BBD Assistant Editor: Ryan Talbot
Playoffs? Not for the Buffalo Bills unless second-year quarterback EJ Manuel improves greatly upon his rookie season.
The Bills talked all offseason about building around Manuel, and they weren’t lying. The team added running back depth in Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon, two new wide receivers in Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams and upgrades to their offensive line.
Manuel has been given the weapons needed for his improvement. Buffalo’s 2014 season depends on his ability to deliver.
Before the Bills
There was no consensus among draft pundits when it came to the top quarterback in the 2013 draft class, but Manuel wasn’t on the top of many lists. However, it was hard to argue with Manuel’s collegiate career. With Florida State, Manuel went 25-6 and 4-0 in bowl games. Against in-state rivals Florida and Miami, Manuel went 5-1.
Manuel’s big arm and ability to run made him an intriguing prospect. After a trade down from the No. 8 overall pick to No. 16 with the St. Louis Rams, Buffalo pulled the trigger on Manuel and made him the first quarterback selected in the 2013 draft.
Quarterbacks generally struggle in their rookie seasons. Manuel was no exception. The quarterback’s inexperience factored into his struggles, but so did injuries. Manuel had a knee procedure done that caused him to miss the final two games of the preseason, suffered a right knee sprain against the Cleveland Browns that kept him out four games and then missed the final two weeks of the season with a left knee sprain.
When Manuel was on the field, his play was roller-coaster-esque: There were ups and downs and twists and turns.
Despite missing the final two preseason games, Manuel played well in his first two regular-season contests against the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers. He had a 68.2 completion percentage with three touchdowns and one interception between those games, and was only sacked once.
Manuel’s third game, against the New York Jets in Week 3, was a nightmare. His completion percentage was a lousy 45.2 percent, his lowest of the season. Rex Ryan’s exotic defenses got to Manuel early and often, which led to the rookie getting sacked eight times. The quarterback didn’t show much improvement in his next game against the Baltimore Ravens, completing 10-of-22 passes (45.5%).
When Manuel returned from injury in Week 10, his up-and-down play continued. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Manuel had his lowest yards per attempt average (4.0). His play the following week in Buffalo’s second game against the Jets, however, was perhaps his best of the season. He completed 71.4 percent of his passes while averaging 8.8 yards per attempt, both season-highs.
Manuel couldn’t continue his strong play. He played decently against the Atlanta Falcons before struggling mightily against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 14, when he threw four interceptions and took seven sacks. Manuel rebounded in his final game of 2013 in a win against the Jacksonville Jaguars: He threw one interception and lost a fumble, but completed 70.8 percent of his passes with an 8.0 yards per attempt average, threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third.
Manuel’s 6.4 yards per attempt average grouped him with the likes of Joe Flacco, Chad Henne and Brian Hoyer in 2013. The Bills quarterback clearly struggled to get the ball down the field.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) broke down Manuel’s throws by direction, and it wasn’t pretty. Of Manuel’s 180 completions, 112 of them came in the 0-9 yard range. An additional 29 of his completions came from behind the line of scrimmage. This leaves only 39 completions that went 10 yards or more.
Despite Manuel’s unwillingness to throw the ball down the field, PFF found that Manuel was at his best in the intermediate range. In 25 attempts between 10-19 yards, Manuel completed 18 passes for 354 yards and one touchdowns with just one interception. This earned him a +3.0 rating throwing at that distance. The sample size is small, but it shows that Manuel is capable of throwing downfield successfully.
Going deep, Manuel only attempted 41 passes of 20-plus yards. He completed just 12 of those attempts for 360 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.
Overall, Manuel earned an incomplete of sorts for his rookie season.
In 2014, Manuel needs to push the ball down the field more. Dean Kindig of Draft Tek believes Manuel will improve in 2014 in this regard.
— Dean Kindig (@TCBILLS_Astro) June 17, 2014
Among all of the rookie quarterbacks in the 2013 draft class, Manuel had a 9.0 YPA average over his best two collegiate seasons. This was the highest of any in the class.
To help Manuel this offseason, Buffalo added the most dynamic wide receiver in this year’s draft class, Sammy Watkins from Clemson, after trading up with the Browns to the No. 4 overall pick. They also traded a sixth-round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for veteran Mike Williams, a big wide receiver who can go up and get the ball.
Manuel struggled with his accuracy in 2013, but the two receiver additions can help him with their large catch radii. When Manuel gains confidence, he will be more apt to take chances. Having the likes of Watkins, Williams and Robert Woods, a wide receiver he developed chemistry with in 2013, should help.
The biggest issue Manuel faces in 2014 is simply staying on the field. Staying healthy for a full 16-game season is very important for his growth as an NFL quarterback.
Manuel’s second season should be looked at as a continuation of his rookie year considering the time he missed. While expectations should be raised, don’t expect Manuel to join the upper echelon on NFL quarterbacks this season. His main role should be that of a game manager.
Besides the upgrades at wide receiver, the Bills added new talent in the backfield with Brown and Dixon. The offensive line was also upgraded with the free-agent signing of left guard Chris Williams and the draft selections of Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, Baylor guard Cyril Richardson and Miami offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson.
The Bills should look for Manuel to play a similar role to that which Russell Wilson had for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks last season. Wilson attempted 407 passes in 2013, an average of only 25.4 per game. The Bills should attempt to do the same this season and limit Manuel’s attempts per game while continuing to be a run-first team behind C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Brown and Dixon. If the offense is running successfully, opposing teams will have to bring help into the box, which will open up passing windows for Manuel. It’s the coaching staff’s job to put Manuel in a successful position this year and beyond.
No one knows yet if Manuel will turn out to be the franchise quarterback the Bills have sorely missed since Jim Kelly’s retirement, but Buffalo has put the pieces in place for him to be successful in 2014.
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