Coach Mike Pettine felt the need to double-check when asked which position battles he was eager to watch tonight in the preseason opener at Detroit.
“You mean other than quarterback?” he asked.
Pettine’s first focus – like that of the Browns fan base — is on the quarterback competition between rookie Johnny Manziel and veteran Brian Hoyer. While every training camp pass has been dutifully chronicled, the battle begins in earnest tonight against the Lions.
Pettine, who will be coaching his first game in the NFL, said he’ll pick the regular-season starter based primarily on what happens in the first two preseason games. So Hoyer, coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and Manziel, still fighting with the playbook, better hit the ground running and take advantage of the limited snaps available in the preseason.
Manziel, who will play with the second-team offense, has made a push to pass Hoyer starting with the scrimmage last Saturday. He said he’s more comfortable in coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system, which has been evident with quicker decisions, sharper passes and longer drives.
If Manziel’s going to continue his move, he’ll have to answer a couple of important questions. Will the athleticism and improvisation that won him a Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M translate against NFL defenses? Can he make enough quality throws from the pocket to operate Shanahan’s system and keep defenses honest?
“I think it will be fun, and fun to mix it back up,” Manziel said. “It will be the first game setting since the last college bowl game, so it will be nice to get back on the field and play a game. Everybody is happy when the season rolls back around and you’re out on the field having a live game going on.”
Hoyer, who desperately wants to start the season opener against the Steelers, is slated to get all the first-team reps tonight. He will face the challenge of the Lions’ starting defense without Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron, who’s dealing with a shoulder injury.
Hoyer and Manziel will have receiver Josh Gordon, who’s still awaiting a ruling on his appeal of an indefinite drug suspension. Pettine said Gordon could see time with the starters and backups and play into the second half.
It might be difficult to tell sometimes, but there’s more to the Browns than a pair of quarterbacks. Fifty-one players not named Hoyer and Manziel will make the roster, and several other starting jobs will be determined over the next 10 days.
Here are four things, besides quarterback, to watch tonight:
BATTLE OF BACKS
Running backs can’t fairly be judged in no-tackle practice, so Ben Tate vs. rookie Terrance West truly starts at Ford Field.
It’s Tate’s job to lose, and he acts as if the possibility has never entered his mind. He’s a veteran in Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme, has enjoyed NFL success and was targeted by the Browns in free agency.
“I feel like I’m the best running back on this team,” Tate said again Thursday.
West was also a favorite of general manager Ray Farmer, who took the Towson product in the third round. Pettine is intrigued by West and mentioned this competition as one to watch.
BETTER TO RECEIVE
Gordon’s appearance could be only a mirage. The indefinite suspension that would cost him the entire season remains a real possibility.
The Browns know this all too well, but the contingency plan remains cloudy.
Veteran Miles Austin has looked healthy and been active through two weeks of practice, but the rest of the group has been inconsistent and hasn’t done enough to ease the minds of the coaching staff.
Nate Burleson injured his hamstring Wednesday, didn’t practice Thursday and is a question mark for his return to Detroit. He hadn’t made much of an impact prior to the injury.
Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins flashes often but has also disappeared for stretches. A productive preseason would allow Shanahan to feel better about making him a primary target come September.
Anthony Armstrong has faded after a good offseason, while Charles Johnson and Travis Benjamin have been slow to get going after missing the offseason following knee surgery.
The Browns need at least a couple of wideouts to assert themselves. If not, a Gordon suspension could spell doom.
IN THE ZONE
The offensive line has the potential to be a strength, but the adjustment to the zone scheme will take time and repetitions. Shanahan’s run game requires all five linemen to move well in space and operate as a single unit.
Left tackle Joe Thomas, center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are locked in as starters. Second-round pick Joel Bitonio has been a staple at left guard, though the coaching staff doesn’t want to guarantee a starting spot before the rookie takes a preseason snap.
“I want to see how Bitonio plays,” Pettine said. “I’m very interested in that.”
The only spot genuinely up for grabs is right guard, where Garrett Gilkey and John Greco have been alternating. Greco is listed first on the depth chart, but Gilkey is convinced he’s ready for the spotlight in his second season out of tiny Chadron State.
“I’m looking forward to competing,” Gilkey said. “It’s been a very even competition this training camp. John’s a phenomenal guard. He’s a very experienced guard. He’s very skilled.
“So this Saturday is going to be a good day for both of us to kind of just really see how we fit in this zone scheme.”
KEEP IT UP
Outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo must be in the conversation for training camp MVP through two weeks. His freakish athleticism has been on full display and he seems more comfortable in his second season.
If he can continue the playmaking through the preseason, the defense has a chance to be even better than anticipated. But there’s a wide gap between practice and games, and Mingo struggled with the transition as a rookie last year.
The next piece of the puzzle is translating the size, speed and quickness into sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles during the season.