It goes without saying now that second-year quarterback EJ Manuel is the most important player on the roster for the 2014 Buffalo Bills, who seek to end a 14-year playoff drought this season. It's not even close, really.
The Bills face plenty of question marks as the new season begins. They're even younger on offense than they were a year ago thanks to their first two draft picks. Mike Pettine has been replaced by Jim Schwartz as the defensive coordinator, which means a fourth scheme change in four years. Personnel changes at wide receiver, along the offensive line, and in the defensive backfield will change things up. The team is currently dealing with a season-ending injury to star linebacker Kiko Alonso, as well.
Add all of that up into one giant question mark, and you're still left with a conglomeration of issues that pale in comparison to how vital Manuel is to the team's success this season. True, the team will do everything in its power to make the job of becoming a franchise quarterback as easy as possible for Manuel. But teams cannot win consistently, or in high volume, with anything less than above-average quarterback play, and Manuel will need to make a serious leap from year one to year two to accomplish that.
There are health concerns with Manuel, who missed six games (as well as two additional preseason games) last season due to a series of knee injuries. He enters training camp healthy, but naturally, those concerns won't go away until he's played in 16 straight regular season games. That's his first, most basic hurdle to clear.
We have been talking about the rest of his game since his rookie season came to an end on December 27, 2013. If you want to sink your teeth into Manuel's flaws and where he needs to improve, this scouting report is what you need. We have a fairly clear theory on how the offense will be structured around him. Michael Purinton has incompletion and rookie season comparison data that add perspective to the rhetoric. We also know that the Bills have gone all-in on Manuel, from hiring two more coaches to closely monitor him, to trading up for top receiver prospect Sammy Watkins, to doubling down on the running game with two more viable runners and two new starters on the offensive line (Chris Williams and Cyrus Kouandjio).
It would have been difficult for the Bills to do much more in their efforts to aid Manuel's development. Buffalo has the pieces in place to have a highly efficient and fast-paced offense, with skill players capable of ripping off huge chunks of yardage at a moment's notice. None of that happens if Manuel cannot correct some of the flaws that he exhibited as a rookie, or reach a level of consistency so that the Bills' coaches know what they'll have on a week to week basis.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and the Bills have a highly talented, highly unproven one around which they're building. The boom-or-bust nature of a player like Manuel means that the Bills are entering a boom-or-bust season. If Manuel falters, or is injured, they'll probably be bad. If he's mediocre, they'll be mediocre. And if, by the grace of the football gods, Manuel is able to harness most of his immense abilities and turn into an honest-to-goodness, pro-quality starting quarterback, the Bills' odds of ending that aforementioned playoff drought will shorten quickly.
This post concludes a series discussing the ten most important Bills players entering the new season. Here's the final list.
1. QB EJ Manuel
2. DT Marcell Dareus
3. CB Stephon Gilmore
4. LB Kiko Alonso:(
5. WR Sammy Watkins
6. DE Mario Williams
7. OT Cordy Glenn
8. DB Aaron Williams
9. DT Kyle Williams
10. RB C.J. Spiller
11. DE Jerry Hughes