Biggest Depth-Chart Surprises in NFL Minicamps So Far
This is minicamp season for NFL teams. The 32 clubs have all completed their first few days of full-team practices, the next step in the offseason progression from OTAs.
While it's still early, on many rosters the depth chart is starting to take shape. In many cases, there isn't a lot of suspense; everyone knows who will start at quarterback for New England or wide receiver in Detroit.
Yet there are several surprising developments on some early depth-chart projections.
These surprises could be temporary situations. They might be motivational tactics by coaches. Yet some might be permanent adjustments in how fans need to view one player or another.
Here are six of those early surprises.
Brian Hoyer over Johnny Manziel
The legend of Johnny Manziel is one of the most captivating football stories of the last couple of years. Manziel is arguably the most popular, and polarizing, figure in the NFL already. This is despite the fact he's never taken a snap.
Manziel, the 22nd pick in last month's draft, is instantly recognizable to even the most casual fan. Nary a week goes by that he isn't prominently featured in the sports news leads.
From flashing his now-iconic money sign with his fingers, to posing on an inflatable swan with a bottle of champagne to this recent oddball incident with a stack of cash, Manziel dominates the media coverage in Cleveland and beyond.
Yet right now, he's not even the starting quarterback for the Browns.
That honor goes to Cleveland native Brian Hoyer. That's the same Hoyer who was bounced off three different roster in less than nine months after the start of the 2012 season.
To be fair to Hoyer, he did win all three of his starts in Cleveland in 2013 before suffering a devastating knee injury (ACL). But he's been a journeyman reserve in his five previous years, and his return from the knee injury is no given.
When the Browns pulled the trigger on Manziel in the draft, he immediately became the face of the franchise. Even if Hoyer might offer a little more steadiness as a veteran rudder, the starting quarterback gig is almost universally viewed as Johnny Football's.
This is likely a case of when and not if; Manziel will be taking snaps for Cleveland at some point in the not-too-distant future. Yet it's not been an immediate coronation as many expected it would be.
Lamar Miller over Knowshon Moreno
The Miami Dolphins went out and invested $3 million in former Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno. That represents a fairly hefty one-year commitment to a very productive all-around back.
Yet right now, Moreno finds himself looking up on the depth chart at Lamar Miller.
The Dolphins' fourth-round pick in 2012, Miller will not earn as much from his entire four-year rookie contract, via Spotrac, as Moreno will in 2014.
Moreno clearly wins the tale of the 2013 tape, too: (241 rushes, 1,038 yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 60 receptions, 13 total touchdowns versus 117 rushes, 709 yards, 4.0 yards per carry, 26 receptions, two total touchdowns).
That doesn't mean much to Miami head coach Joe Philbin. As Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel reports, Miller is getting the first-team reps over the more accomplished free-agent prize.
Later in the same piece, Kelly offers a hint at why Moreno is behind:
'Knowshon's had a good camp. He brings a lot of energy into the building every single day. He's very good in the meeting rooms,' Philbin said of Moreno, whom he previously admitted could be in better shape physically.
With the increasingly prominent move toward using multiple running backs instead of one feature back, it's a little hasty to draw any conclusions here.
Maybe Philbin is simply trying to motivate Moreno to get into better shape or showing his loyalty to veteran Dolphins, who have ridden out what has been a hurricane of recent controversy.
Still, it's surprising to see Miller running with the first team and Moreno relegated to backup duty, even at this juncture.
Ryan Fitzpatrick Starting in Houston
The Houston Texans entered camp with a four-man open battle for the starting quarterback job. That's taking the old football axiom "If you have more than one quarterback, you don't have a quarterback" to the extreme.
New Texans coach Bill O'Brien decided to end the controversy early, when he pronounced a starter on Tuesday, per CBS Sports' Josh Katzowitz: "Texans coach Bill O'Brien just told reporters that Ryan Fitzpatrick is his starting QB over Case Keenum, T.J. Yates and Tom Savage."
O'Brien went one step further when Ian Rapoport tweeted that they traded Yates, who led the Texans to the first playoff victory in franchise history after the 2011 season, to the Atlanta Falcons for linebacker Akeem Dent.
Fitzpatrick is the most accomplished of the combatants, though, that speaks more to the underwhelming nature of the competition. His tenure as Buffalo's starter ended with a 20-33 record, and he started nine games for the AFC South rival Tennessee Titans in 2013 as well. He went 3-6 and was summarily dismissed from the team.
Savage, the team's fourth-round pick, carries the highest long-term potential. The rookie from Pittsburgh has a stronger arm and more polished mechanics than Fitzpatrick.
Yet right now he remains third on the depth chart, behind both Fitzpatrick and third-year pro Keenum. The former Houston Cougar standout, Keenum, lost all eight of his starts a year ago, completing fewer than 55 percent of his passes and generally not showing much ability to handle pressure.
At this point, Fitzpatrick is probably the lesser of three evils as the Texans try to get through 2014 by leaning heavily on the defense. Still, after his rather startling lack of success in his prior stops, it's still surprising to see him named the starter so hastily.
Brian Quick Rising Up
The St. Louis Rams raised some eyebrows when they selected wide receiver Brian Quick in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft.
The big-framed Appalachian State wideout sure looked like a major project at the time. During Senior Bowl week, I personally witnessed him looking completely overwhelmed by the increased level of competition. My notes were peppered with phrases like "cannot separate," "lacks concentration" and "ironically named because he has no quickness."
Those apparent struggles carried over early in his Rams career. Despite his lofty draft status, Quick has managed just 29 receptions in his first two seasons. Chris Givens, the team's fourth-round pick in the same draft, flew past him on the depth chart.
Things might finally be clicking for Quick in his third season. As reported by Nick Wagoner of ESPN, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is quite pleased by what he's seen so far:
Probably the most improved player I've seen is Brian Quick. He's doing a great job. Another guy that we're giving an opportunity to, he's competing for playing time and he's made the most of his opportunities. He started today, again just moving guys around in and out of the lineup trying to create competition, and he's stepped up and made a lot of big plays for us.
Even though the team has added enigmatic Kenny Britt and drafted Givens, Austin Pettis, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey since selecting Quick, right now No. 83 is running with the first team.
This is a make-or-break year for several Rams, including quarterback Sam Bradford. Quick is off to a surprisingly strong start, and if it carries over to the regular season, it will make Bradford's task that much easier, too.
Da'Quan Bowers Falling Down
Much was expected of Da'Quan Bowers when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him with the 51st overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Together with first-round fellow defensive end Adrian Clayborn, optimism brimmed that the duo could terrorize opposing quarterbacks for years.
While Clayborn has proved to be a decent all-around player for the Bucs, Bowers appears on a downward spiral. As Marc Sessler of NFL.com recently noted, he could be in real danger of not making the team.
He has only himself to blame. Despite being a seemingly ideal fit for new coach Lovie Smith's pass-rushing scheme, the Clemson product keeps digging deeper into his self-made hole. Take this tweet and photo from Sports Illustrated, for example: "Da’Quan Bowers showed up to Buccaneers workouts out of shape yet again."
This comes after a season where he registered just one sack and two solo tackles in 13 games, starting two of them.
Throw in a litany of injuries (knee microfracture surgery, torn Achilles) and a 2013 arrest for carrying a loaded handgun into LaGuardia Airport, and it's easy to see why the writing is on the proverbial wall for Bowers.
He's currently looking up at second-year ends William Gholston and Steven Means as the reserve ends, according to Ourlads. That's quite a fall for someone once considered a potential No. 1 overall pick, at an age (24) where he should be entering his prime.
Micah Hyde Playing Safety
It's not a surprise that Micah Hyde will be starting for the Green Bay Packers in 2014. After all, he was solid enough at cornerback to rank 40th at the position in Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rankings in 2013.
That's a pretty impressive debut for the fifth-round rookie out of Iowa, outplaying several more highly drafted corners in his class.
No, the surprise with Hyde is that he will be moving to safety.
That position has been a bugaboo for the Packers for years. A rotating cast of M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian, Charlie Peprah and even a badly faded Charles Woodson have tried in recent seasons, but nobody has clicked with the decidedly average Morgan Burnett as a combination.
It surely seemed like the role would immediately go to 2014 first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the rangy and savvy youngster from Alabama. Yet right now, Hyde sits atop the depth chart.
Per Jason Wilde of ESPN, Hyde has been getting the first-team action in minicamp: "Micah Hyde is still working ahead of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety with the No. 1 defense."
The Packers do have an interesting mix of depth at cornerback, particularly if Tramon Williams can rebound from two substandard seasons and Casey Hayward remain healthy. Hyde lacks the great size for a safety at just 5'11" and 197 pounds, but he does offer toughness to go with his proven coverage skills.
In an NFC North chock full of premium passing-game weapons, having safeties who can cover is an absolute necessity.
What's also surprising and, as Rob Demovsky of ESPN notes, a new development is Packers head coach Mike McCarthy's aversion to playing rookies on defense. After all, it worked pretty well for Hyde last season.
All statistical and biographical information is from NFL.com unless otherwise specified.
Jeff Risdon is a featured columnist for the Detroit Lions at Bleacher Report. He also is the founder/editor of Detroit Lions Draft and the Senior NFL/Draft writer for RealGM. You can interact with him on Twitter @JeffRisdon.
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