BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Contrary to coach Doug Marrone’s claim Friday that the Buffalo Bills would look to add a quarterback from “outside the organization,” they are elevating Thad Lewis from their practice squad to start their next game Sunday versus the Cincinnati Bengals, the team announced Monday.
The Bills aren’t making a change in starting quarterbacks voluntarily. Their regular starter, rookie EJ Manuel, is expected to be out 4-6 weeks, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, after suffering a sprained LCL in his right knee at the end of a 14-yard scramble in Thursday’s 37-24 defeat to the Cleveland Browns.
In need of a temporary starter to fill in while Manuel recovers, the Bills are turning to Lewis. Lewis, a fourth-year quarterback, has only made one start and game appearance in his career: He completed 22 of 32 passing attempts for 204 yards and a touchdown with one interception for the Cleveland Browns versus the Pittsburgh Steelers in their final game of last season.
The Bills acquired Lewis from the Detroit Lions prior to their fourth preseason game in exchange for inside linebacker Chris White, who was later released by the Lions and is now with the New England Patriots. Lewis did not survive final cuts for the Bills, who kept just two quarterbacks in Manuel and undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel, but has been on their practice squad all season.
Lewis has the rare opportunity to go from practice squad player to starting quarterback in less than a week’s time. This is far from an ideal situation for the Bills, whose slim hopes of making a playoff run may be doomed by the quarterback change, but when it came to make a decision Monday, the team was left with no better option than promoting Lewis to the job.
While the Bills didn’t stay true to their word and add a quarterback from outside the organization, that’s not to say they didn’t try.
The announcement that Lewis would be the Bills’ starting quarterback Sunday came just hours after the agent of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman, who was released by Tampa Bay on Thursday, announced on Twitter his client would be signing with the Minnesota Vikings.
Freeman was almost certainly the Bills’ top target in their hunt for a temporary starting quarterback.
While Freeman and the Buccaneers had a messy divorce after he completed just 45.7 percent of his passes and threw three interceptions in the team’s first three games of the season, he is a physically-gifted quarterback who has 59 career starts and has shown the potential to be a solid starter in previous seasons. Though he has his flaws that will keep him fighting an uphill battle to reestablish himself as a long-term starting quarterback, he would have been an immediate upgrade over Tuel and Lewis.
The Bills were reportedly intensifying efforts to sign Freeman on Sunday night, according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, before he was ultimately signed by the Vikings. Marrone confirmed Monday the Bills “had talks” about signing Freeman.
The Bills also brought Pat White and Dennis Dixon in for workouts, and as of Sunday, it was reported by CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora that the team would sign White if they missed out on Freeman. Marrone said Monday, however, that the Bills “felt it was best to move on” from those potential free-agent signings and promoted White instead, according to the team’s official Twitter account.
The Bills are certainly going to be questioned about their handling of the quarterback situation and decision to start Lewis, and rightfully so, considering the Bills deemed Tuel more worthy of a spot on their roster than Lewis, but have changed course now to decide Lewis is a more worthy starting option than Tuel.
That said, the Bills may have made the right decision in both circumstances.
Given the developmental potential Tuel showed in the preseason, it made sense for the Bills to keep him on their roster, giving his youth, promise and that he likely would have received interest from other teams in signing him off their practice squad.
Lewis, on the other hand, was not a hot commodity following his release given how he bounced around through his first three years in the National Football League. But with a season on the line in the middle of the regular season, Lewis is a better option to start at quarterback for the Bills in Week 6 than Tuel.
Tuel has been with the Bills longer than Lewis, but Lewis has more NFL experience and has had enough time — approximately six weeks — to pick up the Bills’ offensive system.
Tuel is more likely to be part of the Bills’ long-term plans, but he is far from ready to take on a starting role in the offense, as he showed in an awful relief performance versus the Browns when he completed just eight of 20 passing attempts for 80 yards and threw a game-sealing pick-six to Browns safety T.J. Ward.
Lewis is not good enough to be a long-term NFL starter, but he should be at least a capable fill-in. He has solid arm strength, is a good athlete and he makes smart throws. He does not offer the big-play ability of Manuel and does not have great ball placement. But with experience working within the system and with the rest of the Bills’ offense, elevating him from the practice squad to start makes more sense than hanging a struggling undrafted rookie out to dry or signing another quarterback off the open market who would have to rapidly learn the Bills’ offense.
Adding another quarterback should not be ruled out yet — specifically, a player of interest to the Bills could be Matt Flynn, who was released by the Oakland Raiders according to a report from Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter. Flynn failed to materialize as the starting quarterback he was expected to be for the Seattle Seahawks last season and then the Raiders this year, but although it is now clear he is no more than a backup long-term, he could potentially still be a temporary upgrade over Lewis and Tuel in Buffalo.
That said, bringing a quarterback into a new offense midseason is much easier said than done. Replacing Manuel and keeping the Bills’ hopes alive for the season is going to be a tough task for anyone, but they are smart to ride with Lewis over Tuel, White and Dixon, with Flynn not yet factored into the equation.
More Monday News
The focus has certainly been on the quarterback situation in Buffalo since Manuel’s injury, but the Lewis announcement wasn’t Monday’s only significant news in Buffalo.
Dustin Hopkins placed on IR: Dustin Hopkins’ rookie season is finished before it ever began. The Bills placed their rookie placekicker, who has not returned for game action since suffering a groin injury prior to the start of the season, on injured reserve Monday.
Given that they have kept him on the roster for the first five weeks, the Bills’ plan certainly seemed to be to bring Hopkins back this season. He is a promising young kicker with a strong leg and the kicking skills to be a long-term option in Buffalo. Veteran addition Dan Carpenter has performed well in Hopkins’ place, however, converting 11 of his first 12 field goal attempts to begin the season.
Left guard competition is open: Colin Brown has started the first five games of the season for the Bills at left guard, but has been atrocious in doing so. He has been weak in run blocking and a liability in pass protection — as a result, he overwhelmingly ranks as the NFL’s worst guard by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) with an abysmal ranking of minus-28.1.
Unfortunately for the Bills, they haven’t had any better option to replace Brown in the lineup, but the left guard competition is finally opening up in Week 6. Marrone confirmed Monday that Doug Legursky will rotate in with the first-team offense at left guard both in practice and during Sunday’s game. Legursky is not a great starting option at left guard himself, as he is better suited to play center or be a swing backup, but it will be hard for him to perform any worse than Brown has so far this season.
Another factor in the competition at guard could be Antoine McClain, who the Bills claimed off waivers from the Raiders on Monday. He is a long shot to end up as a starter, considering he has not made any appearance in an NFL game since going undrafted out of Clemson in 2012, but the team apparently views him as an upgrade over offensive lineman Sam Young, who the Bills concurrently released to open a roster spot for McClain.