Cleveland Browns: Biggest Matchups Facing Johnny Manziel in Rookie Season
Manziel's tenure as a member of the Browns isn't just about what he can do on the field. It's about turning Cleveland's misfortunes around and giving the fans an antihero to root for.
Not since LeBron James' arrival in 2003 has there been this much excitement about an athlete in Cleveland.
Manziel is a celebrity in every sense of the word.
Whether we're talking about Instagram pictures with music's biggest stars, a powerful friendship with King James or the unique ability to ignite social media just by dropping 140 characters, this city needs Johnny Football.
This blue-collar sports town has endured so much heartache over the years, it almost borders on comical. But the beauty of sports is that one year can change everything.
Manziel comes to the Browns in the middle of another structural overhaul. There's new management in place, a new head coach roaming the sidelines and a new way of doing business.
As he prepares to compete for the right to become the Browns' starting field general this season, he will have a mountain of obstacles standing in his way.
The AFC North is a smashmouth, hard-nosed division loaded with mad scientists who preach defense and players who embrace their every word.
Looking ahead at the 2014 schedule, here are the biggest matchups Manziel will face during his rookie season.
Manziel vs. Brian Hoyer
Before the season even starts, Manziel's first matchup will be against his own teammate, Brian Hoyer.
The 28-year-old Hoyer is a journeyman quarterback who found his groove last season in Cleveland before going down with an ACL injury in Week 5.
Even with Mike Pettine taking over for Rob Chudzinski as the Browns head coach, Hoyer still seems to be the guy this organization wants as its signal-caller in 2014.
Discussing the team's current QB situation, Farmar said on 92.3 The Fan, "I want the best quarterback to start. Who is the best quarterback? Brian Hoyer."
No matter what the hierarchy in Cleveland spews to the public, the idea that Hoyer is going to be the team's starter this season isn't set in stone.
Aside from the fact that Manziel was a first-round draft pick, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam wanted this kid.
Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer explained, "Did anyone doubt that Jimmy Haslam had input into picking Manziel? When a team considers drafting a quarterback with so much hype, the owner has to make the final call."
Manziel will have to learn this offense, clean up his mechanics and outwork the veteran Hoyer if he wants to surpass him on the depth chart.
It won't be easy, though. Hoyer has the coaching staff's almighty stamp of approval working in his favor as we head into camp.
Manziel vs. Dick LeBeau
If Johnny Football winds up starting off the season as the Browns quarterback, his first challenge is going to be finding a way to get past legendary Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
LeBeau is a defensive connoisseur, who just so happens to be one of the most highly regarded minds this game has ever seen.
To get a feel for how much people expect from LeBeau, all you have to do is look at the 2013 Steelers.
If you shift the paradigm over and check out how many yards per play they gave up, you'll see that his defense allowed just 5.2 yards in that category.
Since 2009, LeBeau's defense has only allowed five yards or more per play twice. To put that into perspective, the San Francisco 49ers have allowed five or more yards per play twice since 2011.
That doesn't mean the Steelers defense was great—it wasn't. All that means is that even in a down year, LeBeau was still able to get something out of a struggling group of players.
This season, LeBeau's Steelers should have an ax to grind with teams that crosses their path.
Unfortunately, that ax may come swinging down from the gallows on September 7 when the Browns open their season in Pittsburgh.
Manziel will have to be at his very best if he wants to carry the Browns offense through the Steel Curtain.
Manziel vs. the Browns WRs
On draft night, the thought of Manziel breaking contain, planting his back foot and slinging the pigskin 50 yards downfield to Josh Gordon had Browns fans acting like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert.
But after the news surfaced that Gordon had violated the league's substance-abuse policy and could be suspended for the entire season, per ESPN’s Outside the Lines, that all changed.
Although Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports mentioned that the Pro Bowl wide receiver was looking to reduce his suspension, the news clearly isn't good.
The front office continued its purge of the wide receiving corps by cutting former second-round pick Greg Little.
Without using the draft to find a replacement, the once-impressive group of pass-catchers has been reduced to Jordan Cameron, Andrew Hawkins, Earl Bennett and the injury-laden Miles Austin.
Assuming Manziel is the quarterback, the biggest challenge he could face may lie within the confines of the Browns offense.
Finding a way to drive the ball across the field without the benefit of having Gordon sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Hope for Manziel comes in the form of a 25-year-old wide receiver coming off an ACL injury. Charles Johnson, the 6'2" physical aberrant returns to the Browns looking to become that downfield target this offense desperately needs.
For a guy his size, Johnson ran a staggering 4.38-second 40-yard dash at his pro day before the 2013 draft, per NFL Media senior analyst Gil Brandt.
Johnson wants to get healthy and be a part of this offense. He expressed that sentiment to Peter J. Wallner of MLive.com.
Assuming he's cleared to get back to football activities, he's definitely a name worth watching in the coming months.
Can Manziel thrive without a premier playmaker? Like the rest of Cleveland's biggest questions, we'll have to wait and see.
Manziel vs. the AFC North
Anyone who's familiar with the Browns understand that the Steelers aren't the only defensive unit that wanders around the woods of the AFC North stalking their prey.
The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals are still very much alive in this division.
If Manziel winds up taking snaps under center, he will be welcomed with open arms by superstars like Terrell Suggs, Geno Atkins and Haloti Ngata.
Manziel's quest to bring the Browns back to prominence will run through a division that prides itself on outstanding defense.
The Bengals finished the 2013 season with the NFL's third-ranked defense, while the Ravens bolstered their always-fearsome roster with linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and safety Terrence Brooks during the draft.
Before Manziel can take this team back to the playoffs, he will have to figure out a way to get the upper hand on the three resilient franchises that stand in Cleveland's way.
Manziel vs. the Media
Johnny Football can stare into the cold eyes of Suggs all he wants. He can try to outsmart LeBeau. He can even beat out Hoyer and become the Browns' starting quarterback.
But the biggest matchup this young gunslinger will face this season is the media.
Manziel is a public relations magnet. He's the type of personality that can decimate a franchise if it doesn't find a way to properly ease him into the spotlight.
ESPN.com's Dan Graziano has already asked the question, "Can the Browns handle Johnny Football?"
Discussing the Browns' decision to control the media's access to Manziel so far this offseason, Graziano said:
The Browns' sloppy messaging on Manziel absolutely matters, because it reveals potential flaws in a leadership structure that's going to be essential to the management of Manziel's career. It's not surprising that there would be potential flaws in a leadership structure that changes every year.
Manziel's celebrity isn't going away anytime soon.
He has all of the tools needed to sell a billion jerseys and become the face of this franchise. The problem is if he isn't careful, Manziel could implode and take the Browns down with him.
Saying the right things, developing as a quarterback and keeping his nose out of trouble will force the media to focus on Manziel the football player.
Anything else will turn the Browns into the NFL's biggest circus—something nobody wants.
Conquering the media is the key to owning this city. If all goes well, Browns fans will be asking themselves, who needs King James? We have Johnny Football.