BBD Editor: Dan Hope
The Buffalo Bills have a new coach (Doug Marrone), new offensive and defensive schemes, and new classes of incoming free agents, draft picks, and undrafted rookies coming in to compete for roster spots and playing time.
The most significant of those competitions will come at the quarterback position, where a first-round draft pick (E.J. Manuel), veteran free-agent signing (Kevin Kolb) and returning veteran backup (Tarvaris Jackson) will compete to be next year’s starting signal-caller for the Buffalo Bills.
Recent trends have shifted heavily toward first-round selections at quarterbacks starting immediately as rookies: since 2008, 10 of 15 quarterbacks drafted in Round 1 have been their team’s Week 1 starter.
For this year’s No. 16 overall pick and only first-round quarterback, however, it may not be so clear-cut. Manuel is not nearly as polished of a pocket passer as most first-round quarterbacks, needs time to develop into the franchise quarterback he has the potential to be and will face legitimate competition to earn the job.
Favorite: E.J. Manuel
In modern NFL times, first-round picks are expected to be starting quarterbacks as rookies. As a result of that, the Bills will be widely expected to start Manuel immediately.
Neither Jackson, a 2006 second-round draft choice, or Kolb, a 2007 second-round draft choice, has established himself as a legitimate starting quarterback in their time in the NFL, leaving them best suited to remain backup quarterbacks at this point.
While Manuel must improve upon his reads under pressure and downfield accuracy, he has better physical tools and far more upside than either Kolb or Jackson has. Manuel is going to need to be a quick learner of the Bills’ offense to have success early as a starter, but he is a very promising talent with a strong arm, great athleticism, good footwork and mechanics and the ability to make any throw on the football field when he has time to progress through his reads and fire downfield.
It is uncertain whether the Bills feel internal pressure to start Manuel as a rookie, but they will certainly face external expectations for him to do so given that he was drafted in the top half of the first round.
Considering Manuel’s developmental needs, it may be a more realistic plan for success to have one of the veteran quarterbacks start the season under center, then elevate Manuel to the starting job once he displays sufficient readiness or if the veteran starter falters. That said, if the Bills do not feel confident in Kolb or Jackson, they may decide it best to get Manuel experience as quickly as possible and not to delay the future.
Given recent trends toward first-round quarterbacks and that Manuel was the only quarterback selected in Round 1 (although he was a reach given his developmental needs), he projects as the favorite to be the team’s starter for the duration of the 2013 season. Starting Odds: 55%
Veteran Option: Kevin Kolb
The Buffalo Bills are not going to hand Kevin Kolb a starting job, but although Pro Football Talk said Kolb’s contract “screams backup,” they certainly signed him to compete for the starting job.
Kolb’s two-year contract from the Bills is worth up to $12.6 million, but $6.5 million of that is tied up in contract incentives and escalators, while another $1 million is a roster bonus dependent on whether Kolb is still a member of the Bills three days into the 2014 league year.
That contract works out well for the Bills: if he starts and plays well, he will make starter money, but he will be paid as a backup if he does not play. That removes any pressure the Bills should feel to start Kolb for financial reasons, meaning that will have to legitimately outperform his competition to start in 2013.
He certainly has a shot to do that. While Kolb’s stint with the Arizona Cardinals was certainly a disappointing one — he only played in 15 games over two seasons due to injuries, and had 16 combined turnovers (11 interceptions, 5 lost fumbles) in those games — he has displayed good pocket-passing ability when at his best. Unfortunately for Kolb, he has never been consistently at his best in his NFL career, and when he went into a situation where he was brought in to be a starter, he was derailed by injuries and disappointing play.
Starting Manuel is certainly the Bills’ long-term plan, but whether it is also the immediate plan for the Bills under center will likely depend largely upon Kolb’s performance in training camp and the preseason. If Manuel struggles leading up to the start of the season and Kolb shows to be an adequate starting option, the Bills could determine Kolb to be the quarterback who gives them the best chance to win football games while Manuel develops. Odds: 40%
Long Shot: Tarvaris Jackson
Does a competition between a rookie quarterback, a veteran free-agent addition and Tarvaris Jackson sound familiar? It should. Jackson was in the same situation last summer with the Seattle Seahawks, when he entered a three-way quarterback competition with third-round pick Russell Wilson and lucrative free-agent addition Matt Flynn.
Wilson ultimately emerged as the surprise winner of that battle, while Jackson finished in third place, and was subsequently traded to the Buffalo Bills for a seventh-round pick.
Jackson is a good athlete who may be a more natural fit for the Bills’ offense going forward if they incorporate zone read concepts with the addition of a dual-threat quarterback in Manuel. His previous opportunities as a starter, however, have been unimpressive and turnover-laden, and he is not a consistent or accurate downfield pocket passer.
It is more likely that Jackson will finish third again in this quarterback battle than winning the starting quarterback. Like he was last year, he could again be deemed expendable at the end of this year’s battle, dependent upon the performance of undrafted free agent addition Jeff Tuel in training camp and this preseason. Odds: 5%