Former Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer will start for Cleveland in Saturday’s exhibition against the Lions at Ford Field, but many people will be waiting to see the Browns’ second-stringer, Johnny Manziel.
The 22nd overall pick in this year’s draft, Johnny Football has been a polarizing figure in his few months in the NFL, and Saturday’s game will be his first chance to show what he can do in the NFL.
And Lions players are among those excited to see the results.
“I think he’s very exciting, one of the most exciting players to come out of college in a long time, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he’s going to do on Saturday,” Lions running back Reggie Bush said. “I think it’ll be fun. I think it’ll be a good game, but hopefully we win.”
Hoyer and Manziel are in a competition that Browns coach Mike Pettine insists will end before the third exhibition game. On Saturday, Hoyer will play all of the first-team reps, and Manziel will have a chance to show his dual-threat talent that helped him win the Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M in 2012.
Lions cornerback Darius Slay played against Manziel during that Heisman season when he was at Mississippi State and said he broke up one of the two passes thrown his way.
“He didn’t complete a ball my way, so I’m pretty decent,” Slay said. “I told him he can’t throw it my way. He’s a pretty cool dude though. … He’s Johnny Football. He’s a pretty talented guy.”
While the talent is undeniable, many question Manziel’s ceiling in the NFL. He’s a hair under 6 feet and just 210 pounds and, with his improvisational style, there are concerns about his long-term health.
Then there are the off-field questions. Manziel’s party lifestyle, which has been documented on social media, has many people wondering how committed he is to football. He’s been so scrutinized that some outlets wrote news stories about him drinking a beer with Browns teammates the night before the team’s off day.
Former Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson, who’s now with the Browns, said he’s been impressed with how Manziel has handled his abundant media coverage.
“Could you imagine winning the Heisman and being the man in Texas that young, being friends with LeBron and Drake, basically knowing every famous guy you can know and then showing up and doing your job,” said Burleson, who’s entering his 12th NFL season.
“For people who kind of criticize him, I dare them to walk in his shoes for a month or so and see how they handle it.”
Bush had similar fanfare coming out of USC, so he knows what it’s like to have every move in the public eye.
“I know better than to believe what I read because I’ve been in his situation before,” Bush said. “Hopefully he has a good circle of people around him that he can trust and he can rely on to allow him to play football, because without football, nothing else is going to be possible. And you’ve got to take care of business first, before anything.”
According to reports out of Cleveland, Manziel has improved over the course of training camp, and he’s earned some first-team reps. Hoyer isn’t the next Joe Montana, having played in just 18 games, but the Browns won the three games he started in 2013 before suffering a torn ACL.
With all the hype surrounding Manziel, it’d be easy for Hoyer to crack under the pressure, but Burleson said he’s handled the situation like a pro.
“He’s not only fighting against Johnny from a competitive standpoint, but the fanfare, the national exposure and popularity that Johnny has,” Burleson said. “Hoyer’s battling all that, but he’s coming out here and showing that he’s not shook. He knows at the end of the day, if I go out and make enough plays, I’ll be the starter of this team.”
With the coaches deciding on the Browns’ starting quarterback before the third preseason game, pressure will be on both Hoyer and Manziel to perform well in Saturday’s game and next week at Washington.
Of course, after months of scrutiny, Manziel may welcome the chance to play the game.
“He just wants to play football,” Burleson said. “And he’s good. He’s a football player. There’s a lot of misconceptions about him, I think, but he’s handling it well. I think most guys, they would’ve crumbled under this type of scrutiny and pressure, but he’s showing up every day and being a pro.”