By now, you've heard that the Buffalo Bills will start Thad Lewis at quarterback in the team's regular season finale in New England, meaning that the rookie season for EJ Manuel is likely over. Said rookie season included ten starts - the Bills were 4-6 in those games - 1,972 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions, two rushing scores, and a quarterback rating of 77.7.
Manuel became the first quarterback the Bills had ever taken with their top first-round pick in franchise history this past April, then emerged as the team's opening-day starter despite missing the final two games of the preseason with a knee injury. That was a theme all year for Manuel, who missed a four-game stretch between Weeks 6-9 with another knee injury, then the final two weeks of the season with a knee sprain. Surely, his injury concerns will headline most off-season discussions about the quarterback, with his draft status soon to follow.
But let's forget about the politics of being a first-round pick and the issues that several injuries caused for a little while. We all know that the Bills aren't very likely (read: not at all likely) to abandon their project quarterback after one season. What should matter most of all is how Manuel played when he was in the lineup - what his strengths were, where his weaknesses held him back, and what he needs to work on most as he begins preparing to lead this team into the 2014 season (and if we're lucky, well beyond).
What you see below is the result of many hours of tedious study of Manuel's game via the NFL Game Rewind service, which offers All-22 and end zone angles to more thoroughly analyze the game. It's worth pointing out that, even with harder evidence about players, schemes and teams sitting there in front of us through this valuable tool, it's still possible that two (or more) intelligent people can watch the same tape and see things completely differently. As such, treat this study of Manuel as an opinion piece, because that's what it is - one fan's opinion on where Manuel stands after one year in the league.
Below, Manuel's game is broken down into four categories - pocket ability, accuracy, reads and throws of note - with several themes identified within those areas. Each theme corresponds to a set of slides in the category's photo gallery, four of which are embedded in this post, but are also viewable by clicking on the section header. Each All-22 still is captioned with a breakdown of that specific play; simply hover your mouse over the photo to see it. If you're reading this on a mobile device, you'll have better luck viewing the galleries in landscape mode, but your best experience will be to read this post on a bigger screen.
- WEEK 2: Manuel ducks under the arms of a blitzer, then escapes out of the pocket to his right to turn a sack into a positive play.
- WEEK 2: On Buffalo's game-winning drive, Manuel avoided pressure and falling to the turf to get the ball to a back on a dump-off to stop the clock.
- WEEK 3: Manuel escapes the grasp of a barely-blocked defensive lineman, moves to his left, sets his feet, sees nobody open, and then takes off upfield for a first-down run.
- WEEK 14: Manuel hangs in the pocket until the last possible moment. When his guard is finally beaten, he rolls to his right and picks up positive yardage.
- WEEK 14: In the face of pressure, Manuel evades unblocked defenders, keeps his knees off the ground and fires a crazy-difficult throw-away out of bounds, past the line of scrimmage, to avoid taking a loss.
- WEEK 15: Manuel slides up and to his left to avoid an unblocked blitzer, then runs through the vacated gap for positive yardage. He exhibited great pocket presence on this play.
- WEEK 1: Chandler Jones breaks through unblocked, and Manuel is able to spin out of his grasp to the left.
- WEEK 4: Again in the face of a rusher, Manuel spins out of his grasp. Fred Jackson moves to the left with Manuel for a short dump-off.
- WEEK 5: You'll remember this play. Manuel sees the left side of the line collapse, escapes with a spin move, and runs for a first down. He was injured at the end of this run.
- WEEK 10: Same story. Blocker is beaten, Manuel spins out of the grasp and runs for a first down.
- WEEK 10: This time, the rusher comes free off the edge, and Manuel utilizes the spin move to avoid a sack and throw the ball away.
- WEEK 11: Noting that the left guard isn't able to nullify a bull rush, Manuel spins out of trouble yet again.
- WEEK 13: Yet again, the left side of the line has collapsed, and Manuel is left to spin out of trouble.
- WEEK 14: At the last possible second, Manuel spins out of the grasp of a free rusher, keeps his knees out of the dirt, and picks up positive yardage on the ground.
- WEEK 14: Finally, a team picks up on this tendency. A blitzer gets free, Manuel spins to his left, and falls into the waiting arms of a defender essentially playing run game contain.
- WEEK 14: Manuel spins and rolls to his left when he likely could have reset his feet and stayed in the pocket. The rollout leads his receiver into a big hit from Darrelle Revis.
- WEEK 1: Manuel steps through edge traffic, but rather than reset his feet and throw downfield - say, to the deep threat with a step (circled in yellow) - he takes off running.
- WEEK 1: Spurred by an edge rusher that Erik Pears has moved upfield, Manuel doesn't reset his feet, which could yield a throw to the slot receiver at the second level. Instead, he checks down on the run.
- WEEK 2: After again stepping up into the pocket, Manuel misses a window throw up the left sideline as he stays in running mode and picks up a minimal gain.
- WEEK 3: Same story. Steps up. Doesn't reset his feet. Misses an opportunity to either hit the window in the end zone, or check down to his left. Runs for a minimal gain.
- WEEK 3: In a clean pocket, Manuel has already started to vacate when he has Scott Chandler sitting down in zone coverage, wide open.
- WEEK 3: The problem here isn't necessarily that Manuel vacates; it's that he vacates away from the play side of the field. He has no chance to make anything happen escaping that way.
- WEEK 4: Manuel has an opportunity to step up into the pocket here and either try to hit a window to the sideline or throw it away. Instead, he retreats in the pocket, and is stripped from behind.
- WEEK 4: Another example of Manuel vacating a perfectly clean pocket. His likely reason for doing so: a lack of trust in two backs picking up a blitzer, which you can see directly in front of him as he begins to roll out.
- WEEK 4: Manuel has two receiving options in single coverage converging to the middle of the field if he simply drifts to his left long enough to set his feet and fire.
- WEEK 5: This is another example of Manuel retreating backward. The pocket is breaking down here, but moving backwards is never advisable in a league with elite edge rushers.
- WEEK 5: As the left guard is beaten, Manuel steps up. One step to his left yields a throwing lane to his tight end as he clears the zone defender.
- WEEK 11: This still was snapped just as Manuel began creeping forward as he read the right side of the field. He missed Robert Woods breaking to the corner for a potential score because of the unnecessary movement in a clean pocket.
- WEEK 14: Instead of hitting the open slant, Manuel steps toward an unblocked Bucs rusher and is stuffed for no gain.
- WEEK 14: Here, you'd like to see him stand pat and hit the already-open curl route. Instead, he's drifting to his left already and has no shot to make a quality throw downfield.
- WEEK 15: Manuel doesn't have much happening to his right - his best shot is probably a check-down to the back - but he also has a clean pocket. He doesn't need to run to his left.
- WEEK 2: Manuel decides to stand in the pocket, take a hit and try to throw to the open in route downfield. The problem: he keeps the ball away from his body, and he ends up fumbling.
- WEEK 15: There's nothing worthwhile happening downfield here; the Bills are covered up. Manuel needs to tuck this ball and take the sack. Instead, the ball's away from his body and he fumbles.
- WEEK 3: Manuel steps up into the pocket and identifies a worthwhile one-on-one deep downfield. The problem: he throws off one foot, resulting in a wildly inaccurate throw.
- WEEK 4: On a deep shot that was open, Manuel rolls out of a clean pocket into pressure, ends up throwing off of one foot, and the underthrown ball is picked off.
- WEEK 10: With plenty of time to set his feet and deliver, Manuel instead throws off his tiptoes and misses an open Stevie Johnson underneath.
- WEEK 10: Manuel has two choices here - set your feet, throw and take a hit, or throw on the run. Quarterbacks should always set their feet when they have the opportunity to.
- WEEK 10: There's enough space to the sideline on Scott Chandler's route that Manuel can step up, reset his feet and deliver. Instead, he throws as he's trying to evade, resulting in an incompletion.
- WEEK 11: Drifting away from blind side pressure, Manuel doesn't set his feet and badly overthrows an open Chris Hogan in the end zone.
- WEEK 13: If Manuel stops and sets his feet, he has a pretty easy throw to Stevie Johnson. He keeps rolling instead, takes a whale of a hit, and misses a down after being looked at by trainers.
- WEEK 13: This is essentially a throwaway, but only because Manuel doesn't give himself an opportunity for a more accurate throw by setting his feet.
- WEEK 15: Set your feet. Throw to a wide open Stevie Johnson. Score six points.
- WEEK 2: A rare example of Manuel re-setting his feet after initial pocket movement, then delivering a strike to an open receiver.
- WEEK 3: Manuel drifts in the pocket, gets his feet back under him, then steps into an easy pitch-and-catch to Chandler to move the sticks.
1-6: Escapability. It's important to start with Manuel's athletic ability, because it's the basis for everything we see on film. Manuel really is an excellent athlete, capable of doing things many other quarterbacks aren't. These are examples of his ability to maneuver out of tight spots to avoid negative plays.
7-16: The spin move. Even the most casual of observers has likely noticed by now that Manuel favors a spin move to his left to avoid blind-side pressure. He's used it a lot this year - including on the play that cost him four games with a knee injury - and teams are starting to cotton on to the fact that he routinely uses it.
17-31: Early exits. A byproduct of Manuel's athletic ability, there are many examples of him leaving the pocket too early and either missing receivers downfield or not letting plays develop long enough. This section of the gallery covers those plays; you may notice Manuel dropping his hips to run, and the ball dropping below waist level, in many of these stills. That's a habit that coaching should be able to break, but it cost Manuel several throwing opportunities this season.
32-33: Ball security. It's easy to see that the Bills coached Manuel up to be conservative with the football as a rookie, but there were still a couple of examples of Manuel being far too cavalier with the football in his hands. These two plays in particular stood out; we can all agree, however, that two plays out of several hundred is hardly a big issue.
34-42: Poor footwork. Again, building off of Manuel's athleticism and escapability, there are many cases in which he relies too much on his natural ability. These stills focus on his feet, and how often he does not set them when he's moved off his initial spot. Too often, Manuel will throw on the run or off of one foot when he has time to gather himself and throw a more accurate ball. Again, this is something that can be coached to a certain extent.
43-44: Resets. On occasion, Manuel did find the time to gather his feet under him after initial pressure and make a good throw downfield. That typically happened when an outlet receiver was right in front of him.
In summary: Manuel senses initial pressure well - even from the blind side - and has more than enough athletic ability to avoid it. Where he seems to struggle is feeling things out after he's moved off his spot, and re-composing himself to make throws downfield. The latter can be coached, and should be a major point of emphasis for the coaches this off-season - they need to slow Manuel down just a hair when he goes into improvise mode. The former - his intuition when the play breaks down - is a slightly bigger cause for concern, as that seems like something a player either has or doesn't. Manuel needs to work on staying alive in the pocket before freelancing, and being cognizant of resetting his feet to make throws downfield. If he can pull those simple adjustments off, he'll be a significantly better pocket passer in 2014.
- WEEK 15: Manuel airmails a simple screen pass - due in part to the defender cutting underneath C.J. Spiller - and the ball sails right into the hands of a Jaguar.
- WEEK 1: Manuel throws a low ball on a flare to Fred Jackson out of the backfield; Jackson makes an outstanding catch to pick up positive yardage.
- WEEK 3: Fred Jackson is forced to reach back for the ball on a flare out of the backfield, resulting in some lost momentum as he heads upfield.
- WEEK 15: On a designed quick screen to Stevie Johnson, Manuel throws too high and the ball sails out of bounds for a two-yard loss.
- WEEK 15: With his receiver working back to the middle of the field, Manuel throws too far upfield, negating any momentum the screen might have accomplished.
- WEEK 15: Finally, later in the road game in Jacksonville, Manuel throws a well-spotted flare pass to Jackson out of the backfield for a solid gain.
- WEEK 4: Stevie Johnson is running a slant route into green space, but Manuel's throw is too far behind him.
- WEEK 5: Under pressure, Manuel shortens his throwing motion to get the ball out on time, and ends up airmailing Johnson. This pass deflected into the waiting arms of Scott Chandler for a first down.
- WEEK 10: Throwing an in-breaking route, Manuel throws behind the receiver (blue circle) when he should lead him (yellow circle), resulting in an incompletion.
- WEEK 10: Chris Hogan is wide open on a slant, and does a great job hauling in a throw from Manuel that is high and behind him.
- WEEK 14: Johnson is running an in-breaking route, and once again Manuel has thrown behind him, resulting in a loose ball in the secondary.
- WEEK 3: Manuel reads the secondary's leverage correctly and leads Scott Chandler back to the middle of the field, but the throw is low and Chandler can't make the grab.
- WEEK 4: Manuel throws early and behind Stevie Johnson, who is forced into this interesting pose as he brings in a pass that could've netted first down yardage.
- WEEK 2: On a deep in-breaking route, Manuel misses a wide open Stevie Johnson with a throw too far inside. Johnson can't get a hand on it as he dives.
- WEEK 3: Robert Woods is breaking to the sideline right along the 40 here. Manuel's throw should hit the yellow circle. It hits the blue circle.
- WEEK 5: As his receiver breaks to the sideline, Manuel's throw is behind the target, allowing the defensive back to make a play on the ball.
- WEEK 11: Manuel's throw on an out route to Chandler is a hair too far outside, and not even the lanky Chandler can complete the catch.
- WEEK 13: Manuel throws wide of Chandler on another out-breaking route - and this time, he's lucky that an Atlanta defender can't complete what should be an easy interception.
- WEEK 13: On another out-breaking route, Manuel throws behind his target, and a Falcons defender is able to break up the pass with ease.
- WEEK 14: Scott Chandler crosses the field and has a bit of separation, but Manuel's intentionally high throw is a bit too high, resulting in an incompletion.
- WEEK 2: Scott Chandler is wide open up the seam. All Manuel needs to do is put the ball into the blue circle for a relatively easy score. His pass is high and behind, and nobody has a shot to make a play on the ball.
- WEEK 3: Under pressure, Manuel tries to throw a crossing pattern to Johnson, but the ball skips in like a flat rock on a pond.
- WEEK 4: It's tough to tell if Manuel was trying to hit Lee Smith on the out route or Woods further up the field.
- WEEK 2: Manuel tries to drop a ball between the corner and the safety. He's high and wide, and nobody has a shot at the ball.
- WEEK 3: In the face of a blitz, Manuel throws a fade up the right sideline to Robert Woods. The ball lands out of bounds. Woods can't make a play on the ball.
- WEEK 3: Woods is again running a go route up the sideline as the Jets blitz. Manuel's throw doesn't land anywhere near the field of play.
- WEEK 3: This time it's T.J. Graham running the fade, and it's the same story - the ball is so far out of bounds that Graham can't even track it properly in the air.
- WEEK 3: One more time, Manuel's throw is high and wide on a fade. Here, the ball lands on the opposite side of the thick white sideline stripe.
- WEEK 10: On a third and goal, Manuel checks to a fade to Stevie Johnson versus one-on-one coverage, then proceeds to throw the ball several yards over his head and out of bounds.
- WEEK 3: Manuel recognizes a single-high Jets safety and hits Stevie Johnson up the sideline. The problem: his pass sails into the blue circle, forcing Johnson to make a toe-tapping catch on the sideline with no YAC potential.
- WEEK 3: T.J. Graham has a step on a Jets cornerback, but Manuel can't get enough on the throw, and Graham has to fight back through the defender to break up the pass.
- WEEK 13: Johnson has beaten his man upfield, but Manuel's go throw is a touch too long and too wide toward the sideline. Incomplete pass.
- WEEK 13: Johnson has another step heading upfield, and Manuel's pass sails a bit. He can only get one hand on the ball.
- WEEK 13: Marquise Goodwin is held up a bit by a Falcons defender, but even Goodwin might not have been fast enough to track this throw down.
- WEEK 13: On yet another play, the Bills got a receiver upfield against single coverage versus Atlanta, only for Manuel to sail the throw a bit too far to the sideline.
1-6: Screen placements. On shorter throws, Manuel struggled with placement in particular on throws to the flat out of the backfield, but occasionally on traditional screens, as well. He often threw high or too far upfield on these patterns, resulting in several risky throws and ugly incompletions.
7-13: Slant placements. These throws are a staple in nearly every NFL offense, and to his credit Manuel hit a lot of them in his rookie season, as he was expected to. When he missed, he was typically behind receivers, throwing high, or a combination of both.
14-23: Horizontal placement. Many of Manuel's best throws in his rookie season came up the seam, either on in-breaking or out-breaking routes, where horizontal placement is at a premium. It was on those throws that Manuel was at his deadliest, and the passing offense looked most in rhythm. Here, however, you can see that Manuel left many more similar opportunities on the field with spotty ball placement.
24-35: Vertical placement. By the time his season was over, Manuel's inaccuracy on fade patterns, in particular, had become something of a running joke among Bills fans. In truth, Manuel cleaned up his accuracy fairly considerably on deeper throws as the season went on, but this is a run-through of how and where he was missing these throws, anyway.
In summary: Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett told The Buffalo News during the season that they needed to work on raising Manuel's completion percentage. That would be a good start, as would cleaning up Manuel's bad pocket habits, which would increase the number of accurate throws he's making by a sound margin. For every perfectly-spotted pass he throws, however, there are another three, at least, that are off target by just enough to miss an opportunity, or by a significant margin. His completion percentage can (and likely will) rise, but Manuel probably won't ever be considered one of the league's most accurate passers.
- WEEK 2: In a clean pocket, Manuel checks down just as a receiver breaks into an available window up the sideline.
- WEEK 4: With pressure bearing down on him, Manuel pulls the trigger a hair early. Stevie Johnson isn't ready for the ball, and it bounces off his chest for an incompletion.
- WEEK 10: Manuel has a clean pocket. Before route combinations even complete on both sides of the field, Manuel is checking down underneath to C.J. Spiller.
- WEEK 10: Manuel is late pulling the trigger on an open route to Stevie, so he instead checks down to Fred Jackson in the flat.
- WEEK 13: Clean pocket. Receiver running an in to a large, vacant portion of the field. Manuel throws short underneath to Chandler.
- WEEK 14: Marquise Goodwin will be open at the 30-yard line on a curl, and Chandler is open as well. Manuel throws the flare out to Jackson instead.
- WEEK 14: Manuel has time to see if Chandler will sit in the zone, and he can also come back across the field to Woods. Instead, he throws the flare for a minimal gain.
- WEEK 2: Read the outside corner. If he squats, as happens here, throw the out. This throw was intercepted.
- WEEK 5: On a designed rollout, Manuel locks onto his first read and throws to a covered Jackson. His second read was wide open over the middle.
- WEEK 5: Manuel skips a pass off of Lee Smith's hands here, but the bigger window is to the left, where Stevie Johnson is breaking free.
- WEEK 5: Manuel has time in the pocket and his pick of any out-breaking route here. He chooses the safe option (worth noting: the play did move the chains, but it was second down).
- WEEK 10: After his initial read (the slant to the right) is jammed up, Manuel can't get his head back around to his middle options fast enough.
- WEEK 14: Unfazed by the jam and the good leverage in the secondary, Manuel throws to the receiver in red instead of waiting for Chandler (or anyone else, for that matter) to come free. This ball was tipped and picked off.
- WEEK 4: A rare moment of pocket hesitance from Manuel. Stevie's open, EJ. Throw the ball.
- WEEK 13: Another moment of hesitance. Manuel's looking right at Scott Chandler, who is wide open. Toss the rock.
- WEEK 13: Manuel is already late on a curl route to Robert Woods, who is wide open. C.J. Spiller has some space on the checkdown, and there's a shot at Chandler in the middle as well. Manuel retreats, rolls out, and the play breaks down.
- WEEK 1: The Pats show blitz, and Manuel reads hot to Chandler - which is exactly what the Pats expected. Steve Gregory nearly picks this pass off. Stevie was wide open in the slot.
- WEEK 2: There's no pressure. Stevie is about to slip into the yellow area as the best shot at score. Manuel throws to Chandler into double coverage instead.
- WEEK 4: With two open options to the right, Manuel takes a stab at T.J. Graham downfield into double coverage. Of all of Manuel's iffy reads, this was by leaps and bounds the most forgivable.
- WEEK 14: Manuel completely misses a blitz from Darrelle Revis off the right side and takes a sack.
- WEEK 14: Manuel misreads the leverage of the secondary, throwing into a contested lane with a receiver breaking open behind the throw.
- WEEK 14: Against a very basic zone coverage, Manuel throws up the seam to where the middle linebacker is running, rather than up the opposite seam.
- WEEK 14: Manuel assumes that the trail cornerback will fall off the route and take the out route at the sticks. The corner doesn't, and intercepts Manuel's worst throw of the season.
- WEEK 10: On Manuel's worst decision of the year, he haphazardly throws deep into double coverage when his receiver has no chance of making it past the coverage. This was an easy pick for Pittsburgh.
1-7: Check-downs. Remember the early exits portion of our look at Manuel in the pocket? Those aren't the only early exits he committed; he also checked down too quickly on multiple occasions throughout the season, leaving opportunities for bigger and more significant plays on the field. This is something that most young quarterbacks do, and if Manuel has the good fortune of staying in the same offense with the same coaches for a good chunk of time, these will likely fade away.
8-13: Read transitions. Any rookie quarterback will also miss reads. That's a given - particularly with how defenses like to toss new wrinkles at young guns to try to confuse them into mistakes. Buffalo countered with a lot of simplified, half-field reads for Manuel throughout the season, and his style of play was fairly conservative, as well. These stills focus on fairly simple reads that Manuel missed, with an emphasis on those where he struggled to move to his next read with enough time to do so.
14-16: Hesitancy. Another byproduct of playing a young quarterback: instances in which the player doesn't pull the trigger quickly enough on something he's seeing. These, too, are plays that should become less frequent as he gains playing experience.
17-24: Misreads, bad decisions. A missed read is not always a bad thing - for example, there's a still in here where Manuel throws deep to a speed receiver that's technically double-covered, but who has a shot at a big play. That incompletion is a play that's easily forgiven. Many of these are not - especially the bad decisions (which, mercifully, he kept to a minimum this season).
In summary: Quite often, the Bills kept things simple for Manuel by either rolling him out (that's a designed half-field read that any quarterback in the NFL can run) or flooding half of the field with receiving targets at multiple levels to make Manuel's progressions happen faster. When they took the training wheels off, Manuel saw the whole field well, but there were times when he did not make it very far through his progressions because of his aforementioned antsy tendencies in the pocket (or just flat-out bad protection). Near the end of the season, head coach Doug Marrone was telling reporters that after several weeks of giving him more of the offense, they'd be scaling things back again for Manuel. Playing experience, a better rapport with his receivers and more time in the offense will speed up his progressions, and misreads and bad decisions can become less frequent, as well. For now, this looks like the area of Manuel's game that will take the most time to progress, because it didn't progress much in his first ten starts.
- WEEK 1: In the face of pressure, Manuel keeps his feet under him, steps into his throw, and throws a strike to a receiver that hasn't turned his head yet. This throw set up Manuel's first career touchdown.
- WEEK 2: On a game-winning touchdown toss to Stevie Johnson, Manuel throws under duress before Johnson has turned to look for the ball.
- WEEK 4: This is an incompletion, but it's still noteworthy - the throw came with his feet under him, under pressure, and well-placed over a zone defender. The throw was just a bit too wide for Robert Woods.
- WEEK 4: Manuel throws the comeback to Woods, who isn't out of his break yet, and keeps the ball wide enough so that Terrell Suggs (red arrow) can't get a hand on it.
- WEEK 5: In the face of a completely unblocked Barkevious Mingo, Manuel steps into a back-shoulder throw to Woods, who again isn't out of his break yet. This play set up a long C.J. Spiller touchdown run on the next play.
- WEEK 11: Recognizing no safety help, Manuel unleashes a perfect deep ball before Marquise Goodwin even has a step on his man.
- WEEK 15: It's an easy read, but Manuel nonetheless throws the ball under a bit of duress before Woods is out of his break.
- WEEK 3: On a touchdown toss to Scott Chandler, Manuel holds linebacker David Harris in place for as long as possible before lofting the ball up the seam to Chandler.
- WEEK 5: Manuel knows the route and sees the cornerback playing inside leverage, but is still unwilling to pull the trigger until after Woods has made his break.
- WEEK 10: On a curl to Stevie Johnson, Manuel doesn't make the throw until Johnson is out of his break. This ball should have been intercepted, but the Steelers defender dropped it.
- WEEK 10: On third down, Manuel is late on an out route, but justifiably, as he wanted to make sure that the corner outside didn't squat on the route.
- WEEK 15: Woods is breaking free again on an out route, but Manuel is just a hair later than ideal in making the throw.
- WEEK 3: On an out route, Manuel recognizes the defender playing underneath and throws a perfect ball to Chandler's upfield shoulder for a pretty completion.
- WEEK 4: Scott Chandler very nearly got his second foot down on this incompletion, but again you see Manuel throwing to the upfield shoulder with pinpoint accuracy.
- WEEK 4: Manuel throws a dart on a designed rollout that Robert Woods catches for a touchdown. The refs blew this one, calling it an incompletion.
- WEEK 15: Marquise Goodwin can't haul this one in as he takes a big hit, but Manuel threw a perfect pass, dropping the ball between the corner and the safety with precision.
- WEEK 11: Under duress, Manuel slides to his left, sets his feet, steps into his throw, and delivers a rope down the hash that Marquise Goodwin only just can't rake in.
- WEEK 11: The Jets have a free defender, but Manuel is unfazed. He steps into his throw and delivers a strike on an out route to Chris Hogan.
1-8: Anticipation. The best quarterbacks in the business are those that can throw a receiver open, either by leading them to an open area of the field or delivering the football on time, before they're out of their break, to make a defender as much of a non-factor as possible. Manuel did not do this often - he'd more often throw to an open receiver after his head was turned, or wait until a receiver had cleared a zone defender and turned his head before throwing - but when he did, it was often a thing of beauty. These slides are some of Manuel's best rookie season work.
9-12: Timing. Here, you'll see four examples of open throws where Manuel did not pull the trigger as quickly as he could have. The more he plays, and the more experience he accrues with his favorite receivers, the less frequently this will happen, in an ideal world.
13-16: Spots. For all of the inaccurate throws we covered earlier, Manuel made several beautiful throws this season - including these four gems, which exhibited pinpoint accuracy on difficult throws or against tricky coverages.
17-18: Pocket play. Sometimes, great balls come on routine plays. In the first still here, Manuel makes a great pocket play and throws an excellent deep ball, only for his receiver to come up short. In the second, he stands in the face of pressure and throws an open out pattern perfectly for a key third-down conversion. These are simple, fundamental plays that, if Manuel can start to make more of them, will more than make up for his various flaws.
In summary: These stills here are your best source of optimism for Manuel. It didn't happen often, but he was able to put it all together - pocket play, accuracy, and reads - on several occasions in 2013, and the results were almost always excellent.
Many of Manuel's flaws are coachable, most particularly his flaws in the pocket. That's where his progress will start; improvements there will lead to a higher count of accurate throws and faster progressions in his reads. Playing experience in the offense and with his group of receivers will help in other areas - the timing of throws and the reading of defenses, especially.
Other areas of his game may or may not get better. His feel for the game and improvisation skills as a passer once a play breaks down, his overall ability to consistently exhibit good ball placement, and his ability to scan the entire field quickly are things that can only be coached to a certain extent. If he can't make improvements in these areas that are more inherent than taught, then there's only so much more improvement that Manuel can make.
But there's very little doubt that the tools that the Bills invested in when they made Manuel a first-round pick are still present, and when wielded correctly are capable of producing high-level results. Whether or not Manuel ever reaches "franchise quarterback" standards shouldn't cloud the fact that, with a bit more time and a good off-season, Manuel has a chance to take a significant step forward in his second season simply by cleaning up some of the basics.