NFL Training Camps 2014: Previewing Summer's Most Intriguing QB Battles

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NFL Training Camps 2014: Previewing Summer's Most Intriguing QB Battles
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No matter how much we've settled into the routine, I doubt July will ever feel like a natural beginning point to our preseason NFL conversation. Families are on vacation, non-vacationing folks are outside and even the biggest diehards are in the breezy and carefree moods that do not engender themselves to football fandom.

The NFL is all-consuming. From fantasy football to the injury report to re-checking your fantasy football lineup 16 times to watching the actual games, the NFL has somehow become a constantly running sport that only holds events on three of seven days. Baseball, hockey and basketball—the latter far less so in my case, of course—are sports with games going everyday that somehow garner less day-to-day attention.

So July feels a little early to start that grind. And yet...here we are. Players are beginning to report for training camps across the league, and the enrapturement machine is in full force. Players being cleared, uncleared, introduced to new teammates and participating in storylines either self-created or born wholly out of our need to have something to talk about. 

Hence: We get constant updates on position battles. While the head-to-head matchups haven't even come close to being decided—most won't until the second or third week of the preseason—daily updates are starting to trickle in. You'll hear it when Player X gets 45 percent of the snaps one day and 65 percent the next. Yes, even when it's possible that those splits were entirely part of a more structured long-term plan.

But before we ramp up the crazy levels, it's worth admitting that some of these positional outcomes are particularly noteworthy. Quarterback is the most important position on the field. It's not just knowing the playbook and executing the throws, but also doing all the little things that come with a leadership position. Having uncertainty under center is one of the quickest ways to derail an entire season.

With that in mind, let's quickly preview some of these quarterback battles and assess how they'll play out.

 

Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel vs. Brian Hoyer

Cleveland might be the most interesting sports city on the planet at the moment. From LeBron James' return to Johnny Manziel and Andrew Wiggins' arrival (maybe), this is arguably the city's most exciting time since Jim Brown was running over defenders. Good things are happening—assuming of course these arrivals are "good."

The Browns' quarterback battle is the summer's most intriguing simply because it involves Manziel. The former Texas A&M star might be the most famous college football player in history. His every move—from a Las Vegas pool to a bar bathroom—has been chronicled. There may be some investigating Browns fans who know the exact number of alcoholic beverages he's consumed during the offseason.

It's at once patently insane and totally fascinating. Manziel has the potential to redefine the ways we scrutinize an athlete's off-the-field behavior or become a future blowhard talking point for those who "just didn't want enough."

"He's been very humble," head coach Mike Pettine said of his first-round pick, per ESPN. "He's been great in the meeting rooms. Worked hard -- worked hard in the weight room; one of the best guys in the weight room. Asked the right questions. I think he's ahead of the learning curve."

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Hoyer, the poor guy, is a bit player in his own story. The Browns have publicly assured him that he's entering camp as the starter, but everyone has taken those quotes with a ladle full of salt. Manziel is the future and everyone knows it. Hoyer's a 28-year-old career backup whose entire resume consists of being not-so-terrible in three games with Cleveland last season.

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Having previously spent years as Tom Brady's backup, there is this unfair narrative that Hoyer was somehow jobbed out of being a starter. That a few solid regular-season games obscure the fact he went undrafted coming out of Michigan State and looked generally awful in a two-game stint with Arizona in 2012.

Everything out of Browns camp has been glowing, and it's impossible to write someone off who never got an actual chance. Pettine seems committed to giving him a real opportunity to be the Week 1 starter. He's set a deadline of the third preseason game to make his decision, and right now he's the leader in the clubhouse by default.

But talent eventually wins out. So does money. Manziel has the investment and the talent advantages. We'll have to see how the narrative circus plays out. 

 

Minnesota Vikings: Matt Cassel vs. Teddy Bridgewater

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

The situation in Minnesota is pretty standard. On one side is Cassel, a steady but below-average veteran whose career destiny is being just good enough to lead you nowhere in particular. On the other side is Bridgewater, the steal of the entire 2014 draft in many minds and the rookie quarterback most ready to excel as a pro.

We've probably seen this scenario play out 100 or so times at this point. At the moment, as is typical in these situations, the veteran comes into camp with the edge. Tom Pelissero of USA Today reported that Cassel is the "heavy favorite" to win the job, though it's expected that Bridgewater and Christian Ponder will both get an opportunity. 

"That's something I don't feel comfortable talking about," Bridgewater said. "I'm just looking forward to training camp. Can't wait to get to Mankato, put the pads on and just continue doing what we've got to do: play football."

Minnesota's battle stands out because it may offer a window into the team's internal expectations. The Vikings were a surprise playoff team in 2012 but suffered a hard regression last season that was more in line with expectations. Adrian Peterson is 29 years old. For those who struggle at math stuffs, that's one year away from the dreaded three-zero, an age at which it seems NFL running backs suddenly have the upfield burst of Betty White.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

There is a temptation here to preserve Peterson's rapidly eroding prime by starting the veteran. Cassel is unspectacular but steady. He's someone who might be able to move the chains well enough to get the Vikings into playoff contention at 9-7 or 10-6. Recent history has proved that the NFL's regular season is a war of attrition before the playoffs make all hell break loose. The safe bet is to start Cassel initially, see how the season starts and then install Bridgewater if things start to go poorly.

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The potentially nuclear option—one that would represent a full-fledge dive into the future—is starting Bridgewater all the way. We've become spoiled by rookie quarterbacks in recent seasons to the point where we almost forget the learning curve. Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck are historical anomalies; they're not the rule.

Bridgewater is much more likely to be league average or slightly below it than he is to match the aforementioned trio's campaigns. From a long-term perspective, it's probably better to install the Louisville product right away. Let Peterson shoulder a majority of the workload and give Bridgewater incremental increases in responsibility as the season goes along.

It's also the option that probably guarantees Peterson goes through his entire prime without a meaningful playoff run.

 

New York Jets: Geno Smith vs. Michael Vick

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

For two players separated by more than a decade in age, Vick and Smith come into this season with similar goals. Despite all the rah-rah talk of mentoring, Vick wants to prove he can still be an effective NFL starting quarterback at age 34. Despite the fact he's entering just his second pro season, Smith wants to prove he can be an effective NFL starting quarterback, period.

Strangely enough, both might be getting their last legitimate shot at earning one of those jobs.

For Vick, that's almost certainly the case. He's three full seasons removed from his magical 2010 season in Philadelphia, and the results have been on a downward trend since. He completed just 54.6 percent of his passes last season, struggled with injuries and failed to excel in Chip Kelly's offense—a system designed for players of his ilk.

While you can never discount Vick as an offensive weapon—he averaged a ridiculous 8.5 yards per carry in 2013—the days of expecting him to be a consistent passer or avoid the injury list are in the past. The best Rex Ryan can hope for is 12 or 13 games of above-average quarterback play, with the running ability mitigating some of the mental mistakes players Vick's age should not make. 

Smith was a mess as a rookie. There were individual moments where he flashed talent and he began using his legs more in the season's last quarter, but emphasizing the positives means minimizing some pretty bad quarterback play. Smith's quarterback rating (66.5) was the lowest of any rookie quarterback who started at least eight games since Blaine Gabbert

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In the last decade, the rookie quarterbacks who satisfy that criteria and had a rating lower than 70 is as follows: Kyle Orton, Vince Young, Andrew Walter, Bruce Gradkowski, Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Jimmy Clausen and Gabbert

That is not what we would call illustrious company. The only Pro Bowler on that list is Young, which is frankly just weird. Stafford is the only signal-caller who still has a starting job. All the signs of encouragement coming out of camp are getting Gabbertian levels of criticism until Smith proves it on the field.

On talent, Vick should win this job. Whether he stays healthy enough for that to happen is another question entirely. 

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.

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