 2018 No. 1 overall pick who is 32-39 as an NFL starter over five years with three different teams, and Trask, who has thrown a total of nine career passes since the Bucs drafted him in the second round in 2021.

Mayfield had a nice little finish to the 2022 season after he landed with the Rams following a messy stint in Carolina. But he still ultimately finished last in the NFL in Total QBR (24.6) and completion percentage over expectation (minus-6.9%, per NFL Next Gen Stats tracking). Trask has been in the Bucs' building for two years and knows the system, but he has only seen the field in mop-up duty late in a Week 18 loss to Atlanta last season. The team has treated this as a real competition throughout the offseason and will continue to do so as decision time nears.

"We're practicing full-bore now," Bucs coach Todd Bowles said at his camp-opening news conference. "Obviously you take notes and look at things in the spring, see how they learn, see how they handle the team, see how they grow, see how they encourage others and see who's the best fit for the offense. I have a timeline in my head, and I'll make a decision at that point in time."

Week 1 starter prediction: This feels like the kind of situation in which Mayfield is at his best: competing for a job. I say his experience gives him an edge, and I predict Mayfield performs well enough in the preseason that he's the Buccaneers' starter when the season opens.

Arizona Cardinals

Candidates: Jeff Driskel, Colt McCoy, Kyler Murray (injured), Clayton Tune

We bring up the Cardinals because Murray suffered a season-ending ACL injury late in 2022 and doesn't seem likely to be ready for the start of the season. Murray could end up missing a number of games, but we just don't know yet. The Cardinals will have a competition in camp to figure out who starts until Murray gets back.

McCoy has been with the Cardinals the past two seasons and started three games in each of them. But the Cardinals have a new front office, a new coaching staff and a new offense, so experience in the building may not give him the edge it would under different circumstances. Tune was the team's fifth-round pick this year out of Houston and offers some mobility that may help him fit the system Arizona is installing better than McCoy. Driskel could say the same, but he hasn't shown a ton in 11 career starts scattered over five seasons with four different teams.

The Cardinals have two picks in the first round and six total picks in the first three rounds of next year's draft. Many people around the league believe they have the worst roster on paper and are focused on the future. McCoy is probably the best bet if the Cards want to try to win games, but it might be tempting to take a peek at the rookie if he shows anything in camp.

Week 1 starter prediction: To quote Clubber Lang: "Prediction? Pain." This is likely to be a rough ride for the Cardinals until -- and maybe even after -- Murray comes back from his injury. I predict they open with McCoy, sort of by default. But if Murray takes a while to come back, I wouldn't be surprised if it reached the point where they took a look at Tune just so they know what they have there as they focus on the future with all of those picks.

San Francisco 49ers

Candidates: Sam Darnold, Trey Lance, Brock Purdy

The very last pick in the 2022 draft, Purdy stepped in as the starter following injuries to both Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo last year and was a revelation. He started the final five games of the regular season, throwing 13 touchdown passes and four interceptions as the 49ers won all five games. He then started all three of San Francisco's playoff games, winning the first two and suffering an elbow injury that knocked him out of the NFC Championship Game against the Eagles. That injury required offseason surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in Purdy's throwing arm, and that understandably created questions about his readiness for the start of the 2023 season.

Throughout the offseason, the talk has been about Lance, whom the Niners traded up to draft at No. 3 overall in 2021, and Darnold, whom the Jets traded up to draft third overall in 2018. It felt all along as if there was a good chance one of those two would have to start in Week 1, and that may still be the case.

However, the Niners said earlier this week that Purdy was cleared to throw during training camp. "Without restrictions," is the way GM John Lynch put it, though the 49ers are easing Purdy in and monitoring/limiting his throws -- at least in the early weeks of camp. They've made it clear that Purdy, who obviously earned a shot with his performance last year, would be the starter if healthy, and it's starting to look as though he may in fact be healthy for Week 1.

That could mean Lance or Darnold becomes trade bait as the season gets closer, though the 49ers' recent history of QB injuries might convince them to keep all three ... just in case.

Is Brocky Purdy's health holding the 49ers back in the NFC?

Rob Ninkovich breaks down where the 49ers stand in the NFC with a healthy Brock Purdy this season.

Week 1 starter prediction: Purdy's recovery continues to be a success, and he opens the season as the 49ers' starting QB.

Houston Texans

Candidates: Davis Mills, C.J. Stroud

Mills has 33 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions in 28 games over his two seasons in the league. Stroud was the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft out of Ohio State. The Texans rotated them throughout the offseason program, working Mills with the first team one week and Stroud the next, as they declined to anoint either the presumptive Week 1 starter.

Having spoken with a few people close to this situation, the sense I get is that Stroud has so far done everything the Texans have needed him to do, but that they want to see him in stressful situations (i.e. preseason games) before deciding whether to start him right out of the gate.

One league source put it this way: "He didn't have much experience navigating a messy pocket at Ohio State. In the NFL, the pocket is always messy. So how does he handle that? You can't know until you see it."

Week 1 starter prediction: Houston knows what it has in Mills, and that's a big reason it drafted Stroud. Unless he gets out there and looks totally lost in preseason, I say Stroud will show enough to convince the Texans to start him Week 1.

Indianapolis Colts

Candidates: Sam Ehlinger, Gardner Minshew, Anthony Richardson

Richardson was the No. 4 pick in the '23 draft, and therefore, the Colts' plan is for him to be their starter at some point soon -- and ideally, for a long time. But there were pre-draft concerns, voiced by many, that Richardson's off-the-charts talent might need some time to refine itself before he is ready to start NFL games. That's the reason the Colts have Minshew there.

Having worked with new coach Shane Steichen when the two were in Philadelphia together, Minshew knows the offense, and the Colts are confident he could handle the role if asked to start while Richardson continues to develop. They aren't ruling out the possibility that Richardson could start Week 1, though. They just don't have enough information yet to determine whether he'll be ready. After all, Richardson started just 13 games at Florida.

"He's a great kid, but he's young," Colts GM Chris Ballard told reporters in Indianapolis at the start of training camp. "There's going to be some up-and-down moments in camp. There's going to be some up-and-down moments when he eventually plays. I'll lean heavily on our coaching staff and what they think he can handle and think he's ready for. When the coaching staff thinks he's ready to go, then we'll play him."

Richardson and Minshew to split first-team reps

Stephen Holder details the Colts' quarterback battle between Anthony Richardson and Gardner Minshew.

Week 1 starter prediction: Even if he still needs refining as a passer, Richardson will offer enough as a runner that he'll be the Colts' best option right out of the chute. And he may not even need as much refining as a passer as many thought he would. I say Richardson starts Week 1.

Washington Commanders

Candidates: Jacoby Brissett, Sam Howell

Howell was a fifth-round pick by the Commanders in 2022 and played just one game in his rookie season, but the team feels good enough about him that it's proceeding with him as the likely starter for 2023. Brissett, the veteran who started 11 games for the Browns last year and will be playing for his fourth different team in the past four seasons, was brought in to be a reliable backup and an experienced option who could start if Howell can't handle things.

Both are learning a new offense under coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who came in from Kansas City. Coach Ron Rivera has said Howell would get the first shot at earning the starter's role, but that he would have to earn it. Reports on his progress through the offseason have been encouraging.

"I had Howell as my favorite quarterback in that [2022] draft, so I'm not surprised he's getting a shot," one AFC front office executive told me.

Week 1 starter prediction: The Commanders open with Howell, but I could see this being an unsettled situation that switches back and forth throughout the year. And I could definitely see Washington being in the QB hunt again next offseason.

Carolina Panthers

Candidates: Andy Dalton, Bryce Young

This one is locked in. The Panthers opened OTAs with Dalton as the starter while they worked with Young on some NFL-specific stuff he didn't have to do in college, such as working from under center. But it didn't take long for them to move Young -- the No. 1 pick this past April -- into the top spot on the depth chart, and from what I've been told, he has been everything they expected and more.

Coach Frank Reich said this week Young is Carolina's QB1.

Week 1 starter prediction: Young starts Week 1, and he plays well enough that the Panthers are actually a sneaky contender in the NFC South.

Atlanta Falcons

Candidates: Taylor Heinicke, Desmond Ridder

The Falcons switched from Marcus Mariota to the rookie Ridder for the final four games of the 2022 season, and he was fine. He had a pair of touchdown passes and zero interceptions while completing 63.5% of his throws. Good enough, at least, to convince the Falcons to go into this season with Ridder as their starter. Heinicke, who started 24 games for Washington over the past two years (and one playoff game the year before), was brought in as the veteran backup.

There has been no indication throughout the offseason that Ridder might not get the ball Week 1. The team has surrounded the 2022 third-round pick with high-level young skill-position talent and believes it has put him in a strong position to succeed.

Week 1 starter prediction: I think this one's also already decided. Ridder starts Week 1.

Las Vegas Raiders

Candidates: Jimmy Garoppolo, Brian Hoyer, Aidan O'Connell

Raiders coach Josh McDaniels ran longtime Raiders starter Derek Carr out of town and brought in two guys he knows from his New England days. Garoppolo obviously was signed to be the starter, but he's coming off foot surgery. While he has been cleared for camp and all signs are positive, health is never a guarantee with Garoppolo, and any player coming off a surgery that keeps him out of the offseason program is going to be a question mark.

Week 1 starter prediction: If the Raiders were truly worried about Garoppolo being ready, I think they would have brought in a better backup plan than Hoyer, 37, and fourth-round rookie O'Connell. Garoppolo should start Week 1 if healthy. But that's always a big "if."

Tennessee Titans

Candidates: Will Levis, Ryan Tannehill, Malik Willis

The only reason this is even a discussion is that the Titans made Levis, who many thought would be an early-Round 1 pick, the 33rd overall selection in this year's draft. That indicates a strong chance that he'll be their starter eventually. But Tannehill is still on the team and has been the Titans' starter (and a pretty successful one!) since the middle of the 2019 season. Could Levis conceivably have a brilliant enough training camp that he wrestles the starting job away from Tannehill? I guess anything is possible, but there's no indication that that's the Titans' plan at this point.

Now, if the Titans struggle over the first couple of months of the season and aren't in contention at the trade deadline, things get interesting. Tannehill is making a very reasonable $27 million this season and is a free agent when it ends. If and when the Titans are ready to move to Levis, the veteran could be an attractive trade option for a team that needs a quarterback. But that's a hypothetical situation.

Week 1 starter prediction: The Titans didn't sign receiver DeAndre Hopkins late in the offseason just so they could turn this operation over to a second-round rookie. Coach Mike Vrabel believes he can field a contending team this year, and Tannehill gives him the best chance to do that. Tannehill starts as long as they're playing for something, while Levis gets ready to take over in 2024.