-- NFL training camps are all about evaluations as a coach. You have certain inclinations after minicamp and OTAs about which players should start, but practice and game situations reveal a lot about which guys you want lining up for you on Sundays during the season.
The biggest decision, of course, lies at the quarterback position. This season, there are three major QB battles -- in Cleveland, Minnesota and Jacksonville -- in which a rookie could challenge the incumbent and start Week 1. The other potential battle, involving the New York Jets, features a second-year player competing against a veteran.
I'm not at practice, so I can only go on what I'm told by the guys I talk to around the league. However, if I were the coach of these four teams, here's whom I'd start at quarterback Week 1.
Everybody knows about the hoopla surrounding Johnny Football both on and off the field. He's a larger-than-life figure, and you have to deal with a couple of those players as a coach. Your star players are the guys who make your team, and they should get treated differently because they're the ones who help you keep your job as a coach and lead you to the playoffs.
That same rule should apply to Manziel, as long as he produces on the field. A lot of people are concerned that he doesn't know the playbook. The bottom line is that he doesn't need to. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will customize the playbook to Manziel's strengths, such as getting him outside the tackle box with bootlegs, using read-option and simplifying his reads. He'll give Manziel the formation and snap count, but the one thing Manziel must master is where the hot receiver is (in other words: where to go if there is a blitz).
Hoyer is a veteran who understands the verbiage of the West Coast system, knows what to do in two-minute drills and knows the checks to make at the line of scrimmage. But even though he played well in three games last season, he struggled against pressure. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Hoyer had a QBR of only 31 (NFL average was 48.6 in 2013) and threw two of his three interceptions when faced with five or more rushers.
Prediction: Unless Manziel really impresses, or Hoyer gets injured or flops in the preseason, I think Hoyer will start Week 1. And that's likely the call I would make, too, if I were the Browns' coach, because I think right now he gives them the best chance to win. Manziel could start in Week 5 after Cleveland's bye, especially if the Browns get off to a slow start.
Maurice Jones-Drew is gone and Justin Blackmon is out indefinitely (suspension), so the Jaguars have a lot of youth in their offensive skill positions. Wideouts Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson were both drafted in the second round in May with an eye toward improving Jacksonville's poor offense (ranked 31st in rushing, 22nd in passing), and both players appear to be progressing well in camp. Bortles needs to grow up playing with these players.
Henne is a solid NFL starting quarterback in the mold of Alex Smith. He's not going to make mistakes, but he's not going to "wow" you, either. Last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Henne posted a QBR of 53 with five or more rushers, but only 27.8 with exactly four rushers. That shows me that he knows where his hot receivers are in blitz situations, but he's not going to excel in normal down-and-distance situations. Jacksonville's offensive line should be better after signing Zane Beadles, and with former No. 2 pick Luke Joeckel in his second year, but it isn't anything special. A more mobile QB, like Bortles, would likely hold up better under pressure.
Like Manziel, Bortles should be given some time with the first-team offense in the preseason. As long as he doesn't embarrass himself on the field and his play is comparable to Henne's, it's worth it for Jacksonville to have him start Week 1. The Jaguars likely aren't winning the AFC South anyway. Better to find out if your QB of the future looks the part, and can handle failure.
Prediction: The Jags said when they drafted Bortles that they planned to sit him his rookie year, possibly the entire season -- so Henne will be the starter barring an injury. But if it were my call, and the two quarterbacks' play in preseason is comparable, I would start Bortles Week 1.
Regardless of where new Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner has been in his coaching career, he has built his offenses around a strong running game, a tight end and an elite X receiver. In Minnesota, he has the makings of that with Adrian Peterson, Kyle Rudolph and Cordarrelle Patterson (along with Greg Jennings to take drags and crossing routes in the middle of the field). He also has one of the better veteran offensive lines in the league. All of that means that play-action should be one of Minnesota's strengths. In 2013, this wasn't the case.
Christian Ponder really struggled on play-action and while Cassel was better (52.1 completion percentage, 3 TDs, 4 INTs), he was nowhere near good enough with a weapon like Peterson in the backfield. Bridgewater is more explosive than Cassel and certainly more mobile. For a team that can protect its QB with a strong running game (along with screens and flares to Peterson), Bridgewater is in the best position of these three to succeed as a rookie.
I think this job comes down to the third preseason game. As Turner said this week, Bridgewater will get first-team reps in the first preseason game. If Bridgewater plays well in the first two preseason games, he should start the third, and the determination of a Week 1 starter should be made off that body of work. Minnesota has more to lose than Jacksonville in that it has the talent to potentially make some noise in the NFC North, but the Vikings are still in rebuilding mode.
Prediction: The third preseason game should determine which QB starts Week 1, but Cassel is just a bridge QB. This is Bridgewater's job sooner or later. If it were my call, I'd probably lean slightly toward starting Bridgewater, but this is the closest call of the four, to me.
New York Jets
This is Smith's job to lose, but in 2013 the Jets had only 13 passing TDs. That's not going to be good enough against a tough opening slate of games. In Weeks 2 through 7, the Jets face Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Smith was terrific in the final four games last season (QBR of 79, second only to Peyton Manning), and even Vick has said that Smith improved this offseason.
Prediction: Barring a collapse, Smith will start Week 1. But if Smith isn't efficient in the red zone or putting points on the board, I think Vick can get some playing time. Coach Rex Ryan knows that expectations are high for this team and the Jets must win now for him to keep his job.