When the Cleveland Browns drafted Johnny Manziel with the 22nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, it was clear that a quarterback competition would be on between him and Brian Hoyer. Though Hoyer has the initial advantage, Manziel certainly poses a threat to his chances to be the team's starter this season.
However, Hoyer can maintain his advantage through this summer's training camp and gain sole possession of the job. There's no reason, yet, to believe that Manziel will overtake him in his first year in the NFL. And it doesn't appear that the Browns coaching staff would prefer Manziel over Hoyer this season.
Mike Pettine spent time with Greg A. Bedard of MMQB.com last week and was asked about Manziel starting in his rookie year. Pettine was clear that he had no intention of starting any quarterback drafted this year, though he did note he believed Manziel was the most prepared:
We felt this entire draft class, every single one of [the quarterbacks] needed a redshirt year, with Johnny really being the only one that had a chance given the right circumstances to be an opening-day starter. It could happen, but in my ideal world, it's not opening day.
This echoes the sentiment of general manager Ray Farmer, who was asked by ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi what it would take for Manziel to be the Browns' starter in Week 1 after May's draft. His answer? "Someone got hurt." That someone presumably being Hoyer.
It's telling that the Browns brass has been so committed to Hoyer, despite the coaching and front-office staff being replaced well after Hoyer tore his ACL in Week 5 of the 2013 season. There's something about Hoyer that Pettine, Farmer and new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan clearly like. While they also obviously like Manziel, it doesn't appear they are all that interested in him being a rookie starter.
Farmer said on Bull & Fox last month that Hoyer was ahead of Manziel to start this year "by a substantial margin." That margin appears to have slimmed after OTAs and minicamp wrapped, with Pettine saying last week, per Jeff Schudel of The News-Herald & The Morning Journal:
I think that Brian is securely ahead of [Manziel] right now, but we will compete and we will decide. The issue for us as a staff will be finding the right time to name the starter. If you wait too late, then nobody’s ready for the opener. If you do it too soon, then it wasn’t a true competition.
He added that Hoyer is in the lead but that it's not an "insurmountable" gap for Manziel. This is standard language for a head coach wanting to keep pressure on his players to be competitive during the summer.
It also makes sense that Pettine would take this measured approach on the quarterback situation considering how careful the team has been with Hoyer's return to action, who has yet been cleared for full participation in practices.
Hoyer will beat out Manziel for one simple reason: experience. Hoyer may have only seen the field in 18 NFL games in five seasons with four starts, but those are 18 more NFL games and four more NFL starts than Manziel has had.
Manziel is an electrifying quarterback with unique playmaking abilities and a star quality rarely seen in the league, let alone in Cleveland. But he's raw. He needs development. There's no question that Manziel has been earmarked as the Browns' quarterback of the future, but Hoyer seems set to be their quarterback of the present.
Of Cleveland's four wins in 2013, three of them came with Hoyer as the starting quarterback. The offense looked faster and more efficient than with either Brandon Weeden or Jason Campbell under center.
Hoyer completed 57 of his 96 pass attempts in those three games for 615 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions for a respectable 82.6 passer rating. He also engineered a fourth-quarter comeback and a game-winning drive in that span.
Hoyer's three years as Tom Brady's understudy in New England provided him with an offensive mentality that mirrored the Patriots'. Though he's not Brady by any stretch, he's certainly better equipped to run the offense this year than the very green Manziel.
The only hitch in these plans rests on Hoyer's continued recovery from his knee injury. Sure, Manziel could prove to be a fast study and make significant enough strides to narrow the gap between himself and Hoyer. However, the Browns have already made public their reservations about Manziel—or any rookie quarterback—being their starter this year.
That doesn't mean Manziel won't take the field at all this season. The Browns open 2014 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and then face the New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens before their Week 4 bye. If the Browns go 0-3 to start the season, for reasons directly related to Hoyer's play, he could be benched for Manziel in Week 5.
However, the Browns would be smart not to throw Manziel to those three brutal defenses with his lack of experience. Hoyer is simply better equipped to handle the speed of the professional game, and he does give the Browns a better chance to win early in the season than Manziel. Week 5 is a totally different matter from Week 1.
Who do you think will be the Browns' starting quarterback in Week 1?
The Browns powers-that-be have walked the walk since taking over their respective jobs earlier in the year. They stuck with their draft board, even after news of a potential Josh Gordon suspension and another Nate Burleson injury struck around draft time. There have been few subterfuges and smoke-and-mirrors games played.
When it seems like Pettine or Farmer are speaking candidly, they have been. Both have said that Hoyer will be the Browns' Week 1 starter and that they have very clear reservations about Manziel being the quarterback to take the field on September 7 in Pittsburgh.
Hoyer knows what it takes to be an NFL quarterback. Manziel will be spending this summer trying to figure out what that means. He should have a better handle on it after training camp wraps, but he'll be better off sitting behind Hoyer and learning this year. The Browns know this.
Keeping it a competition, for now, will help motivate Manziel to accelerate this process. But Hoyer already has the job locked down, especially when it comes to Week 1.