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AFC North notebook: Hoyer's success raises questions at quarterback in Cleveland

AFC North notebook: Hoyer's success raises questions at quarterback in Cleveland
Cleveland backup quarterback Johnny Manziel and starter Brian Hoyer warm up before a preseason game in August. (Tim Fuller / USA TODAY Sports)

The emergence of Brian Hoyer as a capable starter has created an interesting quarterback situation for the Cleveland Browns.

With Hoyer acquitting himself well for his hometown team with seven touchdowns, one interception and 1,224 passing yards this season, the Browns have several questions to consider.

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Should they commit to Hoyer as their long-term starter with a lucrative contract? Should they explore trade scenarios for rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel if they don't foresee him as the face of their franchise? Should they buy time by using the franchise tag on Hoyer when his contract expires after this season?

All valid questions for general manager Ray Farmer. All probably best left for the offseason.

Although Hoyer has denied reports that he wouldn't sign a long-term deal while Manziel remains on the roster, the reality is that Hoyer will want to know his place in the organization, and that of the former Heisman Trophy winner, before he signs anything.

Manziel downplayed the notion that he's worried about his future in Cleveland.

"Our focus this week is obviously this next game and continuing to try and keep this winning streak going," Manziel told Cleveland reporters ahead of the team's road game Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. "All of that stuff will really play itself out, but it's not something that's really been on my mind.

"Obviously, [Hoyer] dismissed [the reports], and then between me and him and our room, I don't think we ever even thought that had even the slightest piece of legitimacy. Between me and him, everything's been fine."

Manziel didn't want to get into hypothetical scenarios about how long he might have to sit behind Hoyer, should the Browns re-sign him.

"I think it's hard to sit here right now and kind of guess how things are going to play in the future," Manziel said. "But every quarterback that's come into the league has had a different circumstance. You look at Aaron Rodgers sitting for those years, you look at Blake [Bortles] this year getting thrown into games, you look at Teddy [Bridgewater] getting thrown in for three games, it changes everywhere. I think it's all about how you handle it when you're not on the field and continuing to try and better yourself, even when it's really hard."

Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan gave Manziel a vote of confidence, saying the team still thinks he'll be a successful NFL quarterback.

"We believe that," Shanahan said. "That's why we drafted him, but it doesn't matter what you've done in college. It matters what you do in games, and you never really know until someone gets in there."

Burfict's worsening reputation

Hot-tempered Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict is reinforcing his reputation as a dirty player.

The NFL fined the Pro Bowl selection $25,000 for deliberately twisting the ankles of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen during a 37-37 tie last Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati faces the Colts in Indianapolis on Sunday.

The league didn't suspend him, as Olsen had called for, and Burfict is appealing the punishment.

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Last year, Burfict committed an NFL-high eight unnecessary-roughness penalties. Last September, he hit then-Green Bay Packers tight end Ryan Taylor, now with the Ravens, in the groin area.

Signed to a four-year, $20 million contract in August, Burfict plays the game in a seemingly constant rage. While that intensity helps his game — he led the NFL in tackles last year — it also has affected the perception of Burfict and likely will increase the scrutiny he comes under by officials and the league office.

Burfict could face further fines, or a suspension, after future incidents.

"He's got to continue to play within the rules," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said during a news conference. "We're teaching young guys new habits."

Steelers bracing for Watt

The Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line could be in trouble Monday against a Houston Texans defense headlined by formidable defensive end J.J. Watt.

Watt, the early favorite for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, will square off against an offensive line that has allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked 17 times.

Watt already has four sacks; 26 tackles, seven for losses; and two fumble recoveries. He also has three touchdowns on an 80-yard interception return, 45-yard fumble return and 1-yard reception. Watt has 128 quarterback hits since the 2011 season.

"We have to execute better when facing a player of his caliber," offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert told Pittsburgh reporters. "There's nothing out of the ordinary we have to do, because it's not as if he's unstoppable."

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