Buffalo Bills: Is EJ Manuel Really Ready for the Spotlight?

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Buffalo Bills: Is EJ Manuel Really Ready for the Spotlight?
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EJ Manuel is no stranger to being in the spotlight. 

Manuel started at quarterback as a freshman in high school and was a blue-chip quarterback prospect out of Virginia Beach. He found his way onto all of the high school All-American lists and was given the prestigious honor of being a part of the ESPN Elite 11 quarterbacks for the class of 2007. 

With the accolades piling up, Manuel received offers from the who's who of college football, including Alabama, LSU and Penn State. Ultimately, Manuel felt most comfortable with legendary coach Bobby Bowden and enrolled at Florida State. 

His first two years with the Seminoles provided a mixed bag of results, as he was an off-and-on starter behind the injury-plagued Christian Ponder. Manuel carved out a role for himself in the offense, but did not distinguish himself enough from the future Vikings' quarterback to remain the starter until Ponder was drafted. 

With two years of eligibility remaining, Manuel put up gaudy stats across the board and led his team to an ACC title during his senior season. Manuel was one of the most complete senior quarterbacks in the country with a 23:10 touchdown to interception ratio and completing passes at nearly a 70 percent rate. 

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His stats were clouded by the fact that Seminoles fans saw Manuel as an incomplete and inconsistent product. Manuel's raw skill set was beneficial at times during his first two seasons, as he was able to tuck and run to get extra yardage. Jimbo Fisher's complex offense required his quarterback to have a top-notch decision-making process to make all the necessary plays. 

Manuel went 21-6 as a full-time starter in 2011 and 2012, but his performances in big games like a home game against Florida last November, did not always endear him to the Seminole faithful. For as we know, fanhood is not always the most rational of characteristics and important games tend to bring out the worst in people. 

The Seminoles looked in control of the game in the first half, but multiple turnovers by Manuel in the second half against a ravenous Gators' defense led to Florida State losing the game by double digits. 

USA TODAY Sports
Manuel must fix his inconsistencies that plagued him at Florida State if he wants to start over Kolb

An ACC Championship win did not calm the nerves about his consistency when the Seminoles barely escaped a 6-6 Georgia Tech team, whom they were supposed to roll over with ease. Only a few weeks later, Manuel led the team to a big win over trash-talking Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl, but again it was a game that Florida State was expected to win. 

When the Buffalo Bills drafted him 16th overall as the first quarterback off the board, response to the selection from major media members was less than impressive. Peter Prisco, a notorious Bills-bashing writer, gave the team a F-grade for picking what he thought was a third or fourth round prospect. 

Ryan Nassib or Matt Barkley was "supposed" to be the pick there, but after seeing those two players free-fall to the middle of the draft, Buffalo looks to have made the correct decision. Mix that in with the drama-filled draft weekend for Geno Smith and the Bills might not have deserved that failing grade after all. 

Manuel's been an all-star at two levels of competition and now a first-round pick. He has played in front of 82,000 people in college, which is approximately 10,000 more than he will see in Orchard Park. He has been a leader in the spotlight everywhere he has gone, but is he ready for the pressure that the NFL brings?

Rookie Preparations

Bills' fans likely won't know who their starting quarterback is until the final week of the preseason. Manuel's probability of getting the gig from the starting gate is even more promising than it was a month ago now that Tarvaris Jackson is back in a Seattle Seahawks' jersey. 

Kevin Kolb is the only threat to his job and has the inside track on Manuel purely because of his experience playing against NFL-caliber defenses. Kolb has limited upside as a quarterback, but he has proven that if given the opportunity to stand back and chuck, he can pick up a few victories along the way. 

Manuel has been avidly studying the playbook from the moment he made his first way up to Western New York after he was selected. The evidence of this is that he mentioned only a few weeks later that the Bills' offense is more simple than the one he ran at Florida State. 

New offensive coordinator Nate Hackett has almost certainly dumbed-down the offense for Manuel a bit in his rookie season. Hackett ran a fast-paced offense at Syracuse with Nassib and will bring that style to the Bills with an even more athletic guy in Manuel. 

The offense will be simple from the start, as it was with Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson last year. As the season progressed the two rookie phenoms were asked to do more as opponents were forced to gameplan more for them. 

I was asked during a radio spot last week about the prospects of Manuel starting Week 1 against the New England Patriots. Treading as carefully as I could with the answer, I think it is best for Manuel to begin the season on the bench and get worked in if the team is floundering. 

This might not be the most popular opinion due to the fact that Manuel was drafted in the first round and three rookie quarterbacks played very well from the start last season. Starting rookie quarterbacks is a discussion that will go on until the end of time, but last year's crop is certainly making the case for immediate playing time. 

Doug Marrone has said Manuel "has done better [as a rookie] than any of the other organizations I have been a part of," according to Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk. Which is nothing more than a coach talking up his top draft pick. Marrone has also commented numerous times in post-practice interviews that he is happy with the way that Manuel is developing with each rep, but that doesn't mean he will be ready to start from day one. 

Expectations may be that high and Manuel has the head on his shoulders to meet them, but the progression of being a top quarterback goes beyond all of the hype. Manuel's readiness for the spotlight does not just pertain to potential success he may have on the field, but also how he will handle the failure. 

For the spotlight is always hottest when things are not going well. Just ask Mark Sanchez or Ryan Leaf. The mistakes will come in bunches for Manuel should he become a face of the Bills during his rookie season and Manuel's progression will have more to do with how he handles adversity compared to wins and losses.

The stage is set and the spotlight shining. Now we are waiting for the act to begin.  


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