EJ Manuel's career is entering its third act; in it, he is facing another demotion after riding out training camp with a new coaching staff.
That's in spite of a preseason passing performance that ranked Manuel very highly among NFL quarterbacks, so what gives? Let's take a deep dive into Manuel's playing style, and explain what might make coaches hesitate before playing the former first-round pick.
Before we get going, let's recall the narrative that has followed Manuel this summer:
- Manuel, after being benched in 2014, made a vow to "let it rip" with the next chance he was given, rather than remain tentative.
- Kyle Orton retired, and a new regime brought in new quarterbacks, trading for 10-year veteran Matt Cassel and signed free agent Tyrod Taylor. Rex Ryan announced that there would be an open competition to determine the starter.
- As training camp began, Manuel was placed behind Cassel in the pecking order, and the daily reports suggested that all quarterbacks struggled with inconsistent throwing accuracy and field reading, especially Manuel.
- In spite of his reportedly inconsistent, up-and-down practices, which saw Manuel frequently relegated to the third team behind an improving Taylor, Manuel produced gaudy passing stats in his preseason game appearances, causing fans to take notice.
- After being awarded a surprise start versus Pittsburgh, Manuel did not earn the Week 1 starting job, which reportedly went down to the wire between Taylor and Cassel. Cassel was cut, suggesting that the coaches had faith in Manuel. Cassel was then re-signed and named the backup, relegating Manuel to the No. 3 job.
Manuel's pocket presence - which includes his decision-making, processing speed, and throwing mechanics from within the pocket - has been an issue since he was a draft prospect. In previous years, Manuel was often tentative, checking down to short routes far too often. He would fade backwards when pressured rather than stepping up in the pocket, and he rarely threw with his feet underneath him and his shoulders squared on the target. The results weren't pretty.
This year, Manuel has improved his presence - to an extent. When the pocket is clean around him, Manuel's mechanics are clean, and he delivers a catchable ball. He's reading the full field, and can see pressure as it approaches.
Manuel can even handle your every-day pressure with minimal issues. Above, he steps up in the pocket and delivers a strike for a 35-yard completion, even with the right tackle losing his battle. Still, it's not always rosy, and Manuel's instincts still lead him astray.
Taylor isn't the only Bills quarterback capable of taking a needless sack on third down. In Manuel's case, he was fortunate to have a fumble recovered by his teammate, and to be in the red zone facing a situation where he needed to try for a touchdown, because it eventually led to a good throw and a go-ahead score on fourth down.
The most noticeable difference in Manuel's game is that he is capable of "letting it rip" and taking shots down the field. I think the tentative play of the past is going to stay in the past, and that Manuel is ready to challenge a defense with intermediate and deep throws, which is very encouraging. In my opinion, a confident Manuel is a dangerous Manuel, and if he can translate that confidence to his running game (and tighten up his accuracy), he would nearly be Taylor's equal.
This is where Manuel has made his biggest strides from his previous two seasons as a passer. Manuel was frustratingly scattershot in 2013 and 2014, and his receivers were often digging balls out of the dirt or bending backwards just to make a reception. His ball placement has improved significantly, but it doesn't always fit into tight windows, and the inconsistency still flashes itself, usually when he has to vacate the pocket.
This touchdown throw to Tobais Palmer earned Manuel some kudos during Pittsburgh game, and it's a good connection, but this throw compares well to Taylor's failed touchdown pass from Week 2 of the preseason. Both throws were underthrown, but the Cleveland defender did a much better job adjusting to the throw than the Pittsburgh defender, so this one was a touchdown. Also, Taylor's throw was a shorter distance thrown at the end of the drop, while EJ had nearly four seconds to scan the field before firing deep.
This throw to Chris Gragg was an absolute beauty, and ranks right up there with Taylor's deep cross to Deonte Thompson from the week prior on my top throws of the preseason. Thrown from the pocket, under pressure, and it hits the receiver in stride. Manuel was not capable of this throw before this season. He has improved.
That being said, I don't know how often he'll be capable of that throw. Manuel has an issue with throwing passes that require touch, and still makes errors on a regular basis with those. He used to be terrible at throwing screen passes, and he still is inconsistent placing the ball for them. When throwing on the run, Manuel has difficulty keeping his feet under him and throwing with a clean arm action, as seen in the incompletion to Nick O'Leary against Carolina, and the throw above in the dirt to John Conner.
Before, Manuel's accuracy issues were a serious detriment to his game, and the biggest threat to his NFL career. Now, they're improved, but they still make an appearance, and all we can do is hope that enough grinding will fix them. Every quarterback will make off-target throws, but Manuel appears to commonly have trouble with specific types of throws, and that makes it difficult to game-plan with him.
This should be a well-known issue with Manuel: he is not an effective runner, especially in the read-option. Manuel simply doesn't trust himself enough to call his own number, and it allows defenses to key in on stopping the running back.
This play is one example. Cyrus Kouandjio (left tackle) is supposed to ignore the defensive end and lead block down the line. It's Manuel's job to either freeze the defensive end with a fake, or if the defensive end stays home and looks to the running back, Manuel needs to pull the ball and run with it. The cornerbacks are in man coverage, and the defense is shaded to the defensive left side. EJ can outrun this defensive end, and if he chooses to, he's stepping out of bounds with a 20-yard gain. Instead, he gives this play no chance.
Even when Manuel is scrambling with the ball, he doesn't look comfortable as a runner. Let's compare him with Taylor when he is flushed from the pocket. Taylor steps up, clutches the ball, then immediately tucks and runs, keeping his head on a swivel and heading for a lane. Manuel doesn't move as cleanly around defenders; he has speed, but doesn't anticipate the pressure as quickly. He also tends to hold the ball like a loaf of bread when he scrambles; it's no surprise that Manuel has fumbled a few times in the preseason.
By scouting Manuel solely from his preseason tape, we're working with an incomplete picture. Manuel has thrown 30 passes in the preseason, which equates to about one football game. To suggest that Manuel should be starting (or at least playing ahead of Cassel) solely because of his 20-of-30 passing, 358 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions (or even because of four or five of his specific passing plays and the actions that took place on film), is misguided. Only the coaches know why they called the plays they did, and we don't have enough context to know whether Manuel or Cassel were playing up to the potential that their situations allowed for. The coaches also have the benefit of dozens of practices that can be used to evaluate whether each quarterback is playing the right way - practices that can be closed to the media.
Manuel has become a better player in his third NFL season. That's a good thing, because rookie-version Manuel had a long way to go, and sophomore Manuel was barely improved. That being said, he's still not where he should be, and he can still benefit by staying on the bench and honing his craft, like he did this past year. It may not be the sexiest conclusion, but Manuel still hasn't shed his "project" label. Keep working, watch the tape, work on those throwing mechanics, and Manuel may yet become the franchise quarterback everyone is hoping for. For now, the bench is the right place for Manuel to be. It sets the stage for the training montage leading into Manuel's triumphant return to the field at the end of this third act, should that come.