On Sunday, the Buffalo Bills fell just short off pulling the upset against the division-rival New England Patriots. The good news for Bills fans is that rookie QB EJ Manuel -- who showed well in the preseason before suffering a minor knee injury -- was impressive in his first regular-season start. Far from perfect, Manuel still managed the game and played well enough for Buffalo to win. The 6-foot-4, 237-pound quarterback was in command of the huddle and found a rhythm late in the first half which carried over into the second half. He finished the game with solid numbers completing 18 of 27 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
Last April, the Bills made Manuel the lone quarterback selected in the first round at No. 16. The pick was scrutinized as many felt the Bills reached for Manuel by taking him that high. We at Scouts Inc. gave Manuel a fringe second-round grade. We recognized Manuel’s upside because of his size, athleticism and intangibles. He was a two-time captain that displayed natural leadership qualities, and he had the passion and work ethic to succeed at the next level. However, Manuel had some inconsistencies as decision-maker and displayed erratic accuracy at times, which prevented him from getting a first-round grade.
Every quarterback we evaluate gets broken down into four quarterback specific traits: mental make-up, accuracy, release/arm strength and pocket mobility. We grade on a scale of 1-to-5 with one being elite and five being poor. Below is a look at how we graded out Manuel coming out of Florida State, and how he performed in those areas on Sunday’s game.
MENTAL MAKEUP -- 2012 grade: 3
Manuel was both mentally and physically tough during his collegiate days at Florida State. He was a strong competitor that could bounce back from a big hit and could play through pain. Manuel showed a strong presence and displayed an above-average grasp for protections and coverages. While he impressed on the white board, that always did not translate to the field at Florida State. Manuel was often a slow starter that took a quarter or so to get fully engaged. He also had some inconsistencies as a decision-maker and was prone to errors at critical points.
On Sunday, Manuel appeared to make strides in this area. He averaged just 5.6 yard per completion and didn’t always push the ball vertically down the field, but he managed the game well and took what the New England defense gave him. Most important, he took care of the football often taking his check-down instead of forcing the ball into coverage, decisions that plagued him throughout his career at Florida State.
Bills head coach Doug Marrone deserves credit for Manuel's development. Starting in the preseason and heading into Sunday, Marrone has simplified the game plan for Manuel by getting the ball out of his hands with short throws that have a high completion rate. Marrone’s coaching has allowed Manuel to succeed within the system and gain confidence at the same time.
This is not taking anything away from Manuel, who for the most part made sound decisions throughout Sunday’s contest. In fact, his second touchdown throw was a great read. Manuel was able to recognize man coverage against a two-receiver set on his left. At the snap of the ball, Manuel read the cornerback squatting on an in route from the outside receiver. He then quickly drew his eyes to the inside to the slot and found receiver Stevie Johnson on a seam route while throwing with great timing, and not allowing the center field safety to be a factor on the play.
ACCURACY -- 4
This was Manuel’s poorest grade of all the quarterback specific traits coming out of college. He made solid steps in this department as his career progressed. We felt he was most comfortable and accurate attacking the intermediate part of the field between the hashes. That's where he had his most success on Sunday.
A clear example came on a second-quarter throw to tight end Scott Chandler on a split route for 19 yards which set the stage for his first touchdown throw to Robert Woods on the next play. Manuel made a quick read and did a nice job of putting the ball accurately on Chandler’s frame and not leading him into the safety. Throughout the contest, Manuel was most accurate between the hashes, where he had quality ball placement and gave his receivers the ability to maximize yards after the catch.
Where Manuel suffered with his accuracy was as a deep-ball thrower, and he did not always appear natural with routine throws outside the hashes. This was evident on Sunday when Manuel had two deep throws along the sideline that missed the mark, with one getting lost inside and nearly being intercepted by Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
Manuel also had poor ball placement on a few underneath throws into the flat. This included a second-quarter throw where he missed the mark low and inside to Johnson that appeared to be intercepted by Patriots defensive back Kyle Arrington before being overturned by replay. These are the types of throws that were concerning on his tape coming out of college. Manuel must improve to a point where completing those passes become routine at this level.
I was most impressed with Manuel’s touch on Sunday. With both touchdowns, he did a great job of taking something off the ball and throwing it with a quality projection. In addition, Manuel placed a few throws into tight windows down the middle, including placing one between two defenders, a ball that was dropped by Chandler.
RELEASE/ARM STRENGTH -- 2
Manuel has a long lever, but showed a compact over-the-top delivery with adequate release quickness. Coming out of college he showed good but not elite arm strength, and while he could stretch the ball vertically, he didn’t always drive the ball into tight downfield windows as you expect from a quarterback with his measureables.
Against New England, Manuel was able to get rid of the ball with above-average quickness once he decided to let it go. He flashed the ability to change his release slot when throwing on the move, and maintaining accuracy.
From an arm-strength standpoint there were no glaring issues. The ball hung in the air for half a second too long on a few throws, but that’s nitpicking. After speaking with a few sources within the organization before last April’s draft, they made it clear that if they drafted a quarterback he would have to have enough arm strength to deal with the northern New York weather late in the season. It appears Manuel has the build and arm strength to fit that mold.
POCKET MOBILITY -- 1
Manuel received his highest grade in this department. He showed above-average to good pocket presence. He was able to get away with some late recognitions because of his size and athleticism combination. He has a sturdy build and good balance to stand tall in the pocket, and he flashed the ability to shake off defenders. Manuel maneuvered around the pocket well but was better at climbing against edge pressure than he was sidestepping interior pressure. He also poses problems for defenses when he breaks contain because of his dual-threat ability.
Manuel showed his athleticism and ability to escape pressure against New England. He did a nice job of extending plays, and flashed his ability as a runner with 19-yard gain on the Bills' third-quarter touchdown drive to take a 21-17, their only lead of the game.
While Manuel has the dual-threat capabilities, he showed that he was a pocket passer first. There were a few occasions where he pulled the ball down too early, but for the most part Manuel hung in the pocket and showed he was willing stand in to get through his progressions.
In his first career start, Manuel showed a lot of poise in his battle against one the NFL’s best quarterbacks in Tom Brady. A few sources within the organization said they were particularly impressed with Manuel’s vocal leadership and his ability to engage his teammates along the sideline throughout the game. Obviously, this is just one game, and a lot is yet to be determined. However, this is a positive start and the Bills have good reason to be optimistic they have found their quarterback of the future.