It was a fascinating preseason at the quarterback position across the NFL
If NFL offenses were rock bands, quarterbacks would be the lead singers. Tight ends would be drummers, centers would be bassists, wide receivers would be guitarists and running backs would be the backup singers whose “oohs!” and “ahhs!” are integral to the songs but whom everyone seems to ignore.
But I digress.
The point is, there’s no question quarterback draws the biggest spotlight. It’s probably the most popular position in professional sports, and certainly the most scrutinized. The fact there are only 32 available starting jobs at the sport’s highest level makes the position even more fascinating.
This pre-season, quarterback activity was particularly compelling. Here’s a rundown of some of the more interesting goings-on at the position over the past few weeks as teams finalized their post-training camp rosters.
This is a perfect place to start, both alphabetically and in terms of decision-making. The Cardinals search to find a fill-in for the injured Kyler Murray, who likely won’t be back until mid-season as he recovers from knee surgery, has been both strange and fascinating. They appeared to be set on Colt McCoy, who backed up Murray in 2021 and 2022, playing in 12 games over that stretch. McCoy wasn’t great, but he was a veteran and he knew the offense, which brought some stability to the position. Behind McCoy, Arizona had fourth-year player David Blough and 5th Round draft pick Clayton Tune, neither of whom seemed ready to start but who, as backups, were thought to be serviceable.
Then, just a week ago, the Cardinals blew it all up. They dealt for journeyman Josh Dobbs, previously of Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Tennessee and Cleveland. The move initially looked like an attempt to add veteran depth to their inexperience behind McCoy. But then, a few days later, they cut both McCoy and Blough, leaving only Tune, the rookie 5th Rounder who completed less than 60% of his passes this pre-season, and the newly acquired Dobbs, as their options.
McCoy didn’t play well this pre-season, but his release was shocking. Arizona is expected to be one of the worst teams in football this season, so starting a player who doesn’t know the system (Dobbs) or an inexperienced rookie (Tune) may not matter one way or another. But for the sake of stability, it was believed McCoy was the wisest choice. Obviously, new head coach Jonathan Gannon thought differently. The Cardinals may not be finished tweaking the position, but whomever starts in Week 1 is in for a rough ride.
New England Patriots
The Patriots made some interesting news of their own at the waiver wire as they cut both of their backups, Bailey Zappe and Malik Cunningham. That leaves Mac Jones as the only quarterback on the roster — for now. At the time of this writing, New England is yet to sign another. But they will, soon. Cunningham may return to the team, but Zappe is likely to be claimed elsewhere. The 4th Round pick from the 2022 draft had a solid rookie season, completing 65 of 92 passes (70.7%) and sparking some off-season speculation that he would challenge Jones for the starting job. New England players seemed shocked that Zappe was cut, with special teams captain Matthew Slater remarking he loved Zappe and hoped he would return. Instead, New England may have to scour the waiver wire for a player like McCoy or Will Grier.
I’m not one to question the thought process of a coaching legend like Bill Belichick. But, occasionally, the man does make some curious decisions that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Often, those decisions work out. Sometimes, they don’t. If Zappe does in fact sign with another team, this feels like one he may regret.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers decision to trade Trey Lance to Dallas was a topic I covered in part in the link to the article below. It was an admission of their failure to develop the former 1st Round pick, for whom they traded three future number ones for the right to acquire. But it also showed their faith in Brock Purdy as the unquestioned starter in San Francisco. By trading Lance, the Niners signaled they had no interest in entertaining questions about a future competition between he and Purdy. Instead, they named veteran Sam Darnold as Purdy’s backup. Darnold is little threat at this point in his career to challenge Purdy for the starting job, and has enough NFL experience to provide capable play in Purdy’s absence. The Niners made their evaluation on both Lance and Purdy, declared a winner, and clarified the situation by dealing Lance. They will be criticized for the trade that brought Lance to San Francisco, and rightly so. But their decision to move on from him was best for the team, and stopped the situation from deteriorating.
13 rookie QBs made NFL rosters, with three of them — Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson — being named as starters. Their stories have been well documented and their careers will be followed with a keen eye. Let’s look at some of the lesser-known rookies to stick, then.
When Cleveland traded Dobbs to Arizona, it cemented Dorian Thompson-Robinson as Deshaun Watson’s backup. The rookie from UCLA was excellent this pre-season and has a style that compliments Watson’s. If Watson were to miss time, Cleveland could largely execute the same offense with Thompson-Robinson in charge.
Will Levis is the #3 quarterback in Tennessee, but it will be interesting to see how long he remains so. The rookie from Kentucky was in a tight competition with last year’s 3rd Round draft pick, Malik Willis, for the backup job to Ryan Tannehill. Levis was injured, though, and fell to #3. Willis didn’t exactly light things up in his extended pre-season showcase, and there are questions about his long-term viability in Tennessee. If the Titans part ways with Tannehill after the season, Levis may be a better bet than Willis to succeed him.
In Las Vegas. Aidan O’Connell was the star of the pre-season. He didn’t beat out Brian Hoyer for the backup job to Jimmy Garoppolo, but that was a product of experience, not play on the field. Whether this pre-season was just lightning in a bottle for O’Connell or a harbinger of future success remains to be seen. But the the 4th Round pick from Purdue could end up being the sleeper QB of this rookie class.
Several other rookies did join Thompson-Robinson by earning jobs as backups. Sean Clifford in Green Bay, Stetson Bennett with the Rams and the unheralded Tyson Bagent of Shepard University and the Chicago Bears are all listed as number twos on their teams’ depth charts. Throw in Tune, who may start in Arizona, and it was a promising pre-season for the young signal-callers.
Kenny Pickett finished an epic pre-season in Pittsburgh 13-15 for 199 yards with two touchdowns, zero interceptions and a perfect passer rating. Pickett led five drives over three games, all of which resulted in touchdowns. Steelers fans are nervously reciting the requisite manta — “Don’t get too excited, it’s only pre-season” — but it’s hard to contain their enthusiasm for the growth the second-year QB has shown.
Baker Mayfield held off Kyle Trask in the Tampa Bay QB competition. But with 13 rookies on the roster, the Bucs may be in the middle of a rebuild. If Mayfield falters early, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them play Trask as a compliment to their youth movement.
Tyler Huntley stuck as Lamar Jackson’s backup in Baltimore. The Ravens had veteran Josh Johnson and second-year player Anthony Brown compete with Huntley for that position, but ultimately cut both. Huntley was not great as a starter last season in Jackson’s absence, but his style is similar and provides cohesion in the play-calling. Still, it won’t be surprising if Baltimore makes a move for another signal-caller in the coming days.
Veterans who are listed as number three on their team’s depth charts who could be moved to a quarterback-needy team like the Cardinals, Patriots or perhaps Ravens include Case Keenum (Houston), Sam Ehlinger (Indianapolis), Mason Rudolph (Pittsburgh) and Logan Woodside (Atlanta). Players who were just cut, like McCoy, Johnson and Zappe, are candidates as well. Rosters may have been set this week, but they are far from settled. Especially at the rock star position of the football world — NFL quarterback.