The Cleveland Browns will take center stage in the football universe next Monday night when they face Washington on ESPN in prime time. The world will have their eyes on Johnny Manziel and the Browns quarterback competition, and rightly so, but there is so much more to watch when these two teams do battle.
This is the final chance for players to impress against an opponent before head coach Mike Pettine names his starters. He stated earlier in camp that all the starters will be named before the third preseason game which is viewed as a dress rehearsal for the regular season.
So who needs to impress? Which position battles are closest? Who is in danger of losing a job? Let’s take a look at all storylines surrounding the Browns second preseason game in Washington.
We will obviously start at the place where everyone will be watching. Who will take the snaps with the first team and how many reps will each quarterback take all together? These are the questions that people want answered, and Pettine still is not saying definitively.
“No (we have not decided who is starting against Washington), we’re going to make that decision on the off-day,” said Pettine to the media on Tuesday. “Johnny’s going to get reps with the ones. Just to me, the factor of starting the game I think is a little bit overblown in this situation because we’re going to try to balance the reps with the ones in the game. I don’t think it was anything. Brian came in ahead. It’s a little overrated (trotting) out there for the first time.”
So the reps will be balanced between both Brian Hoyer and Manziel, and Pettine does not think it’s a big deal who starts. Excuse me Mike, but it is a huge deal who starts. This is not because of a stature thing but because you need to see Manziel against a first-team defense if you want to make an educated decision.
Here is the breakdown in the production of the two QBs during the Browns' first preseason game.
|Brian Hoyer||Johnny Manziel|
|Series||3||5 (including kneel before halftime)|
|Play Distribution||14 pass 10 run||11 pass 14 run|
|NFL.com Box Score|
I watched the game against Detroit a half dozen times and have been at most of the Browns training camp practices, and I feel very confident that Manziel will start against Washington next Monday. And what a fiasco it will be when he starts on ESPN against Robert Griffin III, a quarterback the Browns had a chance to draft via a trade two years ago. More on that later.
A New QB in the Mix
On Tuesday morning the Browns cut third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen and signed veteran Rex Grossman. This is not a move that effects the starting quarterback competition as much as it helps out the entire quarterback room.
“I don’t think (he’s a person tutor to Manziel). I think he’ll help the whole room, not just Johnny,” said Pettine of Grossman to the media on Tuesday. “It’s a guy who I think has been in it now. This will maybe be his sixth year; I don’t know the exact number. I think he’ll help that whole room just as far as the stuff that he’s gone through with a lot of the plays. He knows the system as well as he does, and he’ll be able to give them a quarterback’s perspective instead of just the coaches’ perspective.”
Pettine was correct. Grossman has been in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system for five years and will be a huge help in the quarterback room. I asked Grossman after practice, which he did not participate in today, if he looked for a place to compete for a starting job before settling for a backup role. He said, “of course.”
|Grossman with Kyle Shanahan|
|Games Played||Completion %||TDs||INTs|
Despite the fact Grossman has not played a regular-season snap in two years, there is an outside shot that he could factor into the starting quarterback competition. Obviously, he's not going to win the job, but he could create an opportunity for the Browns to explore trading Hoyer, if the front office felt Manziel was going to win the job.
The Houston Texans have a terrible situation at quarterback and their coach is Bill O’Brien. It just so happens that in O’Brien was the offensive coordinator in New England in 2011, the year that Hoyer played there.
It is a long shot, but you never really know.
Players to Watch
There will still be a ton of movement on the depth chart between now and the beginning of the season. The most important moves will be made over the next ten days, however, because Pettine declared that his starters will be named before the third preseason game.
The first game gave us a glimpse into how the Browns view the lineup, but the second game will let us know who has made the most progress.
Here are some players and positions to watch.
Is the veteran’s time with the Browns nearing an end? That certainly could be the case as he continues to miss practice with a hamstring injury and hasn’t done much even when he was out there. Pettine was asked after practice Tuesday if Burleson is running out of time to make an impression. Before he answered he took a long pause, scratched his chin and then answered very carefully.
“He’s injured so it’s tough now to get a true evaluation,” said Pettine. “We felt good about where he was before he got nicked up so hopefully we can get him back there soon. We’re hopeful that it can be later this week.”
Rookie Justin Gilbert did not play against Detroit and has not practiced at all this week. This has left a huge question mark at the second cornerback spot. The Browns would love for Gilbert to snag the job, but he needs to get on the practice field and more importantly into a preseason game.
When the Browns released their second depth chart on Tuesday, Buster Skrine was still ahead of Gilbert, and it will remain that way until the rookie can get back out there. When Gilbert has practiced he has looked every bit of a top-ten pick.
Gilbert did some light individual work on Tuesday, and Pettine said he expects him to practice on Wednesday. That’s very important in the eyes of the coach.
“He needs to play,” said Pettine after practice on Tuesday. “It’s not just that position; it’s all of them. Like I’ve said before, there’s no substitute for live game repetitions. You can practice all you want, walk through all you want, but you’ve got to play. Until you can get out there and kind of see how guys react, you’re never going to know.”
Rookie Ray Agnew found himself the lone member at fullback on the Browns new depth chart and working with the first-team offense. MarQueis Gray, who had previously occupied that spot, was moved back to tight end.
Agnew has made the most of his time in camp and is making a strong case to make the roster. Shanahan loves traditional fullbacks and that bodes well for the first-year player. That does not mean Gray is going to be left out in the cold, however. He had tons of reps against the Detroit Lions and caught two passes for 51 yards.
His versatility should buy him a role on this team.
Made for Prime Time
When the Browns played the Lions on Saturday night it shattered NFL Network preseason ratings records. As you can see below, the game had about 40 percent more viewers than the previous record.
|NFL Network Preseason Ratings Records|
|1st||Aug. 9, 2014: Cleveland vs. Detroit||1.81 rating / 2.82 million viewers|
|2nd||Aug. 5, 2007: New Orleans vs. Pittsburgh||1.25 rating / 2.07 million viewers|
|3rd||Aug. 15, 2010: Denver vs. Cincinnati||1.23 rating / 2.01 million viewers|
|4th||Aug. 5, 2012: Arizona vs. New Orleans||1.25 rating / 1.97 million viewers|
|5th||Aug. 18, 2012: N.Y. Giants vs. N.Y. Jets||1.27 rating / 1.90 million viewers|
This had nothing to do with the storied preseason rivalry between the Lions and Browns. It had everything to do with Johnny Manziel. It will also have a lot to do with the fact that the Browns starting quarterback could have been Robert Griffin III if things had fallen the right way two drafts ago.
So what do you think it will be like if Manziel gets the start against RG3 and Washington on national television next Monday night? It will be pandemonium. The Browns have tried to keep the circus away from their training camp and preseason, but Manziel just keeps getting better and closing the gap between him and Hoyer.
Whether they like it or not, the circus is going to follow Manziel, and if he’s the starter it is only going to get bigger and wilder. I have a feeling Monday night we will all get our first taste.
All quotes and observations were taken firsthand at training camp