Positional Battles to Look Out for This Preseason

I want to break down a few of the true positional battles this off-season at Quarterback, and give you a heads-up on who’s got the upper hand at the moment. Any teams left off this list have an assumed pecking order of players that are worth drafting:

Chicago

Competitors: Mike Glennon, Mitchell Trubisky

Parhaps the biggest draft day story from Philadelphia this April was the Chicago Bears trading from 3rd overall to 2nd overall - that's right, just one spot - to take Mitchell Trubisky out of North Carolina – a player largely thought to be the best QB in the draft, but also a player thought to be drawing no real interest from the Browns or the 49ers, who were picking ahead of Chicago that day. As the Bears sunk a sizable investment into Trubisky, a 3rd-Rounder, a 4th-Rounder, and a 2018 4th-Rounder; many believed they were negotiating against themselves and essentially donating the picks to a team that was going to end up with DL Solomon Thomas either way. Was there an outside bidder looking to hop up to Number 2? Probably not; but the Bears didn’t know that. And while many may not have thought Trubisky was worth securing at all costs – including exorbitant amounts of draft capital – the Bears obviously thought he was. Hey, if he was their guy, he was their guy. Who can fault them for that?

Maybe you don’t evaluate Trubisky as a great signal caller either; but be honest – how much of that is founded solely on the fact that Chicago picked him? In their long history – one that routes all the way back to the origins of the NFL – the Bears have only once had a QB anyone could even with a straight face consider even possibly calling the best in the league; and that was Sid Luckman in the 1930’s. As mediocre as he has been, recent gunslinger Jay Cutler has actually been one of the best in the team’s extensive history. Super Bowl champion Jim McMahon was never seen as himself great; but most people feel he was in the right place at the right time to benefit from the '85 Bears' defense and its unfounded hegemony over the NFL. In recent decades, Bears fans have had to endure Moses Moreno, Kyle Orton, Rex Grossman, and Cade McNown under center. In that context, you can see how pessimistic Bears fans may be about anyone the team may pick; and conversely, you could see how desperate Bears management may be about securing that elusive franchise QB.

But Is Trubisky himself bad? PFF had him graded as their best QB in the draft. He has been compared to Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers. In just one year as a starter, Trubisky had an impressive 3,748 yards and 8.4 Y/A with 30 TDs to only 6 INTs. Going back a year, where much has been made about Trubisky not starting in favor of a QB with no real profile of success, Trubisky posted 85.1% completion, 11.8 Y/A and 6 TDs to 0 INTs. Not that it isn’t born from a limited sample size; but lumped together in one study, his 2015 and 2016 stats combine for an even more impressive 344 for 494 (70% completion) for 4,303 yards, 36 TDs, and only 6 picks. He also has a good amount of mobility and helped to elevate receivers Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins to eventuate as a pair of 4th-Round NFL draft picks.

On the other hand, Mike Glennon is a perennial journeyman with a career 5-13 record. His career stats are: 59% completion, 30 TDs to 15 INTs, and 6.5 Y/A, all with the Buccaneers. Glennon, trapped behind young former Number 1 overall draft pick Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay, came to Chicago with the hope of getting his chance; but those on the outside could probably call it for what it was, even before Trubisky had his name called on draft day: Glennon, coming to a bad team, was always intended to be a stopgap – one of those QBs you bring around to hold the door open for someone younger that will come along later. Glennon is by no means bad, but he also probably has no business being a starter in the NFL either.

Prediction: Glennon gets an audition while Trubisky serves as his understudy for the first half of the season. The Bears stink, and Glennon is uninspiring; and Trubisky is trotted out onto the field no later than halfway through the season. All the while, neither of them provide much in the way of fantasy juice.

Cleveland

Competitors: Cody Kessler, DeShone Kizer, Brock Osweiler

While the narrative in Chicago seems all too familiar (we see something like it every year), the situation in Cleveland is slightly more complicated; and it may yield to a different plot. The good news for fantasy players is it likely won’t matter. Cleveland should once again be bad; and it should be particularly limited along the offensive skill positions, meaning no weapons and a dearth of first downs or TDs could render it a poor fantasy hub, particular at QB, one of the least scarce positions in the game.

For those of you with some reason to continue reading – maybe you’re in a superflex or a 2 QB league – your 2016 incumbent is officially Kessler, who played decently in about a third of the snaps one would see in an average NFL season for a QB. Kessler is less flashy than the rookie Kizer, drafted in the 2nd Round out of Notre Dame this spring; but he is also pretty young himself – a 3rd-Round selection just one year ago out of USC.

Though battling injuries all throughout, Kessler managed to start half of Cleveland’s games and finish even less in his rookie season, but his rate stats looked pretty decent: 65.6% completion, 7.1 Y/A, and 6 TDs to 2 INTs. It’s hardly enough work to be scientific in our evaluation, but it’s not enough to impatiently mandate that Kessler gets the boot either.

Kizer is talented, but he is raw. His comp is typically Daunte Culpepper. Culpepper sat behind Jeff George and Randall Cunningham in his first season. Likewise, Kizer probably would be well served to have a redshirt year, too.

As for Osweiler, he was basically sent to Cleveland as a living embodiment of a financial deficit; as Cleveland took on his overpriced contract in exchange for another draft pick. Houston gets to get Osweiler off their books; and Cleveland draws from their surplus of money in order to add to their arsenal of draft choices; but honestly, neither team actually seems to want the player himself. His existence is simply an ancillary aspect of the trade. Osweiler is also young, and he also was a high draft pick; but Cleveland has probably already seen enough of him not to assume he’s an actual part of the QB competition in camp. It would take some large strides for Osweiler to win back any trust from an NFL GM after the abomination he put up a year ago.

So the competition is probably between Kessler and Kizer; and the comparison is probably more accurately stated as a version of the 2016 Trevor Siemian vs. Paxton Lynch affair. While the assumption is that Kizer, Lynch in this scenario, has a greater eventual upside, he also has a longer way to go to achieve it. Meanwhile, Kessler is already a fundamentally sound NFL signal caller that should also only get better than he was last season, when he was still a freshman learning how to twist the knob on his gym locker.

Prediction: Kessler wins the gig, and he gets a legitimate chance to hold down the job all year. If he plays well enough, he will; but he won’t factor in fantasy. If he really starts to fall apart, or if he gets injured, which happened several times in 2016, Kizer could get a look. Kizer has more fantasy juice because he’s slightly more mobile, but he probably won’t amount to a whole lot in fantasy either.

Denver

Competitors: Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch

The Broncos shocked fantasy players last summer when they began to seriously consider Siemian as a starting QB option over veteran fill-in Mark Sanchez, and the rookie Lynch, drafted in the 1st Round to be the eventual replacement for the departed Peyton Manning. Siemian came to the NFL with almost no build-up – a barely drafted castoff from forgotten Northwestern, lost in the shuffle behind the mimbo and the manchild. But Siemian shook peoples' heads when he came away with the gig; and then he turned them in Week 3 with a 312-yard, 4 TD effort against Cincinnati. Another brilliant fantasy performance would materialize late in the season against Kansas City, when The 2nd-year signal caller piled up 368 yards and 3 scores. But Siemian also regularly clanked around at the bottom of the jar, too; and in his final 3 games, he concluded with 59/110 (53.6%) for just 671 yards (6.1 Y/A), 2 scores, and 4 picks.

In Lynch, now a 2nd year player out of Memphis, many see a budding Ben Roethlisberger – a huge-bodied cannon-armed small school product with a good deep ball and excellent athleticism. In his first NFL action, filling in for an injured Siemian last season, Lynch had a lackluster 49/83 for just 497 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 INT. Naturally deficient in intermediate passing, Lynch is said to have been much improved in that area this offseason. Also, plenty stiff and sterile through most of his early body of work, Lynch has been said to be playing far more comfortably and instinctually this summer. I'm about as leary of camp-speak as the next guy, but at least there's no doubt who Denver would like to see run away with the job.

Prediction: Lynch is a higher upside play for the Broncos and fantasy players alike. Chances are, if Siemian were to win the job, he would never really factor in fantasy, and certainly never more than a streaming option in a given week or two. If Lynch were to win the job, with his mobility and deep ball ability, it could actually manifest into dependable fantasy production. Hopefully for fantasy players, the Broncos also find themselves smitten with Lynch’s upside and he gets the gig; but this one's going down to the wire.

Houston

Competitors: Tom Savage, Deshaun Watson

Much the same as any of these scenarios where there is an unexciting denizen of a team atop the depth chart with an exciting freshly opened rookie just below, there is little to no fantasy value with the veteran. Savage will never be useful in fantasy this season in normal sized leagues. Even in weeks where his matchup is totally solid, there will likely be better streaming options than Savage, a former 4th-Round pick who technically split his college days at 3 separate universities – Rutgers, Arizona, and Pittsburgh. Savage has a total of 588 NFL yards on 92 NFL attempts under his belt, so he hardly has any track record at all. All he seems to have on Watson is experience within Houston’s system on his side.

Watson, a proven winner who was victorious in one National Championship and went to another in college, was taken in the 1st Round of April’s NFL draft at Number 12 overall. He has mobility and a good intermediate passing game. His accuracy can be sharp, and he never seems to get rattled – in several ways the walking embodiment of a Joe Montana reincarnate. Criticisms about Watson are relegated to complaints about his size and the more substantial objection that he ran a very simplified collegiate gameplan while at Clemson that often involved no more than two reads per play.

Houston is so close to competing for a Super Bowl, and many believe their solitary weakness to be their QB play. Even with Brock Osweiler at the helm a year ago, the Texans made the playoffs. Windows of greatness open and close quite quickly in the NFL. There are basically 3 things that could happen: The Texans could prefer Savage and be winning, they could prefer Savage and be losing, or they could prefer Watson. If the Texans favor the veteran and win, they may keep him in the captain’s chair; but if either of the other two scenarios develop, this will be Watson’s show (and a change such as this could materialize as early as this preseason if the Texans’ coaches determine Watson is learning quickly enough). The latter two scenarios are far more likely; and Watson, because of his running ability, could provide far more fantasy appeal. For example, Colin Kaepernick is a two-read QB that runs; and despite his not being elite in real life, he is a very viable fantasy QB. Watson could be the same way.

Prediction: I honestly think Watson wins the job before the season even begins. He probably eventuates as a QB2, but he could surprise us with a Newton-y, Wilson-y, Tebow-y rookie year where his running acumen elevates him to the upper echelon, and he ends up putting up QB1 material. If Savage wins the gig out of camp, Watson is still more ownable sitting on a bench than Savage is running as a starter.

Kansas City

Competitors: Alex Smith, Patrick Mahomes

I’ve included this one, because Mahomes is a high draft pick and an exciting player, especially as he will be molded by Andy Reid, who is largely responsible for the respective development of Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb. Not only was Mahomes, the son of a longtime MLB pitcher, chosen as the 2nd QB off the board this April; but KC thought enough of him to trade up, sending an extra 3rd-Rounder and next year’s 1st-Rounder to Buffalo in exchange. Mahomes was largely thought of as the QB in this year’s draft with the most arm talent; and he was almost constantly compared to Favre and McNabb this winter.

Even still, as exciting as Mahomes may be as a dynasty prospect, he isn’t going to beat Smith out to begin the season. There is no QB competition in Kansas City – not as of now. It is possible, but not necessarily mandatory, that if the Chiefs were to end up as a total dumpster fire in 2017, Mahomes could see the field before the season is over. And it is certainly no guarantee he will be refined enough at the position to be any good, even if that were to occur later in the season.

As for Smith, we know exactly what we are getting with him. One of the game’s most notoriously conservative signal callers, Smith is typically among the usual suspects for weekly streamers. He is not worth drafting, but he may find himself being occasionally useful throughout the season.

Prediction: Neither QB is worth drafting. Smith wins the gig, and he is the same as always – a member of the regular streamers club, no more, no less.

Minnesota

Competitors: Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater

Much like in Kansas City, there is no QB controversy in Minnesota. As Bridgewater returns from the most horrific knee injury possible, he won’t be up to speed in 2017; and even if he was, Bradford played very well last season. This write-up exists solely to clear up any misunderstanding about Bridgewater’s rehabilitation process and where he is.

Always under fire, Bradford was one of the most graceful signal callers under duress in the league a year ago. Often viewed as a disappointment of a 1st overall draft choice, Bradford has actually been a sturdy and reliable NFL QB the past four seasons. Spending much of his career marred by injury and much more of it on bad teams with turnstile tackles and no-talent targets, Bradford has quietly been a rock. As the Vikes have turned over their O-line with a rake, there is hope that there will be more time to throw. And as the team trends toward a more opened up style with less reliance on power running, this likely is one of the best chances at fantasy relevance of Bradford’s career.

Erstwhile on Fargo, Bridgewater’s recovery is going well; and the hope is that he can get well enough to compete for a starting spot in 2018. The injury was originally thought of as a near 2-year ordeal, and it still may be; but the very fact that there is a thought that Bridgewater could make the active roster in 2017 should give fans of the game who also happen to be human beings the warm and fuzzies. Case Keenum will likely begin the season as the backup as Bridgewater is a strong candidate for the PUP list.

Prediction: There’s nothing to predict. It’s just a reality check on Bridgewater. Bradford wins the gig and is a QB2 with occasional streaming potential.

NY Jets

Competitors: Josh McCown, Christian Hackenberg, Bryce Petty

File this one under Who Even Cares. You’re not owning any of these three tossers.

Christian Blaize Hackenberg was earmarked as a bust out of Penn St. almost the moment his name was called in the 2nd Round of the 2015 draft. Jets fans are used to screwing up draft picks; but unlike 2017 whipping boy Mitchell Trubisky of the Bears, Hackenberg was not evaluated by PFF as the best QB in his class. In fact, he wasn’t even considered draftable according to the metrics website service. Wrote staff writer Sam Monson, “Hackenberg is inaccurate at every level of the field, on all throws and against all coverages…I have never seen a quarterback consistently miss as many wide receiver screens as Hackenberg. Receiver screens are supposed to be high-percetnage plays… Hackenberg regularly has plays where the pass has little to no chance of succeeding, but he puts the ball in the air anyway.” NFL.com complied with PFF somewhat in a slightly less scathing pre-draft review, ceding that Hackenberg has “deblitating accuracy issues” and “turns receivers into goalies.”

Others have evaluated Hackenberg as a developmental project. He’s owner of a Troy Aikman-like body type – a prototypical NFL QB cut-out straight off the assembly line at 6’4” and 234 lbs. He has good arm strength, and he can sometimes demonstrate outstanding accuracy in isolated moments. Many have deemed Penn State to have had a bad offensive line during his latter tenure there, much of which begat Hackenberg’s well-documented fall from grace from his outstanding Freshman year in 2013. Others have cited a dying talent pool on the Nittany Lions’ roster following recruiting hits caused by the Jerry Sandusky controversy. When he got there, he played for NFL HC Bill O’Brien alongside NFL WR Allen Robinson and NFL TE Jesse James. When he left, there was nothing of the sort in the passing game; and he had appeared a misfit in new HC James Franklin’s screen-heavy offense.

As for McCown, now 38, he is owner of both some highs and some lows; but mostly, he is a journeyman not to be trifled with in fantasy. It was only after his surprising 2013 with the Bears while filling in for Jay Cutler and tossing TDs to the triple towers of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett that anyone anywhere ever considered drafting McCown. He’s played for 10 NFL teams and a UFL team since coming out of Sam Houston State in 2002. At his age, playing with one of the worst teams in football in the middle of a rebuild, he is not a fantasy option, even if he wins the job.

Petty, a product of a wide open Baylor spread attack, is probably not thought of as a starting option by the Jets’ coaches. He finished the year by taking the gig away from 2015 wonderboy Ryan Fitzpatrick, who spoiled like milk left out in the sun; but it was only to see what Petty had. And what he had wasn’t much. Petty is destined for a career backup’s life.

So the job comes down to McCown and Hackenberg. And honestly, for fantasy purposes, it probably doesn’t matter one bit. Essentially, the Jets’ decision comes down to one thing: Is Hackenberg going to be ruined in his development, which entails ostensibly a compete overhaul of the damage allegedly done to him at Penn St., if the Jets stick him out there? If they think he’s ready, on a team that’s completely rebuilding, it would be foolish not to give him a shot. If he’s the QB of the future for the Jets, they have to find out.

Prediction: Hackenberg has been so maligned for doing so little that it’s almost easy to want to cheer for the kid. That said, this battle is going to go down to the wire most likely. If the Jets don’t give the gig to the 2nd-year field general, they’re probably headed for the Sam Darnold 2018 draft sweepstakes. If they do, they still may be headed for the same fate; but hopefully for one of the most frustrated fanbases in sports, Hackenberg can tap the potential many think he has. For fantasy purposes though, just stay away. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.