The Hall of Fame Game was fun, sure. But tomorrow the preseason begins in earnest with six games, and the other 30 teams playing over the next three days.
Here are the top storylines we’ll be watching during August football. Quickly, you’ll notice a certain position that’s pretty important…
1. What is a Johnny Manziel?
Everything new Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine has said throughout the offseason has indicated he wants Brian Hoyer as his Week 1 starter, though a winner of the Hoyer-Johnny Manziel duel won’t be officially named until before the third preseason game, which is Aug. 22. The Hoyer infatuation in Cleveland remains confusing: he’s a journeyman with all of four career starts over five professional seasons. And one of them ended with three interceptions, 5.9 yards per attempt, and a completion percentage of only 55.6 (Week 3 last year). But hey, quarterback wins.
If Manziel doesn’t start immediately, he’ll be under center by Week 5, after Cleveland’s bye.
2. Will Teddy Bridgewater be this year’s first rookie starting quarterback?
Teddy Bridgewater has the best chance among the rookie quarterbacks to start immediately. A few wonky throws during his Pro Day absurdly downgraded his draft stock, but coming out of Louisville he was the most poised and comfortable pocket passer while completing 71.0 percent of his passes during his final collegiate season.
The Bridgewater praise has grown throughout training camp so far, which means only so much prior to actual game situations. Matt Cassel is a fine safety net, but that’s his meager ceiling, and we know what he is (mainly a turnover factory). Bridgewater will be the Week 1 starter as long as he doesn’t crumble during the preseason.
3. How is Eli Manning adjusting to a new offense?
Since 2006, Eli Manning has known one offense: the O’s drawn by the now departed Kevin Gilbride. During that time the Giants beat opposing X’s in two Super Bowls, which was the good Eli. Then there’s the erratic Eli who posted three seasons with 20 or more interceptions under Gilbride, including a career high 27 in 2013.
Enter Ben McAdoo, the new Giants offensive coordinator who hails from Green Bay, and will emphasize quick-hitting, short, high percentage throws with his west coast thinking, often through screens or swing passes to running backs. Gone is Gilbride’s stubborn emphasis on option routes that produced consistent confusion between quarterback and receiver. That was especially glaring with Rueben Randle, who was the intended target on eight of Manning’s interceptions last year.
The brief Manning sighting during the Hall of Fame Game was promising, for what it’s worth: only one incompletion on seven attempts.
4. Has Cam Newton learned the names of his new receivers yet?
Last year Cam Newton’s receiving options in Carolina were far from spectacular between an aging Steve Smith, and the bust that is Brandon LaFell. But there’s still value in familiarity, something Newton now doesn’t have at all and is quickly trying to build with his new set of wide receivers.
Greg Olson remains a reliable pass-catching option. But with Smith, LaFell, Ted Ginn, and even Domenik Hixon no longer rostered, the receivers who were on the other end for 156 of Newton’s 292 completions in 2013 are gone. The salary cap can be pretty evil, and last fall we saw how much a lack of familiarity with his receivers slowed even the almighty Tom Brady.
5. Who will be this year’s breakout tight end?
Jordan Cameron was the tight end (er, pass catcher?) darling at this time a year ago, and it started even in August with his two touchdown catches during Week 2 of the preseason. Then his regular season ended with 917 receiving yards, behind only Jimmy Graham at his position
But sudden tight end surges went beyond Cameron. In Miami Charles Clay was given an opportunity after Dustin Keller’s injury, and the sixth-round pick turned that into 759 yards and seven total touchdowns, one of which came on the ground to show his versatility.
The smart cash now is on Kyle Rudolph in Minnesota, where Norv Turner is the new offensive coordinator. Turner has long focussed on the tight end with his offensive thinking, which produced Cameron’s numbers last year, along with Antonio Gates’ peak seasons in San Diego.
In Washington Jordan Reed is set to explode too during a (hopefully) full and healthy season, and Ladarius Green’s freakish athleticism should be showcased far more by the Chargers as Gates fades.