QB battles: As OTAs begin, which signal-callers have the edge to start in September?

With OTAs starting up, the 2017 quarterback battles will soon take center stage. Will Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch start for the Broncos? Which of the Browns four quarterbacks will play under center in Cleveland? We preview the drama to come.
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The portion of organized team activities open to the media kicks off in earnest this week, followed by a three-day minicamp in mid-June that will give us our only taste of football until late July.

Per usual, about a fourth of the league’s teams face uncertainty when it comes to their starting quarterback. Each signal-caller’s first opportunity to win the starting job begins this week at OTAs, only to be continued in earnest during training camps.

Here’s a look at the top seven quarterback battles, in order of intensity and uncertainty, this offseason.

Cleveland Browns: Cody Kessler vs. Brock Osweiler vs. Kevin Hogan vs. DeShone Kizer

The Brock Osweiler trade was clearly a salary dump for draft picks, and at the time it seemed like there was no way Osweiler would end up as the Browns’ quarterback in 2017. Two months later, that’s no longer the case. This quarterback competition is as wide open as any in the NFL with four quarterbacks who could realistically start in Week 1.

“We’re going to give all our guys an opportunity to compete,” coach Hue Jackson told reporters after the Browns took Kizer in the second round of the draft. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about who is the starter, who is this. Let’s let these guys get here and learn our offense and spend time with myself and [quarterback coach David] Lee and go out on the field, and let’s see how it all turns out.”

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That sounds like a canned answer from a coach in the dead of spring, but sometimes clichés are the truth. Kessler, who started and lost eight games for Cleveland last year, wasn’t as bad as many expected, putting up a 65.6 completion percentage, six touchdowns and two interceptions. Hogan didn’t see the field enough to draw many conclusions on his game, and Kizer is still far from starting material after coming out of Notre Dame early.

And then there’s Osweiler. He was a bad starting quarterback last season for the Texans, but he was extremely bad when compared to his $72 million contract. His 16 interceptions were laughable, but he has more on-field experience than any other Browns quarterback on the roster.

Advantage: Anyone but Kizer, who won’t be ready to start Week 1 and shouldn’t be thrown to the wolves so early. This competition could go any of three ways, and each of those guys could eventually start for the Browns at some point in 2017. Get ready to add another name or three to that already-long Browns’ quarterback jersey.

Houston Texans: Tom Savage vs. Deshaun Watson

Houston is a playoff team with two signal callers who should be evenly matched going into training camp, which means this will be the premiere quarterback battle to watch... Well, they’re evenly matched in the sense that neither has thrown a touchdown in the NFL, even though Savage has 92 career passing attempts to the rookie’s zero.

Is Savage a good quarterback, or was he just a breath of fresh air after Osweiler’s maddening play last year? Can Watson take his winning ways from college and translate them to the pros, or is he yet another quarterback who won a lot in college just to fail in the pros?

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Coach Bill O’Brien and GM Rick Smith have said Savage is the quarterback for now—which makes sense, knowing that Savage better understands the offense after being in Houston for three years. But the rookie QB has yet to show his stuff.

Advantage: Savage, but just barely. After getting your quarterback in the draft, the greatest fear is rushing him too quickly. That’s why Savage has the edge here. Watson may very well be the better quarterback in camp, but O’Brien has to think about long-term goals in Houston.

Denver Broncos: Trevor Siemian vs. Paxton Lynch

Vance Joseph has promised this one will go down to the wire, and if that’s the case it will be the most competitive and tightly contested quarterback battle in the league. One player—Siemian—has proven he can win games despite a limited skill set. The other—Lynch—hasn’t seen many opportunities on the field but his 6' 7" height and abilities make you wonder if he’s the guy to get the Broncos back in the playoffs.

Lynch’s sample size last season was admittedly too small to reasonably compare to Siemian, but the two were similar in most normal quarterback metrics. Their completion rates were within a half-percentage point of each other and had almost identical touchdown-to-interception ratios.

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In the most competitive division in football, the Broncos have to find the right guy to throw to Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas to get them back into the playoffs—where the defense will carry the team again.

Advantage: Siemian. Vance Joseph told The MMQB that the biggest factor in determining the starting quarterback will be decision-making. Lynch entered in some tough spots last season but never seemed fully ready. That may have had more to do with Gary Kubiak identifying Siemian as the starter early on and not giving Lynch the kind of reps a future starter would need. But Siemian only dropped one game against a team that had a losing record (Chargers) and had three fourth-quarter comebacks in 2016. 

Tie—New York Jets: Josh McCown vs. Christian Hackenberg vs. Bryce Petty
San Francisco 49ers: Brian Hoyer vs. Matt Barkley

Kudos to the 49ers, Jets, Browns and others who didn’t force the issue in drafting a quarterback this year. As Albert Breer noted last week, next year’s class is loaded, and the only thing worse than not having a quarterback is picking the wrong quarterback and having to live with him…because you still don’t have a quarterback.

For San Francisco and New York, the choice is more philosophical than anything. Hoyer and McCown are both known entities who can win games if the rest of the team is functional, but in truth they’re both better backups than they are starters.

Barkley got his first taste of starting last year in Chicago and struggled like the rest of the team. He tossed 14 picks to just eight touchdowns but was at least able to move the ball down the field with 255 passing yards per game starting. There’s promise for him going into camp.

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Meanwhile, in New York, the Jets probably have the worst roster in football with the worst collection of quarterbacks, too. On the depth chart behind McCown are Petty, who put up an unimpressive four starts last season, and Hackenberg, who was so unprepared last year that Todd Bowles couldn’t justify putting him on the field in a five-win season (zero of which came against teams with winning records).

Advantage: McCown and Hoyer. Maybe things click for Hackenberg, and maybe having more support around Barkley will kick-start his game in San Francisco. But both of these squads know 2017 is going to be a tough one, so getting some wins out of the gate would help morale. It’s very possible all five of these guys end up starting for their respective teams this season, but the edge goes to the veterans heading into camp. 

Chicago Bears: Mike Glennon vs. Mitch Trubisky

Trubisky waited his turn for more than two years at North Carolina before he finally got the chance to be the man in Chapel Hill, so it’s a good thing he’s used to waiting.

The Bears are paying Mike Glennon $18.5 million in guaranteed money in 2017, and that usually means that he’ll get the nod over the No. 2 overall pick. Though you may have choked when the contract numbers were released in March, Glennon was one of the top backups in the league in Tampa Bay. He has a career 30 touchdowns to 15 picks after going 5–13 as a starter on some bad Buccaneer teams pre-Jameis Winston.

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Trubisky may very well be the best quarterback in this year’s class, but he still has learning to do. There should also be questions about how he can handle clutch situations. In his only year as a starter, Trubisky led an upset against Florida State but closed the season with rivalry losses to N.C. State and Duke and a bowl loss to Stanford.

Advantage: Glennon. He’s going to give the Bears the best opportunity to win now. He has four years of experience in the league and a two-month headstart on the playbook. Trubisky will need the time in training camp to work on playing under center and getting the offense down before he can unseat Glennon.

Buffalo Bills: Tyrod Taylor vs. The Field

It’s been a strange marriage in Buffalo between Taylor and Bills in the past year-plus. He got the big contract extension before the start of last season worth $92 million over six years, then he opted for surgery after the season, then he agreed to restructure his contract and now he’s one of four quarterbacks on the roster.

Now there’s a new regime in town that isn’t tied to Taylor. New GM Brandon Beane didn’t draft him and new coach Sean McDermott has never coached him. How’s this going to work?

“If we walk out there today, I would say Tyrod’s probably the starter,” Beane told Buffalo radio shortly after being hired. “…I’m for open competition. Sean is. Earn the right. Whatever job you have, whatever position you’re trying to get. I’m not in the business of handing out positions on May 15th.”

It’s not the greatest endorsement of a quarterback that’s gone a wholly decent 14-14 the past two seasons with 37 touchdowns against 14 interceptions.

Advantage: Taylor. The Bills also have Cardale Jones and T.J. Yates along with fifth-round rookie Nathan Peterman. No one is more proven than Taylor who, barring injury, will be the starter coming out of camp.

Kansas City Chiefs: Alex Smith vs. Patrick Mahomes

Give credit to Smith. He’s under no illusions about his role on the Kansas City Chiefs past 2017.

“I think [the Chiefs are] committed to me [only] through this year,” Smith told ESPN.com. “That’s just the nature of it. If you don’t go out there and perform, I mean, coach Reid and [quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy] are very honest.”

If Smith being the starter when the team drafts a young arm feels familiar, it’s because it happened in San Francisco in 2011 when the 49ers took Colin Kaepernick, who ultimately unseated Smith on the way to a Super Bowl appearance the following year.

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So because Smith has been around the block before (and because he’s smart enough to know the team trading up to the No. 10 pick for Mahomes means he’s the guy of the future), he gets that this season may be it for him in Kansas City—especially if the Chiefs can’t get over the playoff hump with him this year.

Advantage: Smith. He’s an able-bodied 33-year-old quarterback who has won 11 games in three of the past four seasons. Training camp with these two won’t be as much a battle as it will be seeing how quickly Mahomes can catch up to the playbook and how far off Smith’s heels he will be.