By Paul Wanecski
Coming out of college, it is not mystery why EJ Manuel was the top target at the Quarterback position for the Buffalo Bills in the 2013 draft. The Bills had already traded down once to obtain the 16th selection they used to pick Manuel and they could have traded down again; they did field offers for the pick but ultimately decided that they didn’t want to drop any further. The next QB selected was Geno Smith (West Virginia) by the Jets, 23 spots later. After that it was Mike Glennon (N.C.State) in Tampa Bay, 34 picks after Smith and 57 picks after Manuel. It was not a heralded class of Quarterbacks. Why were these 3 the first selected in that draft and was Manuel just that much better of a prospect to have been taken so early?
First off, Manuel came from a system that had integrated several things that are required of an NFL starting QB. Basically, his college offense was more “pro-style” than the other QBs he was compared against. Smith ran a spread offense at West Virginia and so did Glennon at N.C. State (Russell Wilson actually transferred out of N.C. State to Wisconsin that ran a pro-style system). As we have seen even in the 2015 NFL draft, coming from a system that integrates pro-style elements compared to a spread offense can be the tipping point between being the first QB selected versus the second.
Peter King on MMQB had obtained information from an unnamed league executive that had ranked his team’s top 14 QBs that had been available the last few years in the draft. Comparing only the scouting reports and eliminating what we know of their NFL performance, the list is very interesting to look at when you compare spread vs. pro style QBs coming out of college. The team remained anonymous and scouting reports are subjective, but it is still very interesting to debate how “Team X” had these players ranked.
From Luck to Ponder, Team X’s Top 14:
1. Andrew Luck - Pro
2. Jameis Winston - Pro
3. Robert Griffin III - Spread
4. Cam Newton - Spread
5. Blaine Gabbert - Spread
6. Marcus Mariota - Spread
7. Ryan Tannehill - Pro
8. Blake Bortles - Spread
9. Jake Locker - Spread
10. Teddy Bridgewater - Pro
11. EJ Manuel - Pro
12. Johnny Manziel - Spread
13. Brandon Weeden - Spread
14. Christian Ponder –Pro
Out of the 14 QBs listed, six are from pro style offenses. Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Teddy Bridgewater, EJ Manuel, Jamies Winston and Christian Ponder. Only one of them is not currently a starting QB. Manuel is the incumbent starter for the Bills, but even if you remove him, the list of players isn’t all that poor. Of course, Winston has to prove if he was worth the 1st overall selection in 2015, but that is a topic for another day. Interestingly enough, Winston, Ponder and Manuel all were drafted from the same college, Florida State University.
The remaining QBs that came from a spread offense have been much less successful. Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles, Jake Locker, Johnny Manziel, and Brandon Weeden. Among this list, Griffin III is the incumbent starter on the edge of his last season in Washington, Bortles has just completed his first year in the NFL which definitely could have been better (he led the league with being sacked 55 times and finished with the 3rd most interceptions at 17), Locker retired, Weeden lost his starting roll with the Browns and is now the back up in Dallas, Manziel is the back up in Cleveland and Mariota has yet to take an NFL snap. That leaves Cam Newton, who with all his physical tools has yet to put together a season that would propel him anywhere near ranking in the top 10 players at his position.
If you think that his head coach was the reason Manuel was drafted so high, think again. The grooming of QBs received from Jimbo Fisher, who had Ponder, Manuel, Matt Flynn (2008), JaMarcus Russell (2007), Matt Mauck (2004), Craig Nall (2002), Rohan Davey (2002) and Josh Booty (2001) to his credit is really not an impressive list. It was the system that gave him an advantage. Manuel’s physical tools speak for themselves. If he were in the 2014 draft, he would have had the biggest hands of that QB class. QBs are more than just measurable. The Bills were said to be interested in Sean Mannion and Garrett Grayson in the 2015 draft. Both played a pro-style offense. The only spread QB that you heard mentioned was Bryce Petty. Concerns over the depth of next year’s draft class are already surfacing. The player to watch (that you may never have heard of) is Carson Wentz from North Dakota State. He too has NFL measurable and comes from a pro-style offense.
Matt Waldman on FootballOutsiders.com had this to say about what happened to Manuel in the Houston Texans game last season that sums up his ultimate loss of the starting role:
It's not always easy to pinpoint exactly why a quarterback gets benched, but EJ Manuel's case is a little more clear cut. The Bills' starting quarterback was 0-for-8 on throws to the intermediate range of the field between the hash marks. Only one of these throws appeared to be the fault of a receiver -- in the case of Robert Woods' slow reaction to turn look for the ball after his break. The rest were egregiously inaccurate in every direction: too wide of target; too far behind the receiver; and also sailing over the intended man. The Bills offense is a short passing game in concept and there are a lot of screen passes and short targets to the perimeter to stretch the field horizontally. It makes these intermediate targets in the middle of the field very important to keep the defense honest. Otherwise, the opposition can sit on routes and send pressure to disrupt the timing.
Manuel also made two crucial mistakes that cost Buffalo the game in a close contest that the Bills could have won. The first was a rushed throw to the flat that lacked enough touch when Manuel saw J.J. Watt coming free from the edge. The defensive end didn't have to do more than reach for the flat-trajectory throw for a pick-six. Manuel's second interception came on the second of two late fourth-quarter drives that could have put Buffalo ahead -- a ball he sailed over the seam that didn't account for the safety. This is an elementary consideration that Manuel failed to take into account.
The Bills staff may sense that they have enough talent to contend in a muddy AFC East and Kyle Orton might be a better match in terms of staying on the same page with young receivers -- especially with his timing and accuracy in the middle of the field. As a prospect, Manuel was a physical talent with a lot to learn about the fine points of the game, but few major flaws to untangle when it comes to fundamentals to throwing the football. So far, it appears Manuel is rushing his process, which has some to do with the Bills' pass protection.
Is there a chance he could develop? Sure, but in today's era patience is short. Manuel has all the physical tools, but his conceptual approach has lacked consistency and this is the ultimate difference between a good college option and a quality NFL starter. If Manuel earns another opportunity in 2014 and can't make good on it, don't count on him earning a third opportunity as a long-term option somewhere else.
So before anyone gets mad at the Buffalo Bills for the “waste” of a 1stround pick that was invested in Manuel, it was a well-researched investment. He lacked major mechanical issues, battled accuracy issues but didn’t lack the football IQ that said things weren’t fixable. It was a smart-money investment. You do need to ask yourself, “would any QB really have been productive?” After two lost seasons, we have to see if that investment can finally pay off.