Previewing Johnny Manziel's Preseason Debut

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVAugust 9, 2014

Andrew Weber/USA Today Images

Rookie Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel makes his preseason debut on Saturday night when his team takes on the Detroit Lions. It's one of the most—if not the most—anticipated rookie premieres of the 2014 preseason.

Manziel's presence in Cleveland has drawn all eyes to the Browns even before training camp began, with cameras following his every move away from his team. But now, it's about football and nothing else. 

We don't know what exactly Manziel will look like when he takes the field on Saturday. However, there are a number of things we know about his training camp thus far that provide hints of what to expect.

Browns head coach Mike Pettine opened Wednesday's post-practice press conference bluntly saying, "We're going to start Brian [Hoyer]" against the Lions.

When asked why Hoyer got the starting nod, he added, "It was his job. He was the one coming into it. We did want to mix the groups up, which we did, but he's done nothing to have that taken away from him, so he'll be out there with the starters."

Pettine added on Thursday that Manziel won't be taking any reps with the first-team offense for a very simple reason: "We just didn't want to mix the units in this game." So, expect to see Manziel with Cleveland's second-string offensive line and No. 2 group of running backs and receivers.

Considering that the Browns have yet to waver from Hoyer and the fact that the Week 1 starter won't be named until the third preseason game, Pettine's decision to put Manziel with the second team comes as no surprise.

Not starting, however, has its advantages.

Generally, first-string offenses get at best three series in the first preseason game in order to preserve the health of the starters. Second-string quarterbacks, therefore, get more playing time and a greater chance to make an impression and get comfortable. 

Brian Hoyer in 11-on-11 (Through Friday)
20+ Yds.3-of-53-of-45-of-11
10-20 Yds.2-of-513-of-226-of-12
Under 10 Yds.22-of-3311-of-1910-of-19
via The Cleveland Plain Dealer

That level of comfort is extra important for a rookie quarterback like Manziel, who is not only learning to master a brand-new offense but also to adapt to the speed of an NFL game.

We'll get a good look at where Manziel is in this process and how far he will need to go to surpass and supplant Hoyer over the following two weeks. 

There is one member of the Browns' starting offense whom Manziel may be working with, however: wide receiver Josh Gordon.

Pettine said on Wednesday that Gordon will play with both the first and second teams and "maybe into the second half." It will be interesting to see Manziel playing alongside 2013's leading receiver.

Pettine's decision on whether Manziel or Hoyer will be the Week 1 starter in the regular season will rest on how the two quarterbacks look in games and not in practices. That's good for Manziel, who admits he's a better quarterback in live games than in practices. 

Manziel said last week that, "Always, for me, I've been better in a game situation than I feel I have in practice. But I have to come out here and get better with the reps that I'm getting. That's the main thing, keep getting better, and then when it's time to go out and play football, it's time to play football."

Manziel has been exhausting his own defense with his roll-outs and scrambles. Expect the same to happen against the Lions.
Manziel has been exhausting his own defense with his roll-outs and scrambles. Expect the same to happen against the Lions.USA TODAY Sports

As has been hoped, Manziel's grasp of the offense and his practice-field execution have improved daily.

In late July, USA Today's Lindsay H. Jones noted that, "[Manziel] appeared to improve as the two-hour practice progressed and admitted that he started slowly with a script of plays that included mostly running plays and some play-action passes."

Jones also added that at that time Manziel and Hoyer were both working through the same sets of plays, because the team was still installing its offense.

But nearly two weeks later, it looks like the gap between Hoyer and Manziel is narrowing now that Manziel has spent more time running the offense. Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal wrote on Friday:

During the first week of camp, [Hoyer] consistently outperformed Manziel, but not by a substantial margin, and his lead in the derby has eroded as time has passed.

Manziel gained momentum last weekend during an intrasquad scrimmage at the University of Akron, and he's been charging ever since.

... Although Manziel admitted learning the playbook and dealing with rookie growing pains had been 'a struggle' in the first week of camp, he's clearly growing more comfortable every day.

During Monday's practice, Manziel had a few good throws combined with disappointing interceptions. He also wasn't helped out by a number of drops.

However, the verdict remains: This is truly a competition between Manziel and Hoyer, and not just between Manziel and the playbook.

As of Friday, Hoyer has completed 75 of 130 passes attempted in 11-on-11 drills, including 11 of 20 passes thrown for 20 or more yards, according to The Plain Dealer's Dan Labbe.

Manziel has thus far completed 57 of 104 passes in 11-on-11, with six completions on nine passes of 20 or more yards. Clearly, the gap is closing in practices between the two quarterbacks.

If Manziel is truly a better live-game quarterback than he is in practices, he has a very real opportunity to narrow that gap even further against Detroit. While he may not be starting, the fact that he'll get an extended look on Saturday could be the next step to unseating Hoyer. 

Johnny Manziel in 11-on-11 (Through Friday)
20+ Yds.3-of-50-of-03-of-4
10-20 Yds.1-of-811-of-207-of-13
Under 10 Yds.5-of-177-of-1020-of-27
via The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Though the Browns would prefer Manziel to become comfortable with staying in the pocket to make his throws, which would limit his exposure to potentially injury-causing hits, he made a name for himself as an improvisational, playmaking scrambler. 

This has been on display sparingly in practice, but when he has relied on it, it's been exhausting for Browns defenders.

Linebacker Jabaal Sheard spoke on Wednesday about running around and chasing Manziel down:

You get tired fast. You have to have a great rotation. I can remember in the scrimmage having him out there on the edge a couple times. After about six plays I was done. I was done chasing him. I had nothing left in the tank.

That's the way he thrives. He's an outside-the-pocket guy. He's going to run around and create plays.

Sheard's exhaustion is a good sign that Pettine and the rest of Cleveland's coaching staff won't mind Manziel doing what he does best on Saturday if the result is a positive play.

This is the biggest factor in Manziel creating separation between himself and Hoyer in the starter battle and what should be watched for the most.

Manziel's leash will be short—he's a rookie playing his first preseason game, after all—but he won't be all the way reined in. Letting him be himself is the only way the Browns will be able to evaluate his progress and how he stacks up against Hoyer. 

This is Manziel's first real chance to compete for the starting quarterback job. What he does or does not do Saturday night carries far more weight than what he has and has not done in training camp thus far.

Every single move he makes will be under extreme scrutiny. This is the kind of pressure Manziel cannot run from.

If Manziel is going to make a strong case to start in Week 1, he must look like he's made significant strides in the game against the Lions. He'll have to prove that, yes indeed, he is a better quarterback in games than in practices.