Manuel went 2-of-7 for 19 yards on Sunday night against the New York Giants. One of his two completions was a 10-yard screen pass to wide receiver Mike Williams. Three of his five incomplete passes were batted in the front seven, and the other two were missed connections on deep passes to Williams and rookie first-round pick Sammy Watkins.
Seven passes in preseason do not make or break an NFL quarterback, but Manuel's portfolio of passes against Big Blue highlighted shortcomings in his game that must be corrected if he is going to make a second-year jump.
Namely, Manuel must improve his accuracy on deep passes, and his eyes must move faster between his reads.
As a prospect coming out of Florida State in 2013, one big criticism of Manuel was his tendency to lock in on his first read. He would stare down his receiver and wouldn't allow his eyes to dictate his decision-making.
NFL.com's 2013 scouting report says Manuel "gives opponents too many chances for turnovers by forcing throws into coverage trying to make a play." That's exactly what happened on 3rd-and-11 on Manuel's final drive, when he tried to hit Watkins over the middle and was nearly intercepted by Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams.
3 passes batted down now for EJ Manuel. It won't kill him to look off a WR or DB here and there.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 4, 2014
Give the Giants defense some credit—New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has said that throwing through their defense is like "throwing through a forest." However, there's a tool that Manuel must add to his arsenal to prove himself as the face of the franchise.
It's a tool the NFL's most dangerous quarterbacks all possess: the ability to manipulate defenders with their eyes, and moving them where the quarterbacks want them to be so that another spot will be open. He hit tight end Lee Smith on a stick route over the middle for an eight-yard gain on the Bills' first drive of the game, coming off of his first read to find Smith settled into a soft spot in coverage.
It was a smart decision, but Manuel is not an accurate-enough passer to get by entirely on smart decisions. And with arm strength like he has, he shouldn't have to.
It's his deep accuracy that must improve.
He attempted two deep passes on the night. On the first, he overshot Watkins on a go-route down the left sideline. On the second, Williams mistimed his jump and couldn't come down with a contested catch on a fade route to the left corner of the end zone.
Sammy Watkins deep already? Oh. so. close.— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) August 4, 2014
This continues a trend from 2013, when Manuel completed only 27 percent of his throws that traveled 20 yards or more downfield.
With receivers like Watkins, Williams and Robert Woods, Manuel has pass-catchers who have the size and speed to win matchups on the outside and test defenses vertically. Add Marquise Goodwin to the mix, and it's a receiver group that is highlighted by its diversity and speed.
It's up to Manuel to maximize those talents by giving his receivers a chance to catch the ball, but it's up to his receivers to make tough catches when Manuel gives them a chance to do so.
One thing that could play into Manuel's favor is Buffalo's deep group of offensive linemen. The Bills have added four new offensive linemen, and there are competitions at all but two spots on the line. That group kept Manuel clean all night.
After dealing with three separate knee injuries in 2013, Manuel would probably prefer to be kept clean all season. That may not happen all the time, and when it doesn't, Manuel will have to deal with the pressure.
As the perceived weak link of the team, he's already dealing with quite a bit of it.
EJ Manuel is tough to like - motion is weird, plays robotic, if the #Bills had a legit QB they'd be a playoff team IMO— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) August 4, 2014
There's plenty of time before the season for Manuel to improve, and he'll have to make good use of that time. It's not likely that he'll fully improve on those weaknesses this season—and it's not guaranteed at all.
There is a feeling that the Bills could be a surprise team in 2014. Their defense has a chance to be great, and their offense features an explosive group of skill position players. If the Bills are going to surprise anyone, Manuel is going to have to surprise his doubters by fixing the faults in his game.
The book on the 2014 Bills is only just beginning to be written—we're on Page 1 of the prelude at this point—and the best thing the Bills can do for themselves now is to turn the page and try to make the next one better than the last.