The Buffalo Bills surprised plenty of people when they made EJ Manuel the first quarterback drafted this year, at No. 16 overall. They are not waiting to find out if that was the right choice.
The team announced this morning that Manuel will start in Sunday's season opener against the Patriots -- a daunting test against the division's perceived favorite. Manuel needed minor knee surgery following Buffalo's second preseason game, and "the athletic training staff and coaches put Manuel through a battery of tests over the past few days with the primary focus on his mobility," reported Chris Brown on the Bills' official website.
The health of Manuel's knee was the only obstacle standing between the rookie and a Week 1 start, with veteran Kevin Kolb already on injured reserve due to a concussion. Had Manuel not been able to go against the Patriots, undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel would have gotten the nod.
Buffalo surely prefers this course instead, no matter how rocky Manuel's early days as an NFL starter may be.
Manuel did perform well in two preseason outings, completing 16-of-21 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown against Indianapolis and 10-of-12 for 92 yards and a TD vs. Minnesota. The gameplan for Manuel, and thus the pressure on him, was kept fairly limited in those outings -- most of Manuel's passes were short, safe tosses. The strategy may not change much against the Patriots, with new coach Doug Marrone opting to get the ball out of Manuel's hands and into those of his team's playmakers like C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson.
What Manuel does bring to the table, at least compared to Kolb or Tuel, is the ability to pick up yardage with his legs. He is not, say, Robert Griffin III in terms of mobility, but Manuel certainly has enough athleticism to keep some designed QB runs or options on the table. That is, if Marrone and his staff feel like gambling on Manuel as a runner with only Tuel behind him on the depth chart.
Even with Kolb present and healthy, Buffalo may have turned to Manuel from the outset. This franchise has been searching for a top-flight quarterback for years, arguably at least since Drew Bledsoe was under center from 2002-04; the last Buffalo QB to take this team to the playoffs was Doug Flutie, in 1999.
Marrone and new GM Doug Whaley made Manuel their first draft pick as Buffalo's head men, opting for the promising Florida State product over such fellow QBs as Geno Smith, Matt Barkley and Marrone's former player at Syracuse, Ryan Nassib. Manuel also was the only Round 1 pick in what was perceived to be a weak quarterback draft class.
The book on Manuel heading into the draft was that he has loads of talent, but may need some time to get up to speed as an NFL quarterback. Though he completed 68 percent of his passes last year with the Seminoles, Manuel also tossed 10 interceptions and often seemed flustered by pressure in the pocket.
New England figures to bring a little extra heat on Manuel Sunday, just to see how far he's progressed in a few short months. The Patriots took both games from Buffalo last season, including a 52-28 romp at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Week 4. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw four interceptions in that game, then threw another pick and lost a fumble in a 37-31 loss at New England later in the year. The Bills are not asking Manuel to work miracles. Simply showing a little promise for a brighter future would be enough.