Heading into the Buffalo Bills’ preseason opener against the Indianapolis Colts, all eyes were firmly fixed upon first-round rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, who made his NFL debut on Sunday. After settling in and finding his rhythm after his opening drive, Manuel and his fellow rookie teammates shined in a 44-20 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Bills gave Manuel plenty of work, as only he and fellow rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel saw action. Veteran Kevin Kolb served as the emergency quarterback, but because he hadn’t practiced much during the week due to a “freak accident” knee injury, Buffalo opted to keep him on the sidelines.
It all played to Manuel’s advantage.
The 23-year-old had a promising overall showing, finishing the day 16-of-21 for 107 yards and a touchdown through the air and adding another 28 yards on the ground on three rushes.
Though he looked a bit shaky on the opening drive, Manuel calmed down quickly. He progressed through his reads, made smart decisions and threw with accuracy throughout the afternoon, maintaining a noticeable poise in the pocket.
He even flashed some of that trademark dual-threat ability Bills fans have been so anxious to see.
Demonstrating impressive control of the offense, Manuel showed many positives and continues to pull ahead of Kolb for the Week 1 starting job under center. His performance was a refreshing one for a rookie widely considered to be very raw, and the Bills have to be very pleased as they continue to groom their franchise QB.
Perhaps his biggest highlight of the day came just before halftime.
Manuel led a beautiful 10-play, 92-yard drive before the half, executing the two-minute drill to perfection before capping it off with a crisp toss to Dorin Dickerson in the end zone for six. It was a pretty capper to a promising debut for the rookie signal-caller.
Tuel, who replaced Manuel in the third quarter, looked pretty impressive as well.
The undrafted rookie out of Washington State completed 19 of 23 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns, taking just one sack and losing the subsequent fumble. His ability to execute Buffalo’s new uptempo offense was evident, as he orchestrated several efficient drives and made smart decisions throughout the second half.
Making the highlight reel was this precise touchdown pass to Da'Rick Rogers.
The quarterbacks weren’t the only rookies to steal the spotlight for the Bills, though. Burner wide receiver Marquise Goodwin looked every bit as dynamic as advertised, scorching down the field on two kick returns to the tune of 160 yards, including a jaw-dropping 107-yard touchdown that left smoke in his tracks.
If Buffalo can get this kind of production out of Goodwin consistently, the offense will have a valuable tool at its disposal.
Will the Bills make the playoffs in 2013?
Meanwhile, second-round pick Robert Woods had four catches on five targets and was a reliable pass-catcher early on. Woods has a great opportunity to be a Week 1 starter, and his performance against Indy was encouraging.
Undrafted rookies Da’Rick Rogers and Brandon Kaufman each found the end zone as well.
On defense, second-round pick Kiko Alonso looked sharp and disciplined. He showed nicely in pass coverage and played with the kind of instincts typically found only in veteran defenders. The linebacker is expected to have a significant role this year all over the field, as he is fully capable of playing every down in Buffalo’s new defense.
Alonso’s versatility and athleticism were on display against the Colts, and he even broke up a touchdown pass in the first quarter by sticking with his man and jarring the ball loose at the last minute, as the team noted on Twitter:
New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine should be pleased with what he saw out of the former Oregon Duck.
Safety Duke Williams also had a productive game, notching three total tackles and faring well in coverage. Williams is certainly battling and working to earn his role with the team, and his performance against the Colts was a strong start.
The Bills are going to be a young team in 2013, and that includes their coaching staff and front office. The organization is counting on several young players to rise to the challenge and make an impact from Week 1.
Many of those players impressed in their NFL debuts.
If those players continue to develop like they showed on Sunday, the future could finally be very bright for Buffalo. It all starts with the very promising rookie quarterback who is fully prepared to guide the Bills to the playoffs for the first time since 1999.