The Buffalo Bills quarterback competition took another step toward a conclusion in Week 1 of the preseason.
Tyrod Taylor electrified onlookers against the Carolina Panthers, putting himself in pole position to win the job while earning the start for Buffalo's second preseason game, as Around the NFL reported. Matt Cassel played competent football against the highest level of opponent faced by any Bills passer, while EJ Manuel did enough against third-stringers to cling on to his spot in the competition.
A month isn't a long time to sort out a quarterback competition. It's especially short when the competition includes not two but three contenders. Rex Ryan hasn't hinted that he's ready to pull the cord on any of his three options anytime soon, but Taylor's and Cassel's performances likely tempted him to take Manuel out of the competition.
Although he struggled through most of the offseason, leading to at least one reporter questioning if he would make the team, Cassel was the starter for the Bills' first official outing of the year. The veteran played competent but unspectacular football during his short spell on the field.
Cassel hasn't particularly stood out in training camp, but he hasn't proved to be significantly worse than his competition either. He may have only started against the Panthers because of seniority, but it should be taken as a sign that the coaching staff is satisfied with his play.
Once Cassel left the field, Taylor was next to come in.
Taylor was a free-agent addition this offseason. After being selected in the sixth round of the 2011 draft, he spent four seasons as Joe Flacco's primary backup. He has barely played during the regular season throughout his career but has shown flashes of his potential during preseason games.
This proved to be another one of those games.
He led multiple touchdown drives while showing off impressive accuracy throwing the ball and incredible athleticism running it. Taylor threw two very accurate deep sideline passes that were dropped, one of which came in the end zone.
Being a functional passer with the added dimension of his elusiveness and athleticism, Taylor should be the favorite for this starting job at this point.
Rex Ryan won't overreact to one preseason game, but Taylor's display won't have surprised him. "I actually tried to trade for [Taylor] when I was with the Jets," Ryan said earlier this offseason, via Mike Rodak of ESPN.com (h/t Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports), before going on to compare him to Russell Wilson.
Taylor will win this job if he can remain consistent throughout the rest of the preseason. It may say more about the quality of his competition rather than his ability as an individual, but that is the position the Bills find themselves in.
Manuel was the third quarterback into the game, coming in to start the second half.
While each quarterback has had positive and negative days in training camp, Manuel's have appeared to be more severe and regular, as Mike Rodak of ESPN.com and Tyler Dunne of the Buffalo News chronicled:
If looking for the best mixture of youth and experience, the 25-year-old Manuel has the edge over both Cassel and Taylor. However, the young quarterback was likely facing an uphill battle before this competition even begun. After all, he was not selected by the current coaching staff and was benched last season by the staff that drafted him.
Benched for the underwhelming Kyle Orton, a player who subsequently retired.
Manuel has played in just 15 games in his two-year career. On 437 attempts he has thrown for 2,810 yards, 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His completion percentage is 58.6. Manuel's statistics aren't impressive, but they flatter him.
His main claim to quality is his lack of interceptions for a young quarterback. Only throwing 12 through two seasons seems impressive, but 12 on 437 attempts isn't. Furthermore, he has been very, very fortunate with missed interceptions from defenders on interceptable passes.
Manuel has proved he can't read through progressions, struggles to alter the velocity of his passes effectively, is inaccurate and doesn't mitigate pressure in the pocket consistently.
With two more talented quarterbacks in this competition with him, Manuel needed to give the coaching staff a reason to keep splitting reps in three rather than two. Having so little time left to figure out who their starter will be means reps are scarce right now.
Manuel was working at a disadvantage immediately, because he was running with the third-string offense against a third-string defense.
His first pass came on his second snap, after play action. Manuel looked for a deep corner route but slightly overthrew his intended target who was open. On the following play, Manuel couldn't corral a high snap, setting up a 3rd-and-15.
That's when there was another center-quarterback miscommunication, as the snap hit Manuel on his shoulder.
Manuel's first drive on the field was sloppy and came with an abrupt ending. The negative plays weren't completely of his own concoction, but that first throw was one he should have made. One he needed to make.
A bad punt set up his second drive in great field position.
Karlos Williams lost yardage on the first play of the drive, before Manuel executed a simple screen pass to the running back for a good gain on second down. That set up a 3rd-and-6 for the Bills. An ideal spot to test any quarterback who needs further examination.
The Bills spread the field and weren't going to protect Manuel with a simple screen call on this play.
Being that it's third down with some distance to go, the Panthers were able to disguise their blitz. They sent extra defenders from the far side, as Manuel looked to the near side from the beginning of the play. Manuel's protection perfectly picked up the blitz, giving him time and space to function.
He held his eyes on the right sideline for a moment before bringing them back infield and immediately beginning his throwing motion.
Manuel found Marquise Goodwin wide open over the middle of the field and hit him in the chest with an accurate pass. He had given his team a first down. Unfortunately, being that these are backup players, Goodwin dropped the pass and forced the Bills to kick a field goal.
This was a fine play from Manuel, but the degree of difficulty was miniscule.
No pressure needed to be mitigated in the pocket; the play didn't need to be extended. He wasn't working in a confined area, and it was a simple read he was asked to make. His throw was a short one to a wide-open receiver.
Manuel did all he could do, but overstating what he did would be patronizing to a professional quarterback.
In no way was this play a negative for Manuel individually, but it also wasn't the kind of play he needed to impress. Cassel and Taylor both made more difficult plays with varying degrees of consistency against tougher opponents. To keep pace, he needed to do similar against lesser opponents.
The Bills came out running on their next drive. Manuel didn't drop back with the ball on his first four plays, but the fifth was when he showed off some of his talent.
Having run the ball over and over, it was no surprise that the Bills came out with a heavy formation and ran play action. The fake distorted the underneath coverage by drawing the linebackers forward, but the Bills weren't trying to take advantage of that.
Instead, their receivers were releasing vertically down the field.
The play fake and Manuel's deep drop following it put him in vast space between the tackles. There was interior penetration from the left defensive tackle, so Manuel was forced to step up into space. He did that while keeping his eyes downfield.
Keeping his eyes downfield allowed him to locate his receiver running down the seam.
Manuel completed his pass to wide receiver Deonte Thompson, who had created separation in behind the secondary, for a 51-yard touchdown. His pass was perfectly flighted to drop over the defensive back but still fall into the receiver's hands. The quarterback's arm strength was also put on show.
This is the kind of throw the Bills know Manuel can make. He hasn't done it consistently throughout his career, but it was still encouraging to have it rear its head even against third-string competition.
It was a throw that saved the day for the quarterback. He hadn't played well on a snap-by-snap basis, but this kind of throw is one Cassel isn't likely to make and it's unclear if Taylor can. It's not a throw that suggests growth, because Manuel needs to grow in other areas more than on the deep ball. Instead, it's a throw that reminds the staff of his presence.
Ryan is very unlikely to cut Manuel from the competition this early. He has already said he is willing to wait until the regular season to name his starter, per Rodak.
That would be a disastrous situation to manage. At some point, it will be more valuable to give all the reps to Taylor and Cassel, who are more likely to start than Manuel.
For now, though, it's clear the Bills hierarchy of quarterbacks remains unofficial rather than official.