Tough Early Stretch Will Test Buffalo Bills' Patience with EJ Manuel

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Tough Early Stretch Will Test Buffalo Bills' Patience with EJ Manuel
Associated Press
Bills QB EJ Manuel cannot afford to have a sluggish start in 2014.

After playing only 10 games in 2013, there are still significant questions about whether EJ Manuel is worthy of the title of starting NFL quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. By the time Manuel will have played his 16th game, we should have our answer.

For better or worse.

Bleacher Report's Jason Cole recently suggested that the Bills may not be affording Manuel much of a leash before losing their patience, which is part of the reason why the team signed retired quarterback Kyle Orton to a two-year, $11 million contract on Aug. 29. 

According to Over the Cap, an average of $5.5 million per year is currently 21st among all 85 quarterback contracts.

Why give Orton so much money?

Cole weighed in:

One of the things that Buffalo was eyeing when they brought in Orton is they wanted a guy with starting experience because they may have to jettison EJ Manuel, at least as a starting quarterback, very quickly. 

They're not very confident in what they saw in the preseason. If you go back to the offseason, coach Doug Marrone was told by at least two people in the organization and players that they do not believe that EJ Manuel had enough talent to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

It's a troubling report, to say the least. If these questions have lingered as long as Cole hints they have, there's every reason to second-guess the Bills' offseason strategy at quarterback. They did nothing to enhance their backup situation, with Jeff Tuel and Thad Lewis remaining as the two understudies throughout training camp.

Lewis was among the team's cuts to a 75-man roster on Aug. 26. Tuel was released on Aug. 30 and signed to the practice squad, losing his job in favor of Orton.

There have been questions about the Bills' selection of Manuel since they made the pick with the 16th selection in the 2013 NFL draft.

There is no doubt about Manuel's athletic ability. NFL.com indicates he finished among the top five quarterbacks in every drill at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, but there were significant questions about his pocket presence and accuracy on short throws.

A lot has happened since Manuel was drafted.

He played only 10 games in 2013 as a result of three knee injuries he suffered last year (one in preseason, two in the regular season), and while he showed some potential, he still looked very raw.

He doesn't go through his progressions quickly enough at times, which causes him to either force passes into coverage or check down to a running back. 

He followed that up with an up-and-down preseason. At times, it looked like Manuel had made no progress from last season. Other times, he showed signs of hope that he could correct the flaws in his game.

Manuel has what it takes to develop into a quality NFL quarterback, but what he has shown on the field is all too inconclusive to say for certain whether that will happen. Thus, we'll have to see how he performs in the early goings of the 2014 season.

Unfortunately for Manuel, the schedule-makers didn't do him any favors:

Buffalo Bills 2014 schedule
Week Opponent 2013 W-L
1 at Chicago Bears 8-8
2 vs. Miami Dolphins 8-8
3 vs. San Diego Chargers 9-7
4 at Houston Texans 2-14
5 at Detroit Lions 7-9
6 vs. New England Patriots 12-4
7 vs. Minnesota Vikings 5-10-1
8 at New York Jets 8-8

Source: NFL.com

The Bills face a difficult schedule overall, though it's not unbearable. Based on their opponents' 2013 winning percentages, ESPN.com indicates that Buffalo has the 14th-toughest slate in the league.

There's only so much that can be gleaned from the strength of schedule, though, since there are undoubtedly going to be changes in each team's performance from one year to the next.

With that said, the first eight games of the season could be a trial by fire for Manuel as he attempts to prove that he is worthy of being the Bills' starter.

The Chicago Bears defense is not regarded as a particularly stout group right now, but the offseason additions of defensive end Jared Allen and cornerback Kyle Fuller could help that unit. Additionally, Manuel and the Bills offense will be trying to keep pace with the Bears offense, which ranked second in scoring in 2013.

On the slate for Week 2 is a home matchup against the Miami Dolphins. While the Bills were able to sweep Miami in 2013, Manuel was not the quarterback any of those games.

The Dolphins' front four is vicious, with Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon on the ends and Jared Odrick and Randy Starks in the middle. They have some talent in the secondary as well, with Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan on the perimeter and Reshad Jones and Louis Delmas on the back end at safety.

Week 3 brings a showdown with the San Diego Chargers, which will present similar challenges to those of the Bears. The Chargers defense gave up some big plays (31st in net passing yards per attempt and 27th in rushing yards per attempt last season) but did not give up many points (11th in scoring).

Don't overlook the Houston Texans, either.

They may have some question marks at quarterback, but their defense is still one of the most talented in the NFL, featuring J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney up front. If the Texans can get pressure on Manuel and take advantage of his slow-moving eyes, they could make life very difficult for the Bills offense.

The same goes for the Detroit Lions defense, which features hard-charging defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, who will be ready to push the pocket from the middle and move Manuel off his spot.

There are some weaknesses for Detroit in the secondary, but its stout front four gives the team a chance to disrupt the Bills' passing game.

Then, of course, there's the Bills' first showdown with the New England Patriots. The revamped defense, which includes cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner along with defensive tackle Dominique Easley and the return of injured defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, could give Manuel fits.

While the Minnesota Vikings are not considered a stout defensive team now, they could be headed in that direction with new head coach Mike Zimmer at the helm. Zimmer was the coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals defenses that have ranked in the top 10 in total defense and scoring defense in each of the past three seasons.

The New York Jets are facing some problems with their secondary right now, but by the time Week 8 rolls around, they could be back to full health. Even if not, their stout defensive front could make life exceedingly difficult for Manuel.

How long will EJ Manuel last as the Bills' quarterback?

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By the time their bye week rolls around, the Bills could have a much better idea of whether Manuel will be their starting quarterback going forward.

At the same time, it's possible that the Bills will be stuck with him for awhile. In trading up to the fourth pick in the 2014 draft for wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the Bills forfeited their first-round pick in 2015.

If Manuel is not the face of the franchise—and we could have our answer sooner rather than later—it could be awhile before the Bills can find the next one.

 

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