With OTAs kicking off, quarterback battles across the league are heating up. Which ones will be the most interesting to follow throughout the off-season (and likely into the preseason)? SI.com's NFL staff weighs in.
Don Banks: Josh McCown vs. Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns—In NFL history, I really can’t recall any other previous case of a quarterback being drafted in the first round and already facing a more critical prove-it season in only their second year in the league, but that’s the situation the enigmatic Manziel finds himself in as 2015 unfolds. Let’s not kid ourselves: Manziel is almost certainly playing for his career’s viability this season, and anything remotely resembling his train wreck rookie showing—sloppy work habits, questionable judgment and underwhelming on-field performance—will quickly result in him being stamped a huge first-round bust.
Manziel spent more than 10 weeks in a treatment center specializing in drug and alcohol issues this winter and spring, and the early reviews of his demeanor and approach to the game have been encouraging in the aftermath of that stay. Browns teammates have lauded his work ethic and focus on the game, a recent move from downtown Cleveland to the city’s quieter suburbs has been viewed as a sign of his increased maturity.
But while the "new" Manziel is apparently saying and doing the right things so far, the Browns need some of the "old" Manziel to surface on the field, at least in the form of the play-making and dangerous ex-Texas A&M quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy. Beating out the veteran McCown will not be easy. Manziel really didn’t come close to unseating Brian Hoyer for the job last year, and McCown’s experience in multiple types of NFL offenses will serve him well in his competition with a player who barely saw the field last year. If Manziel has big comeback story on tap, he has little or no time to waste.
Chris Burke: Josh McCown vs. Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns—This competition boils down to the maturation process of Manziel. Has he grown up at all since the end of last season? If a more focused Manziel arrives at camp, the Browns will have no choice but to take an extended look, no matter how much coach Mike Pettine pushes back behind the scenes. Pettine previously commented that it's "fair to say" McCown will be starting in 2015 and his three-year deal with $6.25 million guaranteed seems to support such a statement.
Of course, Lovie Smith made a similar claim ahead of the 2014 season, right after the Buccaneers forked over a princely sum for the veteran QB. McCown then proceeded to play himself out of Tampa Bay's plans (and Jameis Winston into them), posting a 1–10 record as starter and missing several weeks with a thumb injury. He also threw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (11).
In a one-year window, McCown might give Cleveland more of a chance to stay competitive. Manziel is the only potential long-term answer of the two, though, and further delaying any development there does little for the Browns' future.
Ben Eagle: Josh McCown vs. Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns—Looking for competition? Held elsewhere. Looking for intrigue? The Browns are your team. Pettine has already named McCown as the No. 1, and given Manziel's rookie year struggles, the depth chart is unlikely to change before September. But Manziel is playing for more than just a starting job in 2015.
To recap: Manziel sat for most of his rookie year amid reports that he lacked the commitment needed to succeed in the league, then he made two disastrous starts and entered an unspecified rehab shortly after the Super Bowl.
Can Manziel refocus and rediscover the form that made him the most electrifying college player in recent memory? If he fails to show any real progress in camp, will he even be in the league in 2016? There won’t be a more fascinating No. 2 quarterback in 2015.
Doug Farrar: Brian Hoyer vs. Ryan Mallett, Houston Texans—Head coach Bill O'Brien is known as a developer of quarterbacks, and that title will certainly be tested during Houston's 2015 season. He's got two quarterbacks he knows from his days as New England's offensive coordinator and one young quarterback (Tom Savage) whose future is entirely undetermined at this point. Both Hoyer and Mallett have been canonized, as all Tom Brady backups seem to have been since Matt Cassel helped the Patriots to an 11–5 record in 2008 when Brady was out with a knee injury, but neither player has really lived up to that regard when given the chance.
Hoyer has bounced around the league since leaving the Pats in 2011—he amassed 30 completions in 53 attempts for 330 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions with the Cardinals in 2012, and totaled 299 completions in 534 attempts for 3,941 yards, 17 touchdowns and 16 interceptions for the Browns over the last two years. Hoyer's numbers are entirely average, and there are times when he seems overwhelmed by the speed of the NFL. Despite that, O'Brien brought him aboard with a two-year, $10.5 million contract with $4.75 million guaranteed.That's not starter money, and Hoyer will have to beat out ex-teammate Mallett to win that job. Mallett was part of Houston's unspectacular rotation in 2014, completing 41 of 75 passes for 400 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Mallett is bigger and less mobile than Hoyer, with an outstanding deep ball—but there's more to be learned. O'Brien has said that Hoyer and Mallett will split first-team reps during OTAs, and unless one or the other blows everyone away, that will probably extend into training camp.
None of this is really a problem—the 2012 Seahawks didn't anoint Russell Wilson as the starter over Matt Flynn until the preseason was almost over—but the real question is, does anyone on this team have the talent to take the Texans from their current position (9–7 in '14, with a lot of hope for the future) to legitimate AFC South contenders? They'd have to wrest that title away from the Colts, who, for whatever roster faults they may have, suffer no questions about their starting quarterback. And in today's NFL, if you don't have a formidable player at that position, you're just marking time until you do.
Bette Marston: Geno Smith vs. Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets—Technically, there will be no official quarterback battle in New York, since the Jets named Smith their starter just this week. But based on Smith's wild inconsistency these past two seasons, coupled with veteran Fitzpatrick waiting in the wings in New York, there's a strong chance that the Jets' QB depth chart could change in 2015.
In his two seasons in the NFL, Smith has completed just 57.5% of his passes, and compiled 25 touchdowns and 34 interceptions. The QB out of West Virginia has shown flashes of greatness, like when he put up a perfect 158.3 passer rating in the final game of 2014 (Smith' average rating sits at 71.5), but that doesn't make up for all of the much weaker games. One can only hope that new coach Todd Bowles will quickly pull the plug if he continues with his inconsistent ways.
At least it appears the Jets' backup plan is in place—in March, New York traded for Fitzpatrick, who worked with New York’s new OC Chan Gailey when the two were in Buffalo, and there’s no doubt that Gailey wanted a familiar face on the sidelines with him. Granted, the veteran QB is still recovering from a broken leg suffered late last season, which likely played some role in naming Smith as the starter. Sure, Smith may be the QB on the field in Week 1, but there's little doubt in my mind that if he doesn't start strong, the gig will be all Fitzpatrick's.
Amy Parlapiano: EJ Manuel vs. Matt Cassel, Buffalo Bills—To be clear, I don't really find either of these quarterbacks intriguing on their own. But Rex Ryan was just fired because of the incompetence of the Jets offense, and now he again has two quarterbacks that haven’t yet shown they can be a team’s clear-cut starter. If the starter he names comes out and throws multiple interceptions over the first few weeks, it’ll be déjà vu for Ryan, and will make reinventing himself as a coach a lot harder.
As for the quarterbacks, EJ Manuel is in the same boat as Ryan’s old QB Geno Smith—he was drafted in 2013, was benched last year after a tumultuous start, and has presumably one last chance to show he’s worth keeping around. Cassel has shown sparks of being at least a serviceable quarterback who can do just enough for a team, but must bounce back last year’s injury. In all likelihood, whichever one starts won’t be a great QB, and with a strong defense and running game, he also won’t be the main reason why the Bills win games. What Ryan needs to be sure of is that this time, he doesn’t choose the one who will be the main reason why they lose games.
Eric Single: Brian Hoyer vs. Ryan Mallett, Houston Texans—Choosing the better of Tom Brady's former backups may be all it takes for Bill O'Brien to push the Texans into the playoffs in his second year as a head coach. Mallett's long-awaited ascension to a starting gig midway through the 2014 campaign lasted all of two games before a torn right pectoral muscle sent him back to the sidelines. Houston swapped journeymen in March, signing Hoyer after trading Fitzpatrick to the Jets, but would O'Brien really ride with the uninspiring veteran option again after pulling the plug on Fitzpatrick at the bye week of his first season? Hoyer will be hard-pressed to erase the memory of the two touchdowns and nine interceptions he threw in his final five appearances for the Browns.
The Mallett-Hoyer battle will draw its drama from the long odds that either will separate himself this summer—even 2014 fourth-round pick Tom Savage should earn some ink along the way. Whoever does lead the team out of the tunnel in Week 1 will be throwing to a promising group of targets, with rookies Jaelen Strong and Keith Mumphery joining budding star DeAndre Hopkins, free-agent pickup Cecil Shorts III and, yes, J.J. Watt.