The 2014 NFL preseason lays the groundwork for what happens when the real games begin. Although it's tricky to evaluate players during this time period based on the fluctuating personnel and schematic chess occurring between teams, there is no shortage of juicy storylines throughout.
Entering Week 2 of this year's exhibition phase in pro football, there are a number of developments worth monitoring as the regular season inches closer.
One quarterback battle is stealing a lot of headlines. That may be a topic of discussion that won't soon be tabled. One of the deepest draft classes in recent memory is creating plenty of buzz among the first-year players, even beyond the all-important QB position.
Let's take a closer look at what to watch most closely as we approach the preseason's halfway mark.
Will We See Johnny 'Monday Night' Football?
Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel is in an intense competition with veteran backup Brian Hoyer for the starting gig. Manziel is in an offense coached by play-caller Kyle Shanahan, who coached Robert Griffin III to great success as a rookie in Washington during the 2012 season.
The ugly circumstances that led to a coaching change in the nation's capital and the undercurrent of animosity between Griffin and Shanahan makes this matchup all the more intriguing. Oh, and it's in prime time on the Monday Night Football stage.
Browns head coach Mike Pettine hasn't decided on a starter between Manziel and Hoyer just yet. NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala has more, wherein Pettine suggests Manziel hasn't quite merited the starting nod:
Pettine says he's not yet sure which QB will start Monday night in WAS. Said Manziel won't start just to start. "That needs to be earned."— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) August 11, 2014
Not letting Johnny Football take center stage at FedEx Field would make for quite a sad letdown. This week of practice will largely determine if Manziel will earn his shot to win the starting job.
MMQB.com's Peter King senses the momentum is shifting Manziel's way:
DETROIT-Manziel's NFL debut tonight. Hear he's gaining on Hoyer, but needs 2 good performances. Pettine wants to name starter pre-3d ex game— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) August 9, 2014
Considering Manziel went 7-of-11 passing for 63 yards in his NFL debut in Detroit and ran for 27 yards on six carries, a strong showing on the practice field should put him No. 1 on the depth chart, at least for the Washington game.
Many of Manziel's carries occurred when the pocket broke down, and he was playing with a misfit cast of receivers.
With multiple Pro Bowlers blocking for him in Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, a better receiving corps and a superior rushing attack to support him, Manziel has a shot to do even better in his second preseason appearance.
Whether it comes as a starter over Hoyer or in relief duty with the Browns first-string still on the field remains to be seen. Whenever Pettine does name a starter, it will give valuable insight into how this compelling competition in Cleveland is heading into the final stretch.
Cam Newton Returns for Carolina
The Carolina Panthers first-team offense executed rather well in their maiden preseason game against the Buffalo Bills with Derek Anderson at the controls. Anderson may be a past Pro Bowler, but Carolina fans ought to be ecstatic that Cam Newton is returning to the gridiron.
Newton was medically cleared to play in Sunday's showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs, another team that turned things around in 2013 to make the playoffs, per ESPN.com's David Newton. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said a quick turnaround in the schedule may cause him to play his starters more:
I'd hate to play half a game [against Kansas City] and then, bam, on a short week we're traveling on Thursday, playing on Friday and expect the guys to play [well]. So we may play them a little bit longer than you normally would in the second game and not quite as long in the third game.
That Carolina was able to execute well versus Buffalo in the passing game was especially encouraging. First-round rookie Kelvin Benjamin also looked the part, hauling in a magnificent 29-yard touchdown reception.
CBS Sports' Pete Prisco is among the experts who have had second thoughts as to how Benjamin fell to the No. 28 overall pick:
By the talk coming out of Carolina, maybe I was way wrong on Kelvin Benjamin. I thought it would take time. Didn't love the pick.— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) August 2, 2014
It may have been the best thing to happen for Newton, whose receiving corps is largely unproven and inexperienced. Based on how well Benjamin has been performing to ascend up the depth chart, perhaps Carolina isn't in for a letdown after winning the NFC South last year.
Newton has been impressed with Benjamin to say the least, per the Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs:
When it clicks for him, it's going to click for us. As soon as he gets that chip on his shoulder that says there is not a cornerback or safety who can cover me in this game, that is going to be the changing moment for us. That will be the point when it won't matter if he's double covered, man coverage or zone, just give him an opportunity and everybody else will be better off of it.
This could quickly become one of the most dynamic combinations in all of football—and both Newton and Benjamin are so young to boot. As their chemistry continues to improve, the sky is the limit for the rocket-armed Newton and the 6'5", 240-pound Benjamin.
Perhaps most important, though, is how Newton's ankle responds after he underwent offseason surgery. The scary thing is, he might become even faster and more agile when he takes off to run, which could add to the unique X-factor he brings to Carolina's offense with his athleticism.
The Chiefs snagged two pick-sixes off Cincinnati QB Jason Campbell in their wild first preseason contest. It will be interesting to see if they can become ball hawks again when facing Newton, who may be knocking off a bit of rust in his return to live-game action.
The EJ Manuel-Sammy Watkins Connection
Playing in the opening Hall of Fame Game gave the Bills a little less time for their young tandem to get in sync. However, the 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel must show signs of progress in developing a rapport with the explosive rookie Sammy Watkins.
ESPN Stats & Info highlighted how Manuel and Watkins weren't initially on the same page in the preseason opener:
Buffalo's Sammy Watkins was targeted 3 times in the Bills preseason loss to the Giants, but did not make a reception.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 4, 2014
Some signs of life happened last week, when Watkins caught three passes on four targets, but it only amounted to 21 yards. Everyone is still waiting to see the man the Bills traded a 2015 first-rounder for to produce a "Wow!" play.
Not to knock Watkins at all—his best has been reserved for the practice field thus far:
That's not completely his fault, though. Someone has to deliver him the football, and that someone is Manuel, who was 9-of-13 passing for 96 yards at Carolina. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller nevertheless still noticed a notable flaw:
EJ Manuel still staring down folks, the Panthers' DBs just aren't good enough to capitalize on it.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 8, 2014
Which rookie are you most excited to see in Week 2 of the NFL preseason?
None of them are as explosive as Watkins is, though. The impact Watkins has and the development Manuel undergoes in his second year will set the tone as to how Buffalo will perform in the years to come.
On Saturday, the Bills will face the Pittsburgh Steelers' traditionally vaunted defense, coordinated by Dick LeBeau. Young QBs tend to struggle to figure out his disguised coverages, but with this being the preseason, Manuel may be cut a bit of a break. The worst the Steelers have in store for opponents may be yet to come in the regular season.
Nevertheless, this is a big test for both Manuel and Watkins, who will likely see at least some complicated looks from Pittsburgh and be playing in a hostile environment at Heinz Field. Both would do well to live up to the hype against one of the league's most storied franchises.