EJ Manuel: Grading Buffalo Bills QB's Week 1 Debut vs. New England Patriots
The National Football League has seen its fair share of changes over the past few years, but perhaps none has stood out more than the recent trend of starting rookie quarterbacks.
There was once a time when NFL teams chose to groom quarterbacks for months and even years before handing over the starting job.
Those days are clearly over.
In 2012, the NFL saw an incredible five rookie signal-callers open the season under center, with three of them—Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III—leading their respective teams to the postseason.
While this year's rookie quarterback class isn't as highly regarded as last year's crop of passers, two began the 2013 season as their team's starter.
For the Buffalo Bills, however, the decision to start rookie EJ Manuel was a calculated one. In fact, the decision likely came back in April, when the Bills made Manuel the only quarterback taken in the first round of the NFL draft.
Manuel's first taste of NFL regular-season action proved to be a bittersweet experience. He managed to go toe-to-toe with Tom Brady and the division-rival New England Patriots for almost 60 full minutes of football without ever appearing truly outmatched.
He finished the game 18-of-27 with two touchdowns and no interceptions, while driving the Bills to the edge of victory.
The rookie nearly delivered an opening-day upset, but Brady and Co. drove down the field for a game-winning field goal with just nine seconds remaining.
While the last-second loss was a heartbreaker for the Bills, the team must at least feel good about having a new quarterback capable of holding his own against its hated rivals.
Manuel's performance is even more impressive when you consider that he was only recently declared recovered from a preseason knee procedure.
While Manuel looked very much the part of the rookie during stretches of Sunday's game, he was both efficient and accurate overall.
The first-year quarterback managed to complete 66.6 percent of his passes during his debut and frequently placed the football where only his receiver could make a play.
Most importantly, Manuel did not turn the football over, which is a big reason Buffalo was able to take the mighty Patriots down to the wire.
Give Patriots head coach Bill Belichick credit for one thing. While New England has not fielded an elite defense for the better part of a decade, the savvy head coach always seems to find a way to put pressure on opposing offenses.
However, Manuel rarely appeared to be rattled by the Patriots defense and managed to avoid a single sack through the course of the game.
While Manuel is not a running quarterback in the mold of Griffin or Russell, he is deceptively mobile and did a good job of moving around in the pocket on Sunday, while consistently keeping his eyes downfield.
Was EJ Manuel's respectable performance more of a reflection of his ability or the state of the Patriots defense?
In addition to keeping the Patriots defense without a sack, Manuel also used his legs to gain 23 yards on three carries.
While Manuel was aided by solid running from C.J. Spiller (17 carries for 41 yards) and Fred Jackson (13 carries for 67 yards), the Bills have to be impressed with his ability to avoid the pass rush and avoid costly mistakes.
The only real criticism for Manuel is that the rookie appeared to turn quickly to his checkdown options (nine of his completions went to running backs), but overall it was an impressive performance for the rookie.
Manuel isn't likely to turn any heads in the fantasy football world with his Week 1 performance. While the former Florida State star did complete two thirds of his passes, he did so for just 150 yards with an average of just 5.5 yards per pass attempt.
Had the Bills found a way to complete the upset, Manuel's stat line would probably look a little more impressive. He managed to match Brady in the touchdown department without committing a turnover.
However, the Bills would likely prefer Manuel to attack downfield more aggressively in the future. Still, it's worth paying attention to the fact that the rookie played efficiently and did nearly enough to produce the biggest upset of kickoff weekend.
Manuel and the Bills nearly did the unthinkable on Sunday by defeating the team that has won the AFC East in nine of the past 10 seasons.
The rookie quarterback is largely responsible for putting Buffalo in a position to win, which appears to reinforce the beliefs held by new head coach Doug Marrone ever since Manuel was drafted.
Marrone has maintained that Manuel is capable of starting, and thriving, as a rookie, even though many critics have felt that no quarterback in this year's draft class was ready to compete at the NFL level.
Manuel still has plenty of room for improvement, especially in the long passing game, but his performance on Sunday was far from the worst in the league.
While it remains to be seen just how good (or bad) the New England Patriots will be this season, it is a good sign for Buffalo that Manuel didn't appear to be overwhelmed against the bitter rivals.
Manuel certainly has a long way to go before he can realistically draw comparisons to the star rookie quarterbacks of 2012, but for now it appears that he has a solid base on which to build, and gives the Bills something with which to work, moving forward.
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