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Second-year starter Manuel holds key to breakout season for Watkins, Bills

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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- As spectacular as Bills rookie receiver Sammy Watkins has been in the early days of his first NFL training camp, with one breathless media report following another, there’s an indisputable reality that looms over Buffalo’s 2014 season: As special as Watkins is, he can’t look great unless EJ Manuel at least looks good.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask the Bills’ second-year quarterback.

"Exactly," Manuel said. "That’s right. Unless I do my part, he can’t do his. No doubt about it."

Which is why Watkins could easily be the most talked-about and celebrated Bills player this season, but the one who matters the most -- and will have the biggest role in deciding Buffalo’s success or failure -- will again be Manuel, the guy who starts every play with the ball in his hands. Watkins is a fabulous addition to the Bills' attack and an early front-runner for the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award. But the story this season still begins with how far Manuel’s game progresses, so to fixate too much on the threat Watkins presents is a case of putting the cart before the horse.

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By any fair assessment, the early reviews this summer are decidedly mixed on Manuel, the former Florida State star, drafted 16th overall in 2013. His teammates, coaches and club officials universally laud the improvement they see in his second training camp and this offseason, citing his increased confidence, familiarity with the offense and enhanced leadership quotient.

But thus far in camp, the results have been spotty at best, including the offensively ragged practice I took in Saturday night at Bills camp, at St. John Fisher College in suburban Rochester. In that two-plus-hour session, Manuel looked indecisive and hesitant at times, often gave up too quickly on plays early in his progressions and still exhibited some accuracy issues. It’s that streakiness that inspires the murmurs and uncertainty from people on the periphery in Buffalo: They think and hope Manuel can be the Bills’ guy long-term, but they don’t know it yet. And 2014 shapes up as the pivotal time to get that question definitively answered.

To be fair, Manuel has had some solid days early in this year’s training camp, but he has also had a few too many practices where Buffalo’s current patchwork offensive line was dominated and frustrated by the Bills' talented defense front, the one featuring three 2013 Pro Bowl selections in Marcell Dareus, Mario Williams and Kyle Williams. Buffalo, which opens its preseason in Sunday night’s Hall of Fame Game against the Giants in Canton, Ohio, needs Manuel to even out those performances and start consistently pulling the trigger in a passing offense that has some playmaking firepower beyond Watkins’ obvious talents.

But Buffalo’s bold move up in May’s draft from No. 9 to No. 4 to get Watkins was all about Manuel’s development into a quarterback who can challenge a defense all over the field, and the task of maximizing Watkins’ No. 1 receiver impact rests largely on Manuel’s ability to see the field, read the defense and execute.

"One of the reasons we made the move for Sammy is we thought that would help EJ, and we’ve seen it in practice," Bills general manager Doug Whaley told me. "He’s making throws that he wouldn’t even try to attempt last year. The thing we’re seeing now is just his command of not only the offense, but the huddle. He’s gaining in confidence every day. And he feels more comfortable saying, ‘You know what? He [Watkins] may be covered, but I’m throwing it and giving him a chance to make a play.'"

Manuel’s willingness to cut it loose has undoubtedly been boosted by Watkins’ early string of highlight grabs, with the rookie from Clemson exhibiting a catch radius roughly the width of Niagara Falls. A clip of Watkins making a ridiculous one-handed reception early in camp went viral, and Manuel is discovering that he doesn’t have to be perfect when throwing in Watkins’ direction.

"You put the ball anywhere in his area code, he’s going to catch it," Manuel said. "I’ve seen him do the one-handed catch a couple times, actually. That’s just what he does. When he did it that day, you look up to God and say, 'Thank you, Jesus.' Honestly that’s what I did. It’s great knowing I’m his guy [quarterback]. Doug was right. There’s definitely a cut-it-loose factor because Sammy’s going to try and fight for every ball."

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The Bills are adamant that they do not expect Manuel to carry the offense this season, not after his rookie year was cut to just 10 games (4-6 as a starter) due to a series of three knee injuries. But there can’t be the gap between the Bills' No. 2-ranked running game and No. 28-ranked passing game like there was in 2013, not if Buffalo is intent on making this the year it finally snaps the NFL’s longest active playoff drought -- 14 years and counting since 2000.

The Bills love their three-headed backfield of C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson and ex-Eagle Bryce Brown, but Manuel and Buffalo’s passing game have to take the training wheels off, producing more than the 16 touchdown passes, 6.5 yards per attempt and 210.8 yards per game it provided last year.

"No doubt, throwing the ball vertically is going to be huge for us," Manuel said. "Obviously adding a guy like Sammy, who’s an electric talent, is a big part of that. But I think [second-year receiver] Robert Woods is another guy who can do the same thing. Obviously Sammy’s getting a lot of the attention, but I think Woods has been doing a great job as well this camp."

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With Steve Johnson traded to San Francisco this spring after the Watkins pick, Woods and fellow 2013 draft pick Marquise Goodwin need to take a sizable second-year step up in production. The Bills are also counting on enigmatic ex-Bucs receiver Mike Williams -- which has proven to be a risky proposition in the past -- after obtaining him from Tampa Bay for a sixth-round pick in April. Williams grew up in Buffalo and briefly played for Bills head coach Doug Marrone at Syracuse, and if his homecoming goes well, he could emerge as the team’s No. 2 receiver behind Watkins.

"EJ has the confidence of knowing what’s asked of him and what he’s supposed to do," Whaley said. "Now he knows the offense, he’s not learning it as he did as a rookie. He’s perfecting what he needs to do in the offense. And the best thing about us is we think we have so many playmakers around him that he doesn’t at this stage of his career have to carry us. We’re asking him to just do his part, just get it to the playmakers. Now, five years from now, it’s going to be EJ’s team and maybe we throw it 50 times a game. But we’re running the ball some now, so he just has to make the right decisions."

Sounds simple enough, but of course it’s not. Manuel took pretty good care of the football as a rookie, with just nine interceptions in 306 attempts, but he needs to strike a balance between good decision-making and pressing the issue downfield, and hopefully raise his completion percentage (58.8), yards per attempt (6.44), passing rating (77.7) and touchdown total (11) in the process.

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"As a rookie you don’t want to be known as a guy who turns the ball over, because that’s the worst label you can have: 'Oh, he throws a lot of interceptions,'" Manuel said. "So there are times when you want to be cautious. But at the same time, when you look at Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, those guys are taking chances and they trust their receivers. They trust them enough that they know they’re either going to go up and get it, even if it’s not necessarily a perfect pass, or they’ll knock it down so the defender can’t get it."

Bills fans and other observers may have their questions about Manuel’s ability to elevate his game after all they’ve seen at the position in the franchise’s post-Jim Kelly era, but Marrone said he hasn’t had a doubt about his franchise quarterback since watching him nearly beat New England in Week 1 at Buffalo last season (a 23-21 last-second Patriots victory).

"That first game was a big game for me," said Marrone, whose Bills went 6-10 in his rookie year as an NFL head coach, making it five consecutive double-digit loss seasons in Buffalo. “It’s the first game he’s ever played, against a team that’s won the division 10 out of 11 years, and it was never too big for him. We had the lead in that game late. I think right then I knew we had the opportunity to have something special.

"He’s much, much better than he was a year ago. He’s much improved and it’s not just because it’s a natural process to get better. He’s put the work in and at the end of the day I feel very comfortable with him, and very confident in him."

A fast start could do wonders for Manuel and a Bills offense still trying to establish an identity in the New England-dominated AFC East. Buffalo opens at Chicago but plays just one 2013 playoff team in the season’s first half: a home game against the Patriots in Week 6. After the opener, the Bills have four of their next six games at home, before the weather turns its nastiest and the passing game becomes more challenging.

"We’ve got all the faith in the world in EJ, even though every day is not going to be a perfect day," Spiller said. "I think he’s better -- no, I know he is, because I spent time with him over the summer preparing for camp, and I see the command he has of this offense. Whatever happens this season, I know he’s going to bounce back from his mistakes and be mentally tough series after series."

Watkins has all the buzz this summer, and he’s the Bills’ shiny new offensive toy. But it’s Manuel who still largely has Buffalo’s season in his hands. If he looks good and gets better in his second year, so too at last will the long-downtrodden Bills. That’s the way the NFL works, and Manuel is convinced both he and his team will surprise the skeptics this season.

"I do believe that, and I’m kind of excited about it," he said. "Because I kind of like having a little chip on my shoulder, and always have. Even when I first came out there was a bunch of doubt about me. But I’m looking forward to getting a full season under my belt and getting the job done. It’s time to show people what we can do."

Watkins is a can’t-miss star in the making, and he'll be a rookie sensation. But in Buffalo this season, the story still starts with Manuel.

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