– Evan Sally
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#30 Browns – Josh McCown/Johnny Manziel
NFL teams are often afraid of uncertainty at QB. So much so that they’ll bring in a veteran for the illusion of stability rather than taking a chance on a young player with far higher upside. Such is the case of the Cleveland Browns. After moving on from Brian Hoyer, the Browns brought in 12 year vet Josh McCown to go along with Johnny Manziel at QB. Bringing in Manziel insurance makes a lot of sense for the Browns; while he is their future he didn’t appear anywhere near ready for primetime last season. His sole start last year, a 10/18 for 80 yards and 2 picks performance was one of the worst games you’ll ever see a quarterback play. But placing your faith in Josh McCown is a bit questionable.
McCown is a NFL nomad and a career backup on his 7th team in 13 seasons. At age 36 McCown has had problems with accuracy plague him throughout his career, completing just shy of 59% of his passes. A career 6.6 yards per pass attempt is mediocre, so are his 61 TDs compared to 59 INTs. His whole career he has been mediocre to poor. But like Matt Cassel, one standout season can reshape how people think of you. In McCown’s case, it’s a 5 game stretch in 2013 filling in for an injured Jay Cutler in Chicago where he had an out of body experience. A 13 to 1 TD/INT ratio, 66.5% completion percentage, and a astonishing 8.2 yards per pass attempt were all career highs. For that stretch he became one of the best quarterbacks in the league. It’s difficult to fully explain what caused this aberration in his play, the pass defenses it was against weren’t the best, he was surrounded by excellent weapons in Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte and Marc Trestman was a pretty good offensive coach. But even those 3 factors put together don’t explain how McCown elevated his game that way. With hindsight being 20/20 you can easily see how this would be a perfect trap for a team to fall into in free agency. But the desperation of teams to find a QB combined with the mystery behind McCown’s 2013 performance made the Buccaneers fall into the trap.
The clock struck midnight on McCown’s brief Cinderella story in 2014. As it turns out turning over the reigns of your offense to Josh McCown for 11 starts isn’t the best call. Their 1-10 record in games he started wasn’t totally his fault, the Bucs had a lot go wrong last season. His 11 TDs to 14 INTs and 56% completion certainly didn’t help. Some how McCown gets released by Tampa and walks into another starting job in Cleveland. As I mentioned earlier, Johnny Manziel didn’t cover himself in glory in the opportunities he got in 2014, but for McCown to be the unquestioned starter seems a bit absurd to me. Cleveland may have wanted stability at quarterback, but what’s stability if it comes in the form of sub-60% completion and more interceptions than touchdowns?
As for Johnny Manziel, I think he’ll start at some point for Cleveland this season either due to injury or poor play from McCown. For full disclosure, I have to admit that I was a huge fan of Manziel in college. I thought he was electrifying to watch with his athleticism and unlike other really mobile QBs, I thought he had a really live arm and made some great throws with this one against Alabama sticking out in particular. I thought he would succeed in the NFL, despite his small stature. His inability to beat out Brian Hoyer and his tire fire of a performance against Cincy was enough to make me think I thought wrong. The Johnny Manziel hype train has almost completely derailed. The public perception is that he is a bit of a lost cause and the Browns are just doing their due diligence so they won’t get laughed at too much before they cut him. There may be another plausible explanation for his poor rookie season though. While Manziel is not the first college player to be in the media spotlight, because of his personality and friendships he built with superstars like Drake and Lebron, the spotlight shone on him with an extra intensity making him lose focus on what matters most: football. That mentality carried over with him to the pros. Not to extrapolate too much from one event, but I thought the story that he threw a party on Friday night before a Sunday afternoon game was telling. It said that his priority was not the team, or winning, but the lifestyle. He’s been very immature so far as a professional. However, entering his second year as a backup and his embarrassing games last season should have humbled Manziel. And I don’t think Johnny is a dumb guy. If he properly prepares and takes his job seriously he has a chance in this league.
To end with a hot take, when I saw Johnny Manziel in college, it reminds me of Russell Wilson in the NFL. Pressing the defense using his mobility, a strong arm that allows him to get away making throws while scrambling and getting easy yards with his legs, small stature. A QB so mobile that it’s impossible for a defense to account for every option on the play. The difference? Wilson plays the game very intelligently by avoiding big hits and turnovers (last year’s NFC title game excluded) and taking what the defense gives to him and never forcing anything. That’s the part of football that’s so hard to account for. Can a player learn these kind of traits or are they innate? That remains to be seen for Johnny. The Browns need to play him sooner than later so they can find out.
#29 Texans – Brian Hoyer/Ryan Mallett
This offseason former New England Patriots Offensive Coordinator Bill O’Brien signed former New England Patriots quarterback and Tom Brady back up Brian Hoyer to compete for the Houston Texans starting quarterback job with former New England Patriots quarterback and Tom Brady back up Ryan Mallett. I wonder what organization they’re trying to emulate? It is kind of interesting what the Texans are trying to do, usually team’s aren’t so overt about who they’re trying to copy. O’Brien, while he was hired in Houston because of what he did at Penn State in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, rose to prominence developing the offense for the Patriots in 2011 when they won an AFC Championship. When O’Brien returned to the NFL it’s clear that wanted quarterbacks that were familiar with his system and since that Brady guy wasn’t on the trading block, he went and got Brady’s backups. Only problem with that plan is that they aren’t very good.
Maybe it’s a bit unfair to say that Ryan Mallett isn’t very good yet; he hasn’t played enough for us to find out. Since being drafted in ’11 he’s thrown 79 passes with 75 of them being in a pair of games he started last season for Houston. One of those starts, his first, wasn’t bad at all: 211 yards on 20 for 30 passing, 2 TDs, 1 INT vs Cleveland. The second start was everything his first wasn’t. He had only 21 completions on 45 attempts, only 189 yards and an INT versus Cincinnati. So what do we have to judge Mallett? An absurdly small sample size. And even that tiny sample size is varied. What we do know about Mallett is that he should be a great presence in the pocket given that he’s 6’7″, 253 lbs and that he has a very strong arm. He’s not very mobile in the pocket but when you look at the totality of physical tools he has he shouldn’t be limited by them. In Mallett’s favor is the unknown of what could be if he is able to get extended playing time. But once again he spent a season not being able to beat out Ryan Fitzpatrick for the Texans job last year, and not being able to beat him out for the job given Mallett’s physical talent and Fitzpatrick’s status as an NFL nomad doesn’t look promising.
As for Brian Hoyer, the 6th year player out of Michigan State is another example of how a small sample size of games can change your NFL life. Before 2013 Hoyer had thrown 96 passes as a back up in Arizona and New England. In 2013 Hoyer moved along to Cleveland to back up Brandon Weeden but found himself an opportunity to play when Weeden was shockingly benched due to poor play. Hoyer, the Ohio native, led the Browns to a couple of wins and earned himself the right to start the next season. In his first extended action, Hoyer had a 55% completion and a 12 to 13 TD/INT ratio, neither of which are satisfactory for even a game manager. But instead of being consistently inaccurate, he had a bit of Geno Smith boom or bust to him: 4 starts sub-50% completion, but 3 starts with at least 65% completion and high yards per attempt in each of them. His willingness to throw the ball the down the field and get big chunks of yardage is a big strength. His yards per attempt of 7.6 ranked 8th in the league ahead of guys like Brady, Rivers and Brees. But the consistency just isn’t there, and it’s hard to build an offense around that. He also tends to start pressing when the game begins to snowball on him, forcing more throws that may not be there which lead to soul crushing interceptions.
Even though Ryan Mallett doesn’t leave you much to go on from a statistical or visual aspect, it’s that same unknown that gives him a bigger upside than a guy like Hoyer. Hoyer doesn’t have very many starts under his belt but he’s been out of college for a few years longer than Mallett and is more of a finished product. A recurring conclusion I’m drawing in a lot of these quarterback situations is if you have two bad quarterbacks competing for the job, if all things are equal or even close between them, you have to go with the younger, least experienced guy. Hoyer could be a pretty good backup with his ability to get hot and push the ball down the field occasionally. But 16 games of Hoyer? We’ve seen that and it doesn’t work.
#28 Jaguars – Blake Bortles
Blake Bortles came out of nowhere for a lot of NFL fans. Prior to the 2013 college football season Bortles wasn’t on the radar as a potential high draft pick. Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel had all of the headlines and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater was the darling of all the scouts. Bortles, even though he had a pretty good redshirt sophomore year at Central Florida (UCF), wasn’t seen in the same light. For example this article from NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks on the eve of the 2013 season listing the top 16 college quarterbacks doesn’t even list him at all. For him to go from unlisted in an article like this to the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 draft and 1st QB taken is a pretty meteoric rise. How does something like that happen? Big moments. Namely an upset of Bridgewater’s Louisville team to give UCF a conference championship, and an equally big upset of Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. Bortles played well in both games making plays with both his arm and his legs, and this combined with his mobility at his size (6’5″ 230 lbs at the combine) made scouts drool. I’m always a little concerned when a quarterback bursts onto the scene and goes really high in the draft. Quarterback is the most heavily scouted position in college for good reason, usually they don’t slip through the cracks. When they do, it kind of makes you wonder what type of player you’re getting.
To set the tone for looking at Bortles rookie season in Jacksonville, know that they won 2 games and he was second in the league in interceptions with 17. He also lead the league in getting sacked with 55 behind a putrid offensive line and that number could’ve been even worse if Bortles wasn’t as mobile. Speaking of that offensive line another positive was his willingness to stand in the pocket in the face of pressure unlike Jacksonville’s previous highly drafted savior QB Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert looked terrified half the time and that’s certainly not Bortles, who keeps an even keel no matter the situation according to teammates. Those things are nice, but Blake has to get more accurate. 58% isn’t going to cut in the NFL. 58% really isn’t going to cut it especially when your only averaging 6.1 yards per pass attempt. Of the 27 quarterbacks that started 10 or more games last year only Derek Carr’s yards per attempt were lower. 6.1 is super low. Like half a yard less than the next highest guy low. Like Captain Checkdown low. If there’s any single part of his game that has to improve the most dramatically it’s this: you have to be able to push the ball down the field, especially when one of your strengths is a strong arm and being able to hang in the pocket.
You give Bortles a chance because he’s so young, because he has so many physical tools and because it appears that he’s able to be poised in the pocket. But in terms of play you can measure statistically, there isn’t much there right now. You need to see Bortles with a better offensive line to get a fair evaluation of what he can do without running for his life. One of the big things some scouts have said that Bortles was not taught proper footwork at UCF and struggled with it in year one with Jacksonville. Something like that, which can be taught, means Bortles might be only some good coaching away from being an effective starter. If Bortles can correct that, he might take a leap in 2015. But he still has so much more to prove.
– Evan Sally (@Evan_Sally)