Breaking Down What EJ Manuel Brings to the Buffalo Bills Offense
Nothing instantly brings excitement to an NFL fanbase than your team drafts a quarterback in the first round. The idea that you might have your "franchise guy" can bring about a euphoric mindset—right up until he throws his first interception.
At that point panic might start to set in, and you're back to joining everyone else in a state of tormented fandom.
The good news for the Buffalo Bills is they don't have those worries yet because their first-round quarterback, EJ Manuel, the No. 16 overall pick in 2013 out of Florida State, has yet to throw an interception this preseason.
And since it was recently announced that Manuel underwent a "minor knee procedure" and will miss the remainder of the preseason, that first interception won't come until sometime in the regular season. Manuel had been in competition with veteran journeyman Kevin Kolb, who's with his third team in four years, for the Bills' starting quarterback position.
So far Manuel has outplayed Kolb this preseason, but now that the rookie is sidelined, Kolb has been given a chance to show that he should be the starter when Buffalo opens the regular season at home against the New England Patriots on Sept. 8.
There's always the argument of whether or not you should start a rookie right away or let him sit and give him time to develop. There are good examples for both sides of the argument. Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre and that turned out pretty well. Colin Kaepernick sat behind Alex Smith before eventually taking over as the starter.
The truth is it all depends on the player.
While it's easy to look at Manuel's statistics through his first two games and be impressed with the way he's been playing, statistics don't always tell the whole story. The numbers are great; when you're completing 79 percent of your passes you're doing something right. But when you go back and watch the tape, there are some very fine details that aren't measuring up quite yet.
Many people use completion percentage for quarterbacks as a measure of accuracy. This isn't always the case, and it is a dangerous way to conclusively judge accuracy. While it's true that completing passes is the goal of a quarterback, there are many ways a quarterback can complete passes and still leave yards out of the field.
The margin of error is so small for an NFL quarterback that things like leading the receiver, hitting him in stride and giving him a chance to make yardage after the catch is vitally important.
This chart below shows the receivers at the time they catch the ball on nine of the 26 passes Manuel has completed this preseason.
These are all completions. These passes aren't what you would consider "accurate," but yet they count towards the 79 percent completion percentage you'll find in Manuel's statistics.
You can see how the receivers are either jumping, reaching back or diving one way or the other in order to catch the ball. When a receiver breaks his momentum to catch a pass, he can instantly become a sitting duck for a defensive back or linebacker closing in on the play.
It's also leaving yards out on the field because hitting a receiver in stride allows them to quickly turn up field or make a move in space.
Now in defense of Manuel, it takes time for a quarterback to get the timing down with his receivers, especially when you're talking about adjusting to NFL game speed. So it's not as if these issues with accuracy can't be fixed with more time and repetition. But an injured Manuel sitting on the sidelines means he's missing valuable time during which he could be working with his receivers to polish some of these small but vital details.
Another aspect that Manuel brings as a starter is his physical ability to make plays when things start to break down. The play below against the Indianapolis Colts displays Manuel's natural ability to get out in space and get down the field.
The Colts are blitzing the weak-side linebacker with man-coverage underneath and a single-high safety.
The strong safety comes down and teams with the strong-side linebacker to double cover the tight end across the middle. At this point, Manuel can read man-coverage across the board as all his receivers are blanketed by defenders.
The problem with blitzing a mobile quarterback with man-coverage behind is if you don't get him down, he's going to run for a lot of yards. The receiver at the top of the screen ran a simple curl route, and once he notices that Manuel is leaving the pocket and running, he immediately starts running his defender out of the play.
It doesn't take long before the backside pursuit realizes that they aren't dealing with your average NFL quarterback. Manuel accelerates through the line of scrimmage and easily gets out in space.
Manuel makes a couple of moves in the open field and picks up 24 yards. The other advantage Manuel has in the open field is that, at 6'4" 237 pounds, he's a load for a smaller defensive back to try and take down.
There's one aspect of development that every "mobile" quarterback coming out of college is going to have to learn in order to survive in the NFL: that's to be able to sit in the pocket and deliver the ball accurately down the field. In other words, to become a "pocket passer."
You could have the most athletic player on the field playing quarterback, but if he can't pick apart defenses from the pocket, then your offense is severely limited.
This play below from Manuel, against the Minnesota Vikings, is a good example of what he needs to consistently do from the pocket to have success.
The pass that's ultimately completed is a square-in to the receiver who is out of the screen to the left (Manuel's right).
Once Manuel gets to the top of his drop he initially looks left and slightly aims his shoulder's in that direction as well. The safety, Andrew Sendejo (No. 34), had been dropping at an angle towards the middle of the field but squares up to the line of scrimmage as Manuel is looking his way.
Sendejo is reading where Manuel is looking.
Manuel then looks to his right, and where he had most likely planned on throwing the ball anyways, and sees his receiver coming open across the middle of the field. This throw is available because Manuel had manipulated the safety into vacating the area where he wanted to throw the ball.
Once Manuel throws the ball you can see there's plenty of room across the middle of the field to complete the pass. You can see the safety now breaking on the ball, but he's too far away to do anything but try and make a solid tackle in the open field.
If, at the top of his drop, Manuel hadn't used his shoulders as described above, or if he hadn't influenced Sendejo by looking in that same direction, there's a good chance the safety would have continued angling towards the middle of the field. This would have given the defender a much better chance of disrupting the play.
Who should be the Buffalo Bills starting quarterback when the regular season begins?
These are the kinds of plays that Manuel needs to continue to develop to have success as a rookie quarterback. A quarterback's ability to manipulate defenders with his eyes, shoulders and body are what separates the great quarterbacks from the good ones.
Manuel has shown enough to be the Bills starting quarterback once he's medically cleared to start practicing again, even if that means he doesn't step onto the field again until the regular season. He's played well enough to earn the starting job.
He still needs to improve his accuracy on those short to intermediate routes so that his receivers aren't breaking their stride to catch his passes. But as long as he continues to develop the ability to move around defenders with his eyes and shoulders, he should provide more of a threat to opposing defense than would Kevin Kolb.
The future is now, and EJ Manuel is the Bills future, for better or worse.
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