BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Did EJ Manuel earn the Buffalo Bills’ starting quarterback job with his on-field play this preseason? Given that he only played three quarters of preseason action before suffering a knee procedure ended his preseason, it’s hard to say that he did.
Quite frankly, however, that no longer matters. Manuel’s only legitimate competition for the starting job, Kevin Kolb, left Saturday’s preseason game versus the Washington Redskins with a concussion. According to Tim Graham of the Buffalo News, that concussion may be career-ending.
The primary concern here, of course, is Kolb’s health, especially considering that this is at least his third career concussion, according to Graham. But as it pertains to the Bills’ quarterback situation, the Bills certainly have no expectation of Kolb being back on the field for Week 1, and must prepare for the possibility of him not returning at all.
As a result, Manuel has won the quarterback competition by default. Will the rookie quarterback be ready to take the reins of the Bills offense upon his return? We will find out from his play on the field, but if the Bills were not already prepared to start Kolb upon his return, it is almost certain that they will now.
Getting Manuel healthy and ready to play, however, is far from the Bills’ only concern at the quarterback position. Even if Kolb’s injury does not prove to be career-ending, chances are good that he will spend the season on injured reserve unless his prognosis improves in the next week.
With a rookie starting quarterback, the Bills need to have two solid backup quarterbacks on the roster. They need at least one of them to ready to start to prepare for the possibility of Manuel not being back and healthy in time for the season opener on Sept. 8 versus the New England Patriots.
Recognizing that need, the Bills added two veteran quarterbacks to their roster on Sunday. The Bills signed veteran free agent Matt Leinart, who had not been with an NFL team this offseason. Additionally, they acquired Thaddeus Lewis in a trade with the Detroit Lions.
Neither quarterback will challenge Manuel for the starting job. They will, however, provide legitimate competition to Jeff Tuel, an undrafted rookie quarterback who entered Sunday as the only healthy signal-caller on the Bills roster.
Both Leinart and Lewis have something neither Manuel or Tuel has: NFL experience. Leinart was a big disappointment in his four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, and has a career passer rating of just 70.2, but he does have 18 career starts and seven years of NFL experience. Lewis made his first career start for the Cleveland Browns last season, completing 22 of 32 passes for 204 yards with one touchdown and one interception apiece.
I went into more detail on Leinart earlier, but of the two quarterbacks, the more promising addition may be Lewis. While Lewis has not played much in his NFL career, he has the arm strength and athleticism to continue to develop into at least a solid backup quarterback.
Tuel, however, should be a lock to make the roster if Kolb is out for an extensive period of time. The Bills were prepared to go with Tuel as their No. 3 quarterback, cutting Tarvaris Jackson prior to their mandatory minicamp. Tuel becomes the favorite to be the team’s No. 2 quarterback and spot starter, and he showed significant developmental potential in the Bills’ first preseason game. But with two rookies on the quarterback depth chart, a veteran presence is needed, even if that veteran presence is not Kolb.
That means that Leinart and Lewis are not only competing for a potential opportunity to start should Manuel not be back in time for Week 1, but also for a roster spot.
Nonetheless, the Bills’ moves on Sunday show that they are concerned with their quarterback situation, and understandably so. If Manuel starts in Week 1, he will do so having taken just 62 snaps of live game action in the preseason, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Tuel, meanwhile, is coming off an uninspiring performance Saturday in which he threw for just 3.7 yards per passing attempt.
Even if Manuel and Kolb are both still injured come Week 1, it is unlikely that the Bills will keep both Lewis and Leinart. Both players, however, will have a chance to prove themselves Thursday in the Bills’ preseason finale versus the Detroit Lions, although each will have to learn the offense on quick turnaround in only four days with the team. Tuel should get the start for the Buffalo, but if he continues to struggle as he did on Saturday, either Leinart or Lewis could end up being the Bills’ starting quarterback on Sept. 8.
Starting Tuel, Leinart or Lewis would be far from an ideal situation for the Bills in Week 1, so the Bills will be desperately hoping for Manuel to return healthy in time for the season opener (as NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Sunday he is still on track to do). Nonetheless, the Bills were smart to react quickly to Kolb’s head injury, and add two potential veteran backups with Kolb’s future very much in question.
Side note: The Bills traded inside linebacker Chris White in exchange for Lewis. White was making a good impression this preseason both on defense and on special teams, and made my most recent roster projection for the Bills. Trading White for a quarterback who is no lock to make the roster, however, indicates that the team likely would have cut White had they not traded him. The Bills are likely to keep four inside linebackers in Kiko Alonso, Nigel Bradham, Arthur Moats and Bryan Scott.