When the Buffalo Bills released veteran quarterback Tarvaris Jackson in June, a three-horse race for the team's starting job was whittled down to two contenders: veteran Kevin Kolb and rookie EJ Manuel.
Kolb, who will turn 29 next month, was signed by the Bills in late March roughly two weeks after the release of three-year starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. A six-year NFL veteran that comes to Buffalo by way of the Arizona Cardinals (he was drafted by Philadelphia), has appeared in 35 games in his pro career - 21 of them starts. He sports a career quarterback rating of 78.9, with 5,206 yards, 28 touchdowns and 25 interceptions on his CV.
Buffalo turned to Kolb, who had been released by Arizona following two injury-filled seasons on a massive contract, after they had unsuccessfully attempted to re-structure Fitzpatrick's own massive contract. The two journeymen veteran quarterbacks will be playing at much more appropriate salaries in 2013 (Fitzpatrick is in Tennessee), and "journeymen" was the idea here: the Bills needed an experienced player that they could count on to bridge the gap between present day and the day when a hand-picked rookie could take over the starting job.
26 days after Kolb's signing became official, the Bills made Florida State's Manuel a historic figure in franchise history: Manuel was the first ever quarterback taken by the Bills with their top first-round choice. (Seriously: ever.)
A two-year starter for the Seminoles (where he replaced current Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder in the lineup), Manuel put up gaudy stats and won a lot of games in a good (but not great) ACC conference, and also was undefeated in bowl games. The 6'5", 240-pound rookie provided the Bills the best combination of physical talent and off-field intangibles, according to the team's chief decision-makers, and now they'll try to coach the raw passer into an NFL-caliber starter.
That factor - Manuel's readiness - will almost certainly be the deciding factor in this quarterback battle.
As we pointed out after the 2013 NFL Draft, rookie quarterbacks don't sit for too long (if at all) in today's NFL. In the past five years, only one of the 15 quarterbacks picked in the first round started zero games as a rookie (Jake Locker in Tennessee). That's compared to nine that were opening-day starters, and 12 that started at least 10 games (with Josh Freeman just missing that group with nine rookie-season starts). The odds are much higher that we'll see Manuel starting at some point in 2013 than his sitting for an entire season.
The real question, then, is when we'll see Manuel in the lineup. Is Week 1 out of the question?
There is evidence to believe that it might be. Gil Brandt of NFL.com, a long-time friend of the Hackett family, wrote earlier this off-season that he believed Hackett might philosophically prefer to sit Manuel as long as possible, in order to assimilate him into the pro game at his own speed. Then again, that's not ultimately Hackett's call to make, though his close relationship with head coach Doug Marrone could effectively make it his call.
It's also entirely possible - if not just plain likely - that Kolb will be the better performer of the two players during training camp and pre-season action, given his pro experience and his own affinity for the offense Hackett and Marrone are implementing. Depending on how reps are split up during practices and especially in games, it's very easy to envision Manuel struggling more than Kolb to adjust to a lot of moving parts around him. He also needs to adjust to the speed of the pro game, as well.
Still, there's no question that fans would rather see Manuel than Kolb - and it's likely that the team's front office would overwhelmingly favor that outcome sooner rather than later, as well. Again: the question probably isn't if Manuel will start in 2013, but when.
This battle will be the talk of the town come Sunday evening and early next week, when we'll have a much better idea of how the new coaching staff plans on splitting up practice and pre-season game reps between these two players. For now, we'll ask you one last time: do you expect to see Kolb or Manuel on the field come Week 1?