NFL News & Analysis

Evaluating every QB competition after Week 1 of the 2021 NFL preseason

Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones 10) calls a play against the Washington Football Team during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer would like you to believe that Trevor Lawrence, the first overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, is currently entrenched in a battle with Gardner Minshew for the Jaguars' starting quarterback job. On the other end of the spectrum, Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy has remained steadfast in his claims that Andy Dalton will be Chicago’s Week 1 starter over Justin Fields, regardless of what happens in the preseason.

Coaches can’t always be held up as beacons of truth, though. Kliff Kingsbury’s comments on his quarterback situation before the 2019 NFL Draft are perhaps the best example of that.

With that in mind, there appear to be five legitimate starting quarterback competitions playing out this preseason. Here is a look at how each player involved in those competitions fared in their first taste of 2021 game action.

New England Patriots: Cam Newton vs. Mac Jones

Player Dropbacks PFF grade Yards per dropback
Newton 7 65.2 7.0
Jones 22 79.5 3.7

Jones passed his first test in New England’s preseason opener against the Washington Football Team. His overall stat line was underwhelming, as Jones averaged just 4.6 yards per pass attempt on his 19 attempts and was held without a touchdown. But Jones’ best throw of the game — a beautifully placed deep ball to Kristian Wilkerson down the sideline and into the end zone — fell incomplete. That completion would have helped a stat line that featured just one completed pass that traveled 10 or more yards downfield.

Newton didn’t exactly light up Washington’s defense downfield, either. Just three of Newton’s seven pass attempts traveled past the line of scrimmage, and he completed all three for 32 yards. His average depth of target for the game was 0.7 yards downfield. Like Jones, Newton didn’t make any glaring errors, nor did he take many risks.

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The Athletic’s Jeff Howe wrote this week of the battle, “In totality, Newton has been steadier than Jones since the start of camp, but Jones shook off the rookie moments and his ascension over the past week and a half has been undeniable.”

Howe also noted that Newton continued to take his snaps with the starters in Monday’s joint practice with the Philadelphia Eagles. Jones is closing the gap, but it still looks like it’s Newton’s starting job to lose.

Chicago Bears: Andy Dalton vs. Justin Fields

Player Dropbacks PFF grade Yards per dropback
Dalton 4 51.8 4.5
Fields 24 64.0 7.3

The Dalton-led Bears offense failed to gain a first down in two drives. Dalton completed two of his four attempts in that stretch for 18 yards. There was little opportunity for him to get into any kind of rhythm with a first-team offense that was without Allen Robinson, but Dalton also failed to do anything of note.

In contrast, Fields produced several highlight-reel moments. He got outside of the pocket and extended several plays, one of which turned into an eight-yard touchdown run. Fields also hit a wide-open Jesse James on a “leak route.” It’s easy to gravitate to those highlights in a player’s first game, particularly with someone like Fields, who has earned the support of seemingly everyone.

Fields only came away with a 64.0 PFF grade despite those high points. A careless fumble on a scramble put a dent in his grade without any big-time throws to counteract it in a limited sample. The Ohio State product will also find it difficult to find sustained success with an average time to throw in the neighborhood of 3.8 seconds — the highest of any quarterback with at least 10 dropbacks this preseason — particularly behind a Chicago offensive line that has its fair share of concerns.

The rookie does appear to be the better option for Chicago, even with some of those caveats. Yet, head coach Matt Nagy has been adamant this offseason that Dalton is the starter. The snap breakdown in the preseason opener supports that notion. It’s worth monitoring whether Fields can shake up that hierarchy as the preseason progresses.

Denver Broncos: Teddy Bridgewater vs. Drew Lock

Player Dropbacks PFF grade Yards per dropback
Lock 8 84.3 17.4
Bridgewater 8 69.5 9.6

The Broncos’ passing offense shredded Minnesota’s second-team defense early in this game. Denver recorded a league-high 0.60 EPA per pass play in their first preseason action of the year.

Lock and Bridgewater both worked from clean pockets for much of the day. Lock was pressured on just two of his snaps, while Bridgewater wasn’t pressured once in his time on the field. That’s particularly noteworthy for the Broncos' incumbent starter, who was comfortably the lowest-graded passer in the league under pressure in 2020.

The third-year quarterback out of Missouri completed 5-of-7 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns, scrambling once for six yards. Those passes traveled 17.4 yards downfield on average, highlighted by an 80-yard touchdown pass to K.J. Hamler that was on the money nearly 50 yards downfield.

It was a very strong opening performance for Lock in a tightly contested quarterback battle.

Bridgewater by no means had a disappointing performance, but his showing did lack the flash of Lock’s. He averaged “merely” 9.3 passing yards per attempt to Lock’s 21.6 and delivered an accurate ball on 63% of his attempts compared to Lock’s 71%.

Head coach Vic Fangio said of the quarterback competition following the contest, “I don’t think any separation happened today in this game. I’m thrilled that both of them played good. I want it to be a hard decision.”

The decision to only trade for Bridgewater this offseason indicates that Denver wants Lock to win the job, and Saturday’s performance was certainly a good first step in that direction. Lock now needs to follow that up with steady performances in each of the next two games.

New Orleans Saints: Taysom Hill vs. Jameis Winston

Player Dropbacks PFF grade Yards per pass play
Hill 13 79.8 5.3
Winston 13 73.5 6.8

Both Hill and Winston ended the Saints’ first preseason game with 13 dropbacks. Hill started the game, and New Orleans averaged -0.04 expected points added (EPA) per pass play with Hill compared to 0.26 with Winston. However, Hill was the one who came away with a slightly higher PFF grade.

Hill was extremely impressive during the Saints’ opening drive, completing 4-of-5 pass attempts for 62 yards. That stretch was highlighted by a big-time throw to Marquez Callaway as Hill rolled out to his right. The veteran got rid of the ball decisively — with a 2.2-second average time to throw — and didn’t lean on his rushing ability during the drive.

However, Hill’s play tailed off after that. He recorded just 19 passing yards on his final seven attempts, also taking a sack.

To no one’s surprise, Winston pushed the ball downfield more than Hill, throwing the ball 13.4 yards downfield on average — an aDOT that trailed only Clayton Thorson and Kyle Trask among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts this past week. The former No. 1 overall pick went 4-for-6 for 83 yards, a touchdown and an interception on passes thrown 10 or more yards downfield. His interception wasn’t recorded as a turnover-worthy play.

It wasn’t a decisive victory for either quarterback. The offense performed better under Winston, but Hill offered a slightly better individual performance from a PFF grading standpoint. The competition will carry on into next week’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, where The Athletic’s Katherine Terrell expects Winston to get the first-team snaps this time.

San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Trey Lance

Player Dropbacks PFF grade Yards per pass play
Garoppolo 4 64.3 8.8
Lance 20 48.8 6.0

Lance’s first preseason performance is an example of the power that one splash play can have when it comes to public perception. Few plays circulated social media this weekend more than Lance’s 80-yard touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield — a pass on a rope from the left hash to a receiver outside the right numbers over 35 yards downfield.

However, Lance’s overall performance featured more lowlights than highlights. Fewer than 40% of his pass attempts were charted as accurate, and his three turnover-worthy plays (two near interceptions and a fumble) led all quarterbacks in the first week of the preseason. Lance also took four sacks in 20 dropbacks, tied for most by a quarterback this week. The high-end tools were evident, but it was far from a complete performance for the No. 3 overall pick.

Garoppolo didn’t prove much, but he didn’t have much of a chance to prove anything. He received just one drive as the starter, completing all three of his pass attempts for 26 yards. Those passes traveled just 1.3 yards downfield on average compared to Lance’s average depth of target of 11.3 yards.

It looks like things are trending toward Garoppolo starting the season, given his reliability and experience, with Lance having a set of plays that takes advantage of his physical tools as he works his way into the starting role. The Athletic’s David Lombardi wrote earlier this week that Lance has taken four snaps with the first-team offensive line in training camp and all four were runs specifically designed for Lance.

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