Entering his third season since being selected with the No. 16 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel is approaching a crucial point in his young career. The Bills’ roster is built for the playoffs and the only thing standing in the way is competent quarterback play. Last year, General Manager Doug Whaley believed that sending first and fourth-round picks to the Cleveland Browns in order to select Sammy Watkins would aid Manuel’s development and send the Bills in the playoffs. The plan backfired, as Manuel was benched after four starts and the team stumbled to a 9-7 finish, missing the playoffs for the 15th consecutive year.
Viewed as a developmental project prior to the draft, being selected in the first round meant Manuel was already playing from behind to start his career. In 2011, Cam Newton was the first quarterback taken and had immediate success with the Panthers. In 2012, Andrew Luck and RG3 were the first two passers taken and both led their teams to the playoffs. Being the first passer taken created unrealistic expectations for Manuel who’s game needed a lot of work- from cleaning up his mechanics to reading defenses. But in today’s game of instant gratification, first-round quarterbacks need to play right away, and they need to play well, or it’s on to the next one.
Through the first 14.5 games of his career, Manuel has had flashes of the athleticism and arm talent that made the Bills’ front office see enough to believe that he could be developed into a quality passer, but his inconsistencies and lapses with accuracy have left a lot to be desired. He’s never thrown more than 300 yards or two touchdowns in a game, and has completed just 58.8% of his passes for 2,810 yards (6.4 yards-per-attempt), throwing 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his first two seasons.
With a new head coach in Rex Ryan who stated that Manuel has a fresh start and clean slate, he’ll be competing for the starting role with Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor. But before predicting a winner, let’s take a look at how Manuel has performed throughout his career to determine whether he’s a legitimate option for the future.
The term “pocket presence” gets thrown around a lot when discussing quarterbacks, with the general belief being that in order to have presence, the quarterback must stand in the face of pressure without fear of getting hit.
To me, pocket presence has several elements that go into it- the ability to keep your eyes downfield when a pocket is closing with the simultaneous ability to maneuver laterally in close quarters, the ability to know when to pull the trigger and when to get rid of the ball, all while being accurate. This area is where EJ Manuel is extremely inconsistent.
In this clip from Manuel’s college days, he shows off his ability to work laterally, maneuvering out of a muddy pocket and turning in a positive play on the ground.
Manuel showed this same elusiveness last year in the following play against the San Diego Chargers. He’s able to make three defenders miss, but he keeps his eyes downfield and finds Scott Chandler for a 30-yard gain.
The Bills’ offensive line was one of the worst in the league and didn’t do EJ many favors as he was pressured on roughly 36% of his drop-backs according to ProFootballFocus (Subscription Required) However, he showed the toughness to stand tall and take a hit while getting the ball out to avoid a negative play, even adjusting his arm slot to avoid the pass being batted down.
Now, there were certainly times where EJ was rattled in the face of the blitz or a closing pocket, as noted by his extreme drop-off in production when pressured. According to PFF, Manuel completed ust 41% of his 117 pass attempts under pressure for 511 yards, a rate of 4.7 yards-per-attempt. He threw four touchdowns and four interceptions, while posting a 53.0 quarterback rating.
Where Manuel also struggles in the pocket is knowing when he needs to get rid of the ball. The average time a quarterback has to throw in the NFL is roughly 2.5 seconds and Manuel hasn’t consistently shown that he can quickly go through his progressions and take off when his mental clock says to do so. In the following clip from his rookie season, Manuel showed that he wasn’t mentally quick enough in his transition from the speed of the college game to that of the pros.
Most casual fans equate arm strength to how far a quarterback can throw the ball, but there’s so much more that goes into it. Quarterbacks need to be able to fire the ball to a receiver coming over the middle of the field and fit it between two defenders, but also need to be able to hit a receiver deep down the sideline on an arc.
Watching EJ Manuel is so frustrating because he has a strong enough arm to deliver the ball to each level of the field while flashing the ability to change the velocity and trajectory of these throws.
One of Manuel’s biggest knocks is his inconsistency when throwing the deep ball. Over his 14-game career, he’s completed just 16-of-59 passes that traveled 20+ yards downfield (27%) for 515 yards, a paltry 8.7 yards-per-attempt average and threw six touchdowns to three interceptions.
Manuel’s poor mechanics and tendency to rely on his sheer arm strength has resulted in multiple situations in which the ball was overthrown and wildly inaccurate. In the next clip, Manuel has a lay-up touchdown opportunity, but instead of planting his feet, turning his hips and getting the ball to his open tight end, he lobs a pass that’s thrown out of Scott Chandler’s reach and is nearly intercepted.
This happens again in a similar situation against the Miami Dolphins as well.
What’s so exasperating is that while he makes those head-scratching plays, Manuel has also shown the ability to throw a beautiful and accurate deep ball as you can in the following clip, a 40+ yard touchdown pass to Marquise Goodwin against the New York Jets.
There’s pressure in Manuel’s face, but his over-the-top release and the sheer strength of his arm allowed him to connect for a huge scoring play. It’s the same arm strength and trajectory that made him so productive at Florida State.
While Manuel struggled with the deep ball, he’s been surprisingly efficient when working the short-to-intermediate area of middle of the field. For his career, Manuel has completed 69.6% of his passes for 1,563 yards (7.1 yards-per-attempt) with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions on passes 0-19 yards downfield.
Manuel showed the ability to read zone coverage and connect with his crossing target on numerous occasions. In week two of the 2014 season, Manuel and Sammy Watkins connected for a huge gain on a deep crosser off play-action against a two-deep look from the Dolphins.
Manuel does this again, facing a Cover 3 look by the New York Jets. After the play-fake to C.J. Spiller, EJ looks off the safety to the right before coming back across the field and finding Robert Woods in front of the single-high free safety.
Where the frustration begins is when Manuel lowers his eyes on this boot-action play against the Patriots. It’s a snag concept with a “Hi-Lo” read, with Scott Chandler and Robert Woods aligned to the right of the formation and Chris Hogan crossing over the top. Manuel lowers his eyes and dumps the ball off despite the key defender playing contain. Meanwhile, Hogan has nothing but space in front of him but Manuel’s quick check-down prevented a potential big gain.
Another flaw in the mental aspect of Manuel’s game is his anticipation. In college quarterbacks aren’t asked to throw into tight windows very often, but at the NFL level, a receiver being truly “open” is rare. Quarterbacks need to understand the timing of the route and when the ball needs to be at it’s destination, having trust in his receiver to be there. On the following play- a deep out route against Miami, EJ held the ball too long; he didn’t trust his timing to fire a strike in a tight window to Sammy Watkins and the pass is broken up. Had he pulled the trigger a split-second sooner, there’s a possibility that a first-down is converted.
This happens again against New England. Manuel has Marquise Goodwin- one of the fastest humans in the world- in single coverage on a go route against a safety. Manuel sees this, but moves to his next progression. By that time, his mental clock has expired and he’s sacked.
Where Do We Go From Here?
EJ Manuel hasn’t shown enough consistency to provide any sort of confidence in his ability to be a franchise quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. On tape, there’s plays where he’s showed the traits of a promising player, but on the next play you leave yourself wondering if he should be in the league. In an ideal world, you want your raw rookie quarterback to sit on the bench and learn how to adjust to the nuances of the professional game.
Several circumstances – Kevin Kolb’s injury coupled with his own injuries—stunted any sort of intended development leading into the 2014 season. The bottom line is that Manuel’s “downs” have outweighed his positives, but he’s also displayed tools that are worth developing, considering the draft capital they invested into him.
This is a “put up-or- shut up” year for EJ Manuel, but if he can speed up his game and play more confidently, I think that he’s capable of being a serviceable starter in the National Football League. Let’s hope we see more of these in the near future!