Kevin Kolb struggled in his first preseason start for the Buffalo Bills.
That’s not, however, a result of Kolb’s play in the Bills’ second preseason game versus the Minnesota Vikings Friday.
Although a rookie, first-round pick EJ Manuel has outperformed Kolb this preseason. While two preseason games have shown that Manuel still has a long way to go in his development, he has better physical tools than Kolb and presents a bigger threat to opposing defenses than his veteran counterpart.
A simple statistical comparison of Kolb’s numbers versus Manuel’s numbers from Friday’s game would be an inaccurate measure. Manuel’s passing numbers were more impressive (10-for-12 passing, 92 yards, one touchdown) than Kolb’s (13-for-21 passing, 111 yards, one interception), but Kolb started and played the entire first half for the Bills, while Manuel came off the bench to play the third quarter against second- and third-team Vikings defenders.
Manuel's run toward winning the starting job, however, has taken a step back. Manuel underwent a minor knee procedure Sunday, which will keep him out for the remainder of the preseason, according to BuffaloBills.com.
Manuel has not been ruled out for Week 1, but losing two weeks of preseason repetitions is a very significant blow for a rookie quarterback.
It makes sense for the Bills to proceed forward with Kolb as their starting quarterback at the beginning of the season in order to give Manuel time to get fully healthy and catch up on missed time.
If Kolb is named the starter for the Bills’ season opener versus the New England Patriots Sept. 8, how successful could he be at the helm of the Buffalo offense? Furthermore, what would the Bills lose by not having Manuel in the lineup?
Although Kolb has only played two quarters of preseason action after missing Week 1 due to a knee injury of his own, and Manuel will only play three quarters in the entire preseason, the Bills’ preseason has provided a glimpse into how the offense could operate under each quarterback.
An Uninspiring First Start for Kolb
While Manuel’s knee has changed the competition, Bills fans were clamoring for the rookie to be named the starter following Friday’s preseason game at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Kolb’s injury-laden stint as an Arizona Cardinals starting quarterback over the past two seasons was a disappointment. If he is going to prove himself as a viable starting option going forward for the Bills, he must perform better than he did in only 14 starts across two seasons for the Cardinals.
Kolb didn’t do that Friday.
He needs to do a better job of switching his reads, rather than staring down his intended receivers and forcing throws into coverage. This proved to be costly on the Bills’ second drive of the game, when Kolb tried to force a pass to wide receiver Marquise Goodwin that was instead tipped into the air by Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes and intercepted by safety Jamarca Sanford.
It was clear on this throw, as was the case on a number of his other throws in the game, that Kolb had made his decision on where to throw the ball before the play even began. From the time he began dropping back, he was looking in Goodwin’s direction.
Goodwin, however, was not open at all on this play. Goodwin was unable to separate from Rhodes’ press coverage; the screenshot below is an approximate view of how Goodwin was covered at the time Kolb threw his pass.
Turnovers are often the result of poor decision making, and that was certainly the case with Kolb’s turnover Friday night.
Aside from telegraphing his throws, Kolb also struggled throughout the game with his ball placement on simple throws. He threw seven incompletions/interceptions on passes of within 10 yards, and he missed an open receiver on a number of those throws.
His performance got off to a rough start on his first pass of the game, when he missed low on a screen pass intended for running back C.J. Spiller.
In the second quarter, Kolb missed behind tight end Lee Smith, who was wide open on the left side just four yards past the line of scrimmage.
On the very next throw, Kolb missed behind his intended target again. This time, wide receiver Chris Hogan was getting open on a slant over the middle that likely would have converted a 3rd-and-8. Kolb threw the ball well behind Hogan, forcing Hogan to make a tough adjustment after which the receiver was unable to secure the catch.
Missing conversion opportunities was an overall problem for Kolb Friday. While he made some plays on a couple of drives late in the first half, he never made a big play to put a stamp on any drive.
Kolb dropped back looking to throw on eight third down situations in his half versus the Vikings but only completed passes to convert two of them.
As mentioned, Kolb did show some promising signs during his final couple drives of Friday’s game. While the Bills had to settle for field goals on both series as Kolb could not finish the drives for touchdowns, he made some key plays on both drives to get the Bills into field goal position.
One of the most impressive aspects of Kolb’s game Friday was his pocket presence. He did a good job of standing in against pressure and moving his feet to complete throws even when the pocket was collapsing.
On Kolb’s second-to-last drive of the half, he did a nice job finding open wide receiver Marcus Easley on a crossing route that gained 13 yards and converted a 3rd-and-9, even as pressure came toward him from both edges of the line of scrimmage.
On the team’s final drive of the half, Kolb made a key play to get the Bills into field goal position by running up in the pocket away from pressure and completing a pass to wide-open receiver Robert Woods for first-down yardage that ended up going for a total of 22 yards.
If Kolb is going to be successful as the Bills’ quarterback, however, it is imperative that he makes smarter reads and displays better accuracy, especially on passes within 10 yards. Through two weeks of the preseason, it has become clear that Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s offense will at least initially be predicated on completing short, quick passes accurately to keep both the chains and the game pace moving.
What Buffalo Loses without Manuel in the Lineup
The Bills are unlikely to make any major changes to their scheme or playbook based upon which quarterback is in the starting lineup. Neither Kolb nor Manuel have thrown any deep balls beyond 20 yards downfield (not including yards after catch) yet this preseason, as it appears Hackett is trying to get his quarterbacks comfortable with quick passing rather than throwing deep balls.
Nonetheless, the offense has more potential to expand with Manuel in the lineup. He generates more velocity on his throws than Kolb, giving him the potential to make big throws downfield as he continues to develop.
Manuel has flashed that potential with two deep completions on slants over the middle in his first two games.
His 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dorin Dickerson in the Bills’ preseason opener versus the Indianapolis Colts certainly turned heads.
Manuel needed to make a perfect throw to complete the touchdown pass to Dickerson, and that was exactly what he did. Standing from the 25-yard line, Manuel put the throw on a rope with great velocity. As Dickerson reached the end zone on his middle slant route, Manuel threaded the pass precisely between a double-coverage window into Dickerson’s hands.
Manuel made a very similar completion Friday to wide receiver Brandon Kaufman that went for a 27-yard gain.
Like the throw to Dickerson, Manuel hit Kaufman in stride, with perfect velocity and touch on his pass, as Kaufman crossed over the middle on his slant route. By leading Kaufman with proper ball placement, he allowed Kaufman to continue running full-speed after the catch and turn a catch 16 yards upfield into a 27-yard receiving gain.
Simply put, throws of that caliber have been few and far between in Kolb’s NFL career thus far.
Manuel also presents more danger to opposing defenses as a dual-threat.
Kolb is a solid athlete—he scampered for a 7-yard run versus the Vikings—but with only 229 rushing yards on 69 attempts in his NFL career, opposing defenses will not have to game-plan for him as a running threat. Manuel has that ability to break from the pocket and expose gaps in the defense with his feet, like he did for a 24-yard gain versus the Colts.
The play was not a designed run for Manuel, but as the Colts did a good job taking his receivers with coverage, Manuel was able to counter by sensing a lane to open field on the left side.
Once he took off toward the open field, he was able to outrun three defensive linemen and then take off upfield, using his speed to gain the 24 yards before being brought down.
Manuel’s size (6’5”, 240 lbs) makes him tough as it is to bring him down, but he also has very legitimate speed for a quarterback. He is no Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick as a runner, but he has a similar skill set as a scrambler and runner, along with measurables, to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
With Kolb, the Bills cannot anticipate having a deep passing threat or running threat. Kolb will be more of a game manager until Manuel is ready, but he must improve upon his accuracy and read-making (and stay healthy) to be successful in that capacity.
Screenshots were derived from NFL Preseason Live and YouTube, with first-hand illustrations added.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.