EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first installment of a seven-part series in which Browns beat writer Nate Ulrich analyzes players who will vie for starting jobs or other important roles during training camp. The first full-squad practice of camp is scheduled to run from 9:30 a.m.-12:10 p.m. Saturday at the team's headquarters in Berea.
Despite all the attention, all the hype, all the hoopla, odds are Johnny Football will begin his career with the Browns as Johnny Backup.
The battle between rookie Johnny Manziel and veteran Brian Hoyer for the team's starting quarterback job will be the most dominant storyline of Browns training camp by far. It'll also be one of the hottest topics in the entire NFL this preseason because of Manziel's celebrity.
Manziel is the young, hotshot former Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M whose No. 2 jersey already ranks among the league's best sellers and whose persistent partying generated headlines throughout the spring and summer. On May 8, the Browns made it clear they view him as their future because they traded up from 26th overall to select him at No. 22 in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Hoyer is the under-the-radar, low-key veteran from North Olmsted who was stuck behind New England Patriots star Tom Brady for three seasons before bouncing around the league, eventually breaking through last fall with the Browns and leading them to back-to-back wins, only to suffer a devastating knee injury in his third start with his hometown team and his fourth start in five NFL seasons.
On paper, Manziel looks like the front-runner. Many members of the national media certainly believe he'll become an immediate starter.
However, my prediction is the same it was in the spring: Barring injury, Hoyer will prevail.
As mandatory minicamp wrapped up June 12, Browns coach Mike Pettine declared Hoyer would be the starter heading into training camp. The rookie head coach also said Hoyer is "securely ahead" of Manziel but insisted Hoyer's lead is not "insurmountable."
In other words, it wouldn't be surprising if Manziel found a way to surpass Hoyer with strong performances in training camp practices and preseason games. But I wouldn't bet on it for several reasons.
For one, Pettine and his assistants have the utmost respect for Hoyer.
As the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills last season, Pettine had to prepare for Hoyer right after he provided the Browns with a tremendous spark in the wake of their 0-2 start and the Trent Richardson trade, a shocking, locker-room rattling move at the time. On Oct. 3, Hoyer suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the first quarter against the Bills. Pettine believes the Browns would have won enough games to keep coach Rob Chudzinski from being fired had Hoyer stayed healthy.
General Manager Ray Farmer not only thinks Manziel has a lot of work to do if he wants to catch Hoyer in the quarterback derby, but he also believes Hoyer has many traits of a legitimate starter. The team's brass talking to Hoyer's agent, Joe Linta, this summer about a contract extension gives its praise substance. Hoyer is scheduled to become a free agent next March. He is set to make a base salary of $1 million during the 2014 season with an opportunity to earn an extra $1.15 million in incentives.
A St. Ignatius High School graduate, Hoyer doesn't have a big arm or elite athletic ability. But combine his knack for reading defenses, cycling through progressions and releasing the ball quickly with decent mobility, an obsessive work ethic and desirable leadership qualities, and it's reasonable to project him as a successful starter for more than just a few games.
The coaches and front office like Manziel's skill set even more, as evidenced by the organization trading up to pick him in the first round with the belief he could one day wreck this league. At 5-foot-11 3/4 inches, he must prove he can consistently deliver accurate passes from the pocket, but his mobility makes him an ideal fit for the read-option plays new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan used with Robert Griffin III with the Washington Redskins.
Manziel, though, might not be ready to live up to his playmaking potential right off the bat. Not many rookie quarterbacks are.
It's the primary reason why Pettine has repeatedly said starting Manziel in the Sept. 7 season opener at the Pittsburgh Steelers would not be ideal. Coaches want to avoid less-than-ideal situations whenever they can, especially in their debuts at the helm and especially when their quarterback will face Steelers defensive coordinator and ancient master of the zone blitz Dick LeBeau.
Hoyer will be up for the task, provided he continues to rebound from injury.
Throughout the spring, Hoyer took first-team reps in seven-on-seven drills but sat out 11-on-11 sessions (except for toned-down, simulated versions) to ensure teammates wouldn't inadvertently slam into his surgically repaired knee. When Hoyer rested in team drills, Manziel took the reigns of the first-team offense.
Training camp will be different because Hoyer has been fully cleared for team drills. He and Manziel are expected to receive first-team work in practices and preseason games, giving coaches opportunities to make side-by-side comparisons.
During organized team activities and minicamps, the coaches saw Hoyer operate the offense more efficiently than Manziel, who signed a four-year, $8.25 million deal last month. The Browns are Hoyer's fourth NFL team and Shanahan's system is his sixth offense, so he's accustomed to adapting and knows what it takes to absorb a flood of new information.
On the other hand, this is all new to Manziel. He's still learning the playbook, its verbiage and figuring out how to adjust his style to the NFL. He's been inconsistent as a result. Sometimes his mechanics are good and he spins the ball. At other times, he throws wobbly passes off his back foot.
Not to belabor this point because I've been writing about it for three months, but I believe Manziel's relentless partying this offseason hurts his chances to usurp Hoyer heading into the season.
Manziel has a right to travel and hang out with his friends in nightclubs. But when those activities become a weekly occurrence, the grind of living life to the fullest could make it difficult for someone new on the job to chase down a veteran with a secure lead who has barely taken time off this offseason (just five days by Hoyer's count), who has been consistently working out at the team's headquarters and who has been throwing to receivers Andrew Hawkins, Miles Austin, Travis Benjamin and Charles Johnson to further prepare for camp.
So I'm picking Hoyer to win job, even though 11-of-16 quarterbacks taken in the first round since 2008 have started right away.
How long he'd keep it would depend on wins and losses, but I don't think the leash would be long. For example, if the Browns start the season 0-3 after visiting the Steelers and hosting the New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens, it would be convenient for Pettine to promote Manziel during the Week 4 bye and have him ready to face the Tennessee Titans on the road Oct. 5.
But even if Hoyer becomes the starter and wins like he did last season, it wouldn't necessarily preclude Manziel from playing as a rookie. I wouldn't rule out the possibility of Shanahan featuring Manziel in certain packages.
And remember, the backup always seems to find himself in the lineup in Cleveland. No Browns quarterback has started all 16 regular-season games since Tim Couch in 2001.
Which is why the competition between veteran Tyler Thigpen and undrafted rookie Connor Shaw for the No. 3 quarterback job could be more important than anyone wants to admit. As Pat Shurmur would say, "I saw some eyes roll." Still, the Browns have started three quarterbacks in two of the past four seasons, so it does matter.
In the under card featuring Thigpen and Shaw, I'll go with the rookie because of the upside he showed in spring practices and because Thigpen was out of football last season.
In the main event pitting Hoyer against Manziel, I'll stick with the veteran and expect the rookie to surface at some point during the upcoming season.
By Nate Ulrich - The Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)
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