PITTSFORD — Ask football fans what they think about the 2014 Buffalo Bills, and the answer will usually start with “Well, it depends on EJ Manuel..”
The Bills drafted Manuel 16th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, a selection some thought was a reach and could've happened a few rounds later.
The Florida State prospect had a rookie season of peaks and valleys. He threw 11 touchdowns and nine INT's for 1,972 yards, but suffered three separate knee injuries and missed six games.
He had additional surgery on his left knee as recently as January in hopes for a fully healthy 2014 season.
Manuel, a right handed quarterback, relies on his left knee as he steps into throws, leaving it exposed for further issues. But Manuel, like other quarterbacks throughout the league, said he plans on wearing a knee brace for the rest of his career.
How much improvement he shows could be the difference between another six-win season for Buffalo or a shot at the playoffs, a place the Bills haven't been since 1999.
“I think the offense as a whole really revolves around EJ and his development,” second-year wide receiver Robert Woods said. "I think he progressed a lot from his first year, with all the offseason training and this whole camp should be an example of how hard he’s worked. He’s handled a lot of adversity and is starting to play well.”
Woods caught 40 balls and scored three touchdowns in his rookie season.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, some say, and a team will only go as far as its QB takes them. So GM Doug Whaley surrounded him with weapons, and tried to take some of the pressure of his quarterback.
“(Manuel) doesn’t have to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders and he has to go out and win," Whaley told reporters earlier in training camp. "We’ve surrounded him with some people where, if he does his job, we should be okay."
Buffalo originally had the No. 9 selection in this past May's NFL Draft, but swapped picks with the Cleveland Browns and drafted wideout stud Sammy Watkins with the No. 4 pick. Watkins has drawn superstar-like comparisons early in training camp, but his success will be predicated on the guy who's throwing him the ball.
Whaley also traded a draft pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for wide receiver Mike Williams, who will likely compete for the third receiver slot. He caught 22 passes and scored two touchdowns in an oft-injured 2013 season.
“I think we're loaded offensively at the skill positions,” Manuel said. “Each day we just need to continue to mesh and get better.”
Manuel led all quarterbacks in percentage of total passes attempted to running backs. That implies he probably checked down too much, and dumped the ball off for minimal yardage. What does that mean? It means he played it safe too often and lacked confidence to try for the home run pass.
But with his new receivers, Manuel said he's more likely to take risks this season.
“I feel a lot different (than last year),” he said. “My confidence is very high. I'm excited. We have tons of weapons on offense, and our defense is still solid. I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of product we put on the field, because I think it will explosive.”
Manuel also has the confidence from his teammates.
“He's ready (to take that next step),” second year wideout Marquise Goodwin said. “He's assumed his role.”
Head coach Doug Maronne was also a rookie last year after leading Syracuse to a bowl victory in 2012. He too admits this year is much different because players are familiar with the system this time around, whereas last year it took time to understand it.
“I think (Manuel) is a lot better than he was a year ago,” Maronne said. “He looks good and confident. Obviously it's a better situation — last year, you're explaining what the offense is, and not really the ins and outs of things. Now, we're explaining the ins and outs with not only with EJ but with a lot of guys. The system is already in place.”