There is no more intriguing or polarizing player in the league, as NFL training camps get under way, than Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel.
His plummet through the opening round was the leading story line on the first night of the NFL draft in May. His off-field maneuverings have generated headlines and created an already lively debate about whether or not he’s living just a little bit too large for a player who’s yet to play in a single professional game. His No. 2 Browns jersey was the league’s leading seller in the first quarter of its fiscal year.
And, thanks to his presence, the Browns have the sport’s most compelling training-camp quarterback battle as they decide whether to enter the season with Manziel or Brian Hoyer as their starter.
In truth, it is a Manziel vs. Manziel quarterback battle, for there’s little doubt that Manziel will be in the Browns’ lineup when he demonstrates he’s ready — or might be ready — for the opportunity. Hoyer is on his fourth NFL team and totaled four starts in his first five seasons in the league. He has a career passer rating of 77.4. He has thrown seven career touchdown passes and six interceptions. He wasn’t the answer in New England, Pittsburgh nor Arizona. And it seems unlikely that he’ll be the answer in Cleveland. He is, it appears, merely the placeholder as the starter for the Browns until Manziel is ready to play.
The question, of course, is when that will be. Manziel’s drop to the 22nd pick in the first round of the draft underscored that many quarterback-needy teams had doubts about his ability to establish himself quickly as a top-tier passer at this level. Even the Browns potentially could be included in that group, given that they didn’t take him with their first pick of the opening round before trading up from No. 26 to land him.
The NFL is more accepting than it once was of quarterbacks with improvisational skills like those of Manziel. Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have used their mobility to their advantage, even if questions have persisted — especially concerning Griffin — about the long-term viability of playing the way they play. Manziel has the offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, who incorporated college-style option plays into the Washington Redskins’ offense in 2012 when Griffin was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year.
Manziel certainly will get his chance, probably sooner rather than later. But whether or not that chance comes on Sunday, Sept. 7, when the Browns open their 2014 regular season in Pittsburgh, remains to be seen.
But the Browns won’t be the only team with some training camp intrigue under center.
New York Jets
Michael Vick vs. Geno Smith
Smith did nothing last season to establish himself as a franchise quarterback, finishing his rookie year with 12 touchdown passes, 21 interceptions and a passer rating of 66.5 for the New York Jets. The Jets added Vick in the offseason after he lost the starting job in Philadelphia to Nick Foles, and many within the league suspect Vick will overtake Smith to enter the season as the starter in New York.
Matt Cassel vs. Teddy Bridgewater vs. Christian Ponder
The Minnesota Vikings got Bridgewater with the final pick of the first round of the NFL draft in May, three years after they took Ponder 12th overall. Ponder has failed to make much progress in his three NFL seasons, regressing to a seven-touchdown, nine-interception performance last year. Cassel had a 27-touchdown, seven-interception season for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2010, but he’s totaled only 27 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in three seasons for the Chiefs and Vikings since then. There probably is no great option for the Vikings unless Bridgewater shows he’s ready to be an immediate starter … but someone has to get the job.
Tony Romo vs. his back
Romo is the unquestioned starter in Dallas. But he’s 34 and coming off back surgery, so his progress in training camp and during the preseason will be worth watching closely.