Six early QB camp battles to watch include Marcus Mariota, Johnny Manziel and Geno Smith

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

As the price on the No. 2 draft pick went up, and trade offers were brutally pancaked by the weight of the Tennessee Titans' demands, an NFL draft reality emerged earlier this month. The Titans weren't treating Marcus Mariota as a centerpiece quarterback – they were valuing him like a once-in-a-decade franchise-changer.

We'll see if Mariota is that guy starting Friday, with Tennessee's rookie minicamp – and Zach Mettenberger's season of discontent – kicking off in high anticipation. Mettenberger, the Titans' second-year quarterback, finds himself in the understudy spot in this competition. He's not alone, of course. A number of other incumbents across the NFL appear to be in inevitable chasing positions when it comes to starting jobs, including the New York Jets' Geno Smith, the Buffalo Bills' EJ Manuel and the Cleveland Browns' Johnny Manziel.

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The Titans hope Marcus Mariota can fill up seats in Nashville. (
The Titans hope Marcus Mariota can fill up seats in Nashville. (

Whether or not Mettenberger, or any of those other players, can reshuffle the deck in their favor remains to be seen. But in all of those places, that process is starting now, in the next few weeks of offseason workouts and minicamps.

In Mettenberger's case, Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt has already said that the plan and expectation for the franchise is that Mariota will be the Day One starter. The team's website this week greeted readers with a full-page photo of Mariota, welcoming the rookie to his new city. The site also offered one of two options on that page: a "buy season tickets" option, highlighted in red, or a second smaller button to continue on to the site. That's a fair indicator of a quarterback depth chart – when the new guy is welcomed to town and immediately used to shill season-ticket packages.

So, yeah, this one might have been over before it started.

That would explain why the Titans have begun revising aspects of the offense to suit Mariota's skills – designs that will be unveiled at rookie minicamp this week. The defense is also being leaned upon to start shortening the learning curve, with assistant head coach Dick LeBeau under direction to throw everything he's got at the rookie prior to the start of the regular season.

Zach Mettenberger started six games last season. (AP)
Zach Mettenberger started six games last season. (AP)

Where does all this leave Mettenberger? He wants a shot to compete for a starting job, but Tennessee tipped the scales when it turned down multiple lucrative trade offers for the No. 2 pick in the draft. That signified that Mariota is the centerpiece of the franchise. Yet, Mettenberger could still make it interesting.

He's got a big arm and a pocket presence that fits what Whisenhunt likes to do on offense. He also has a year in the system and six starts to boot (though he went 0-6 in those efforts). The Titans' veterans liked some of what Mettenberger brought to the table last season, and he showed plenty of charisma and confidence as a rookie.

All indications are that Mariota will have to fail miserably to lose the starting job in the preseason. But it's not entirely out of the question. Particularly if Mettenberger shows that he has taken a big jump forward. If he plays well and adequately handles the media's inevitable love for Mariota, he'll have put his best foot forward and given the coaching staff an option. And considering that Mariota still has a lot to learn and adapt to, it wouldn't be the first time a franchise pulled back a bit on a highly drafted quarterback and let a veteran take the season's initial volley of flak.

Here are a few other quarterback competitions shaping up …

Josh McCown vs. Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns

Browns head coach Mike Pettine has taken a lot of air out of this race, installing Josh McCown as the clear No. 1 prior to training camp. There are a few ways you could look at the move. It could be an unambiguous endorsement that McCown was added during the offseason to be the team's starter. It could be a move to shield backup Johnny Manziel from any stress or expectation after serving a 10-week stint in a rehabilitation facility. Or it could be one last message to Manziel: that he either earns the starting job with hard work or gets left behind after 2015. 

Your vantage point depends on what you believe. It was Pettine who was ready to move on from Manziel when he entered rehab, one league source told Yahoo Sports. Another league source said that three others – Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, general manager Ray Farmer and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo – still believe Manziel can be salvaged. At the very least, DeFilippo has made several positive public comments about Manziel since he returned to the team a little over two weeks ago.

Josh McCown (Getty Images)
Josh McCown (Getty Images)

But we've heard the "positive steps" story about Manziel before. He's going to have to make some monumental leaps forward in the preseason to make this a race. And even then, Pettine threw his weight behind McCown significantly in comments made during Cleveland's rookie minicamp earlier this month.

For now, the pecking order is set. But the preseason is plenty long for opinions to change, and McCown, who turns 36 in July, isn't getting younger. Minus coach Marc Trestman, he's been a mediocre starter at best. It's not like Manziel is chasing Peyton Manning. This could still change, but it's all on Manziel to show he's a completely different NFL player this time around.

Ryan Fitzpatrick (AP)
Ryan Fitzpatrick (AP)

Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Geno Smith, New York Jets

Jets fans will so want rookie Bryce Petty to be a part of this competition. But he won't be. At least not before the season opener.

He looked rough in rookie minicamp, with some of his predraft red flags popping up (see: the deep ball). That's fine. Even Petty's supporters in the scouting community said repeatedly leading to the draft that he's a project who is a minimum of a year away.

That will leave incumbent Geno Smith fending off Ryan Fitzpatrick for the starting job – a battle that will start from Day One. And Smith should be worried. There's a new coaching staff and front office in place. The regime that drafted Smith isn't there to give him second and third chances. Smith will be learning a new offense/verbiage under Chan Gailey, who was ushered in as offensive coordinator in January. And the height of Fitzpatrick's career occurred under Gailey, who was Fitzpatrick's head coach from 2010-12 with the Buffalo Bills. That means Fitzpatrick is already familiar with a large chunk of the offense/verbiage that Gailey is installing. None of this is coincidence.

Fitzpatrick isn't just there to help teach Smith. He's there to step in as soon as he's needed.

Matt Cassel vs. EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills

There is no No. 1 at this point, but EJ Manuel is the incumbent and Matt Cassel is the new puzzle piece. Unlike Geno Smith with the Jets, Manuel hasn't lost his entire previous regime, with the front office remaining largely intact since his rookie season. But like Smith, he has to learn a new offense, and has struggled consistently to take hold as a starter. He is also paired with a coaching staff that suggests an offense that will be very run-heavy and mistake-averse.

From a comparison standpoint, offensive coordinator Greg Roman spent the last few years working with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, leading one to believe he might favor a more athletic passer. Cassel is many things, but athletic is not high on the list. That said, considering the type of offense that Rex Ryan likes, this will likely trend to a more traditional pocket passer who is handing off a lot. That tilts in Cassel's direction.

The wild card here is neither player has been particularly accurate over the last few years. And considering the likely run-heavy, pass-medium scheme (and win with defense), it's possible whoever shows the ability to me more accurate and consistent in the preseason ends up being the guy.

To Cassel's credit, he has been consistent at times. And he has succeeded working in run-heavy offenses that rely on defense to win games. Manuel? He hasn't really been consistent or succeeded in any particular scheme yet. That doesn't mean he won't under new coaching direction. It just means that the Bills staff knows Cassel is capable of it and Manuel is the unknown. That is why most look at Cassel as the guy who is going to come out No. 1 in this race when the season begins.

Ryan Mallett vs. Brian Hoyer, Houston Texans

There is going to be someone who inevitably asks why 2014 rookie Tom Savage isn't included in this race. Without getting into a massive breakdown, it became clear quickly in Savage's rookie training camp that he was going to be a bigger project than expected. Until he can show some spark and consistency in limited opportunities, he'll remain at the bottom of the depth chart.

That leaves Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer – neither of whom has been tabbed the starter. They'll split reps in organized team activities later this month. The safe assumption is that Mallet's year in coach Bill O'Brien's offense gives him the initial edge. He knows the system, has the frame and arm that O'Brien prefers, and showed some promise in flashes last season. But he also has to show he's 100 percent healthy after having last season ended by a torn pectoral muscle.

All of this said, Hoyer signed with the Texans because he saw an opportunity to be in the mix. He's not totally in the dark, having been coached by O'Brien in New England and retaining knowledge of at least some parts of his system. From a size and arm strength standpoint, he's at a disadvantage to Mallett, but he has something that Mallett doesn't: a full season of starts and a history commanding a huddle. That's important, considering that whoever starts is going to take some hits behind Houston's offensive line. So long as Mallett stays healthy and shows he can improve with additional play, he looks like the leader in this race. But Houston isn't so tied to him that it wouldn't shift to Hoyer if he plays better in the preseason.

Robert Griffin III vs. Who?, Washington Redskins

In the midst of Robert Griffin's benching last season, there was a design in place to make him the starter heading into 2015. And that's what happened. Head coach Jay Gruden has committed to Griffin (albeit still in a lukewarm way). But nobody is kidding themselves – that affirmation is largely because the alternatives have shown they are not starting material. So long as he is healthy, Griffin will have a longer leash than you think, with the franchise knowing this is the year that decides his future with Washington.

RG3 is first in line in the Redskins' QB pecking order. (AP)
RG3 is first in line in the Redskins' QB pecking order. (AP)

All of that said, we've heard this tale before, and Griffin has imploded when gifted his starting position. Part of last season's process with him was to put him in a position where he lost the sense of entitlement to his opportunities. If he reverts to that mindset or languishes with the same mistakes, the Redskins will have run their course with him, and the unpalatable options behind Griffin – Colt McCoy and Kirk Cousins – will get one last look, too.

So … yeah … if Griffin fails again, you can go ahead and earmark this franchise for a first-round quarterback selection in the 2016 draft.

For now it's Griffin's job to lose this preseason. But to rule out another spectacular disaster and benching would be foolish. Even with so little to turn to on the depth chart.

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