Ranking the NFL's quarterback duels by how interesting they are

Jun 13th 2022

Charles McDonald

There's been one egregious mistake over the past few years of the NFL that not enough people are bringing to the forefront: quarterbacks are entirely too comfortable. There are too many entrenched starters on teams that don't have the guts to challenge their starting quarterback, even if they would benefit to do so.

However, there are a few teams that are staying true to the sacred tenet of competition that built this great game. Right now, there appear to be four (maybe three, but one of them absolutely should be a competition) teams that are really letting their signal callers compete.

Are these teams good? No, not really. But they will be interesting to track for a bit during training camps and the preseason. From least to most interesting, here are the four quarterback duels you should be focused on.

4. Carolina Panthers: Sam Darnold vs Matt Corral

This is probably the saddest quarterback competition of the four. It's mainly sad because a late third round pick is really the best they could bring in for competition? It's not like Sam Darnold is an unknown quantity at this point in his career. He's struggled for two different teams over the past few years and frankly it's pretty bizarre that the Panthers are entering the season with only Matt Corral as his competition — so far.

Even if the Panthers are bullish on Corral and his potential for the team long term, he's probably not in a situation to usurp Darnold. Darnold is, amazingly, accounting for $18.9 million against the Panthers cap space — and every dollar of that is guaranteed. Just knowing how NFL businesses operate, it's unlikely that the third round rookie quarterback is going to usurp a starter with that amount of guaranteed money.

However, the Panthers shouldn't just hand Darnold the starting gig. He was an active anchor on what they were trying to achieve last year. According to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, Darnold ranked 29th in expected points added per play (-0.122), sandwiched in between last season's crop of rookie quarterbacks. Not exactly where a quarterback entering his fifth season in the league wants to be.

Corral could be the better player, it's just unlikely that he'll be in a position to win the job form Week 1. Buckle up, Panthers fans. It might be another long season.

3. Seattle Seahawks: Geno Smith vs Drew Lock

Geno Smith versus Drew Lock would be more intriguing if we didn't already have a lot of background on these two quarterbacks. Neither of them have been very good, but there's a chance that Smith might have a steadier hand than Lock, especially considering Smith is entering his 10th season as an NFL quarterback.

Smith only has 196 passing attempts since the 2015 season, so there isn't really that big of a sample size to use outside of the 95 attempts he had last season in relief of Russell Wilson. The familiarity with the staff and supporting cast will likely give him the upper hand over Lock, who just joins the team after the blockbuster trade involving Russell Wilson.

What's actually interesting about this battle is that even though the Seahawks are starting over at quarterback, they're trying to field a fairly competitive team at other spots. Their defense should be one of quality this year. Starting Smith or Lock for an entire season will probably smother the Seahawks' chances to make the playoffs, but this team isn't rolling over to die like other teams after a big trade at quarterback.

For whatever it's worth, Smith averaged 7.4 yards per attempt last season, which would have tied with Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes if it held over a larger sample size. His adjusted yards per attempt of 8.0 would have tied for seventh in the league with Dak Prescott. According to Ben Baldwin, Smith ranked 18th in his composite score for expected points added and completion percentage over expectation — one spot ahead of Russell Wilson amongst all quarterbacks with at least 100 plays on the season.

Seattle might not be a playoff team, but if they can hit on their quarterback situation, they should be frisky with their defense and additions in the draft.

2. Atlanta Falcons: Marcus Mariota vs Desmond Ridder

The Falcons are going to be bad. Horribly bad with no real chance of making the playoffs unless a lot of things go right for them. The offensive line is poor, their core group of skill players are young and the defense still has a lot of holes.

However, they do have a pretty intriguing quarterback situation with Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder. Athletically speaking, Mariota and Ridder are extremely similar players, although Mariota does have a better feel for being a ballcarrier than Ridder.

Mariota, obviously, has more experience than Ridder, who was drafted by the Falcons in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Still, Mariota hasn't had a whole lot of experience recently since he was injured in 2019 as the starting quarterback of the Titans. Mariota has the NFL experience to get cracking early and win the starting job over Ridder, but Ridder will have his shots for playing time as well.

Mariota played for Arthur Smith before in 2019 and struggled through injuries and poor play before he was replaced by Ryan Tannehill, who has been the starting quarterback since then. The athleticism of both players gives them a strong baseline for rushing production, but it will probably take time for Ridder to get used to the speed of NFL defenses.

Mariota should get the starting job, but Ridder will have a chance to push for it during the season if he struggles.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers: Mitch Trubisky vs Kenny Pickett

Like the Falcons battle, the Steelers quarterback battle benefits from the allure of the unknown. Trubisky hasn't started a football game since 2020 when he was a starter for the Chicago Bears. Kenny Pickett was the only quarterback selected in the first round this year and as an older prospect, has increased pressures to produce early.

Outside of the quarterback spot, the Steelers have a strong team on paper yet again. Even with the retirement of defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt. The defense, like years past, should be enough to get to them back to the playoffs. Which is what makes this the most interesting quarterback duel in the league.

The Steelers have collected a nice group of skill players for whoever wins the starting gig for the season. Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and George Pickens are a great place to start for a quarterback looking to have a chance against NFL defenses.

This should be the most balanced quarterback battle in the league. Pickett and Trubisky are both mobile quarterbacks, but Pickett might be a more polished passer at this point — which is funny considering where they are in their careers. Pickett might not be one of the best quarterback prospects in recent memory, but he should be able to give Trubisky a run for his money for the starting job. If not, the Steelers should probably be getting back into the quarterback sweepstakes sooner rather than later.