Anticipation is building for the 2014 NFL season now that training camps are underway, with the preseason not too far off, either. As practices begin and pro football's best strap on the pads, there are several storylines from around the league that are inevitably making the most headlines.
Getting it done in practice situations as opposed to games is always to be taken with a grain of salt.
Former NFL scout and current Comcast SportsNet analyst John Middlekauff hinted at that in his recent analysis of how players are evaluated as of now:
Even when scouting your own players in camp - it's about 85/15 maybe 90/10 games/practice with the film— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) July 27, 2014
All 32 teams are laying the foundation for their schemes, with rookies and other youngsters experiencing a learning curve. This is still early in the process, but let's take a look at the dominating developments that are drawing the most attention.
Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel: Cleveland Browns QB Competition
Couldn't help but notice that Manziel, not Hoyer, was the lead story on SportsCenter several days ago at the dawn of NFL training camp.
Yes, Johnny Football was mentioned in the introduction, before the likes of New England Patriots legend Tom Brady and arguably the two best teams in football in the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
But it's Hoyer who has taken a firm grip on the Browns' quarterback competition. By all accounts, Hoyer is well ahead of his highly touted rookie first-round teammate.
Manziel has generated his share of controversy in the offseason with his antics away form the gridiron, while Hoyer has stayed out of the spotlight, now taking center stage on the field.
Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com had an egalitarian critique of the phenomenon:
Manziel off the field has been terribly annoying. And both sides are at fault. Media for being overly obsessive, JM for being an easy target— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) July 30, 2014
The comparisons between Hoyer and Brady are inevitable, because the former backed up "Tom Terrific" in New England before getting his shot with the Browns. All-Pro Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas sees some of the same qualities in the two, though, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot:
He's a lot like Tom Brady. When you look at the way he competes and the way he demands the most out of everybody around him, it's no coincidence that those guys played together. (Hoyer) has a lot of those same mental attributes and that's a great thing for a quarterback to have. He's the ultimate competitor, and no matter if we drafted a quarterback No. 1 overall, I knew that in his mind he expects to win the job because that's the type of competitor he is and the type of quarterback.
Aditi Kinkhabwala added some testimony from slot receiver Andrew Hawkins and general manager Ray Farmer:
Browns WR Andrew Hawkins on Brian Hoyer: "He's a study guy... He prepares so much, you don't question anything he does on the field."— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) July 28, 2014
The Brian Hoyer lovefest continued. GM Ray Farmer called him "phenomenal"..."a man's man"...and described him as "a pro" at least 3 times— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) July 27, 2014
ClevelandBrowns.com's Nathan Zegura added how sharp Hoyer was in one particular session:
Meanwhile, Manziel has struggled mightily, per ESPN Cleveland's Aaron Goldhammer:
Now remember, these numbers can't be taken too seriously. Manziel is still adjusting to the speed of the game, and since there isn't as much for defenses to learn on the mental side of things, they can play faster earlier in camp. Thus, the defense almost always has the upper hand at this point in camp.
As intense as this competition is bound to be, Hoyer actually complimented Manziel's much-debated work ethic, per Sports Illustrated's Don Banks:
All I can say about the kid is when he’s in the building, he does everything the right way. He’s in meetings, he’s asking questions, he’s working hard. I got asked the other day about his offseason. I don’t know anything about that. I have no idea. But there are no rules about what you can and can’t do when you’re away from the building. He’s definitely a talented kid and he is who he is, a guy who won the Heisman Trophy.
The moral of the story here is that Hoyer is the veteran and acting like it. Manziel is still maturing and acting like it. This shouldn't come as a surprise, but as camp wears on, it will be interesting to see if Manziel can close the gap—especially when the lights come on.
Whenever he's had his back up against the wall in the past, Manziel has risen to the occasion. The scrutiny is something he is accustomed to, while Hoyer has never really been the favorite. He has defied the odds to this point to be ready for training camp after tearing his ACL last season.
The hometown Hoyer is the favorite in the clubhouse right now, but the sizable margin may almost be scarier for him, since Manziel has so much room to improve—and likely will as he gets more comfortable. This competition should be far closer by the time two preseason games are played.
Sammy Watkins Living Up to Hype in Bills Camp
Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com attended Buffalo Bills camp. His lede? "The legend of Sammy Watkins is growing by the day."
Then there was this testimony from general manager Doug Whaley:
Sammy is as advertised, and actually even better than advertised because of everything he does off field. His preparation, his want to be the best, his professionalism. He is wise beyond his years. [...] What we thought about him, and what he would do for EJ, has become evident on the field at practice. He gives confidence to EJ and gives confidence to our offensive coordinator and in the big picture also affects how we think defensive coordinators are going to try to attack us.
It was a bold move for the Bills to move up from No. 9 to No. 4 overall in the 2014 draft to take Watkins. They sacrificed their 2015 first-rounder to Cleveland in order to do so. Drafting QB EJ Manuel in the first round of last year's draft also caused quite a stir.
Fox Sports' Peter Schrager has heard consistently positive assessments of three wide receivers. Watkins is one of them, and he is keeping quite elite company in light of the other two mentioned:
Three names I'm only hearing rave reviews about... Sammy Watkins (Buffalo), Josh Gordon (Cleveland), and Julio Jones (Atlanta).— P. Schrager (@PSchrags) July 28, 2014
The very latest from Pat Kirwan of CBSSports.com highlights just how sensational Watkins could be right away:
Just finished up the Buffalo Bills stop Sammy Watkins could be an 80 catch rookie & Mike Williams could too. keep an eye on WR Chris Hogan— Pat Kirwan (@PatKirwanCBS) July 31, 2014
Bleacher Report expert Matt Miller believes Watkins will help Manuel immensely as the sizable, big-armed signal-caller tries to prove his worth as a franchise-caliber field general in year two:
Yes. Great WRs can help average QBs. RT @matty_mo85: you think Sammy Watkins will be able to thrive in buffalo with Ej?— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) July 27, 2014
There are already several young offensive weapons in Buffalo's passing game in Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, but all indications are that Watkins could become an instant No. 1 option for Manuel.
The blend of size, speed and physicality Watkins brings is rare, but the fact that he's willing to put in the work to be great is an extremely encouraging sign. It's easy to buy into the hype for such a talented skill player.
However, the buzz surrounding Watkins stands out because of how deep this 2014 draft class was at receiver—and how Watkins is demonstrating he is indeed the premier prospect from it thus far.
Aaron Donald: X-Factor on Rams Defensive Line
The arrival of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, combined with a formidable incumbent front seven, was already going to make the Rams fierce up front. Selecting Aaron Donald No. 13 overall out of Pittsburgh made St. Louis even scarier—a necessary move to keep pace in the difficult NFC West.
Bleacher Report's Chris Simms notes how Donald's arrival can help negate the advantage San Francisco and Seattle have had with athletic quarterbacks in the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson:
That's all well and good, but Donald had to prove something first before that on-paper fit could be acknowledged as legitimate. Well, it appears that's precisely what Donald has done at Rams camp.
ESPN insider Adam Schefter has this to say from two of his sources:
Just got this text from Rams' practice: "Aaron Donald is unreal."— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 26, 2014
Second text from Rams' camp from another STL official: "Your source is mistaken. Thankfully Aaron Donald is very real!"— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 26, 2014
Colleague Chris Mortensen and NFL Network's Rich Eisen both responded, showering Donald with praise:
“@AdamSchefter: Just got this text from Rams' practice: "Aaron Donald is unreal."” >> Got a feeling many teams will regret passing on him— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) July 26, 2014
@AdamSchefter If Aaron Donald is even close to as advertised, you can seal the argument as to whether the Rams have best D-line in NFL.— Rich Eisen (@richeisen) July 26, 2014
Tim McKernan of InsideSTL.com reported what Rams offensive lineman Jake Long had to say about Donald:
Jake Long: Aaron Donald is very impressive. He's so quick off the ball. He's got great power and great quickness.— Tim McKernan (@tmckernan) July 29, 2014
Defensive tackle Michael Brockers gets overlooked on the interior, but that's for good reason, considering the Rams have the likes of Robert Quinn (19.5 sacks in 2013) and Chris Long at defensive end. St. Louis also drafted Michael Sam in the seventh round, adding perhaps further depth to the trenches.
Former NFL GM Phil Savage had this to say about the Rams' feelings toward Donald, who had 28.5 tackles for loss at Pitt last season (h/t CFBStats.com):
@STLouisRams believe DT Aaron Donald is the missing piece to pushing their D to a top 5 level. Inside disruptive force to pair w/ Brockers.— Phil Savage (@SeniorBowlPhil) July 30, 2014
Training camp hype aside, Donald has undergone a meteoric rise over the past 12 months or so to say the least, per NFL Network's Albert Breer:
Cool note from manual, four '14 1st-rounders got 4th-7th-rd grades in '13 from NFL: Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, Kyle Fuller and Jason Verrett— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) July 17, 2014
The Niners and Seahawks are among the elite defenses in the league, and the Arizona Cardinals are coming off a 10-win season. Getting an immediate contribution from Donald is critical to the Rams getting into playoff contention amid arguably the toughest division in football.
Which first-round NFL rookie will have the biggest impact in 2014?
Debate may rage on as to which training camp storylines wind up being the biggest, but at the moment, the ones analyzed take the cake. Manziel is one of the biggest college stars ever, trying to fight onto the field to save a Browns franchise that will start its 21st different QB since re-entering the NFL in 1999 whenever Manziel gets his shot.
Buffalo has not made the postseason in more than a decade, yet is now sporting a strong defensive front and an innovative offense with plenty of explosive pieces. Watkins fits into the Bills' uptempo, flashy new era they're trying to usher in, and he has even exceeded expectations thus far. It will be a treat to see him finally hit the field with a dynamic arm in Manuel delivering him the ball.
Considering San Francisco has made the past three NFC title games and Seattle just won the Super Bowl, Donald's impact will help shift the power in the NFC West, making competition that much tighter. It's up to Donald and the Rams to extinguish dynasty talk from the two aforementioned powers, which could turn into the biggest story of the 2014 NFL season.