Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we want your opinion on what the most likely answers to these questions will be. After reading each daily installment as the Bills get set for Year 1 under head coach Doug Marrone, go to the Bills daily fan poll leading up to report day at training camp and vote. You could be eligible to win tickets to night practice. Here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and the Sept. 8th home opener.
It's the question that will hang over Bills training camp more than any other as the team prepares for the regular season. After choosing a quarterback with their first draft choice for the first time in team history there are a lot of expectations for EJ Manuel. On a roster that has been waiting for a franchise caliber quarterback since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly hung up his cleats, the question is will Manuel prove himself ready to start right away?
With five rookies starting at quarterback for their NFL clubs in 2012 the bar was effectively raised for all the rookie signal callers that would follow. Being the only first round quarterback has only heightened the expectations for Manuel to be on the field sooner rather than later.
What everyone keeping a watchful eye on Manuel's progress needs to remember is Bills head coach Doug Marrone doesn't make decisions off expectations. He makes them off of hard evidence. That evidence will be provided on the practice field and in the preseason games this summer.
That's why going into training camp Marrone views his quarterback competition between Manuel and veteran Kevin Kolb as a dead heat.
"Yeah I look at it that way," Marrone told Buffalobills.com. "Obviously Kevin is a little bit more experienced going into this situation. In the minicamp we were able to even out the reps early on. It'll be interesting for all of us to see. It's a position that everyone is watching. Not just the media and the coaches, but the whole football team is watching. At the end of the day when it separates itself and a decision is made it's important that everyone is on board with that, meaning everyone has seen that separation."
At every turn when asked about the quarterback competition Manuel has made an effort to make it more about improving the offense as a whole rather than allow the focus to be all on him.
"I'm still trying to learn, still trying to get a great feel for my teammates, still trying to earn their respect, the veteran guys as well as the rookies," said Manuel. "We're all trying to get on the same page."
Manuel certainly made progress through the course of the spring practices and showed he had a natural feel for connecting on deep passes with receivers. His touch on underneath throws, timing up his footwork in the passing game and developing a better feel for the offensive scheme are the top items on his to-do list.
"It's two things really. It's obviously the footwork and understanding what's going on with the defense," said offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. "Understanding the offense and understanding how that offense fits with the defense. Obviously we see multiple, multiple looks from (defensive coordinator Mike) Pettine. There are all kinds of things that we'll face. So for a rookie quarterback to go in with a new system understanding how he's going to utilize his footwork and then give him one million different looks, there's a way that he just has to understand how everything fits.
"We want to keep things basic for him so he can see how people are attacking him. Everybody attacks a rookie quarterback a little bit different than a veteran guy. So it's about understanding what's going to happen to him first."
Admittedly the varied looks from Buffalo's defense in practice caught both Manuel and Kolb off guard on occasion in the spring practices. The Bills rookie quarterback treats his missteps as opportunities to learn rather than getting discouraged by them.
"I'm always going to be confident," said Manuel. "As an athlete, if you don't believe in yourself nobody else will. I try to exude confidence to my teammates and get those guys playing at a high level as well. I feel very comfortable around the coaches, the staff, the players, my teammates, the guys on offense as well as defense. I love the competitive nature of the team. So this is definitely a great blueprint I'm happy to be a part of."
There's little question that Manuel is the most physically gifted quarterback on Buffalo's roster, but Marrone admits that NFL experience serves as an advantage for Kolb.
"With the quarterbacks that have experienced things and played well it goes along quicker," he said. "With EJ we just want to make sure we're taking it in a natural progression. He's not seeing the same things that Kevin is seeing right now and we're working ahead and building him up."
The players on offense have taken well to Manuel. They see a young player eager to learn and improve while also exhibiting the leadership necessary at the quarterback position.
"He's a solid player. He's a good kid," said Stevie Johnson. "In the locker room he's good, out on the field same thing. There are going to be ups and downs, but not even just with rookies, but everybody myself included. Having Kolb here is beneficial for him. I think he'll learn a lot as far as the presence, but just by watching him it looks like he's going to be that guy. Being patient and continuing his work we'll be alright no matter who we go with."
Marrone has not put a timetable on when he'll make a decision on the starting quarterback. Naturally he's hoping the decision becomes obvious as the preseason unfolds. But he and Hackett are adamant about bringing Manuel along at a pace that minimizes setbacks in his development while also keeping the best interests of the team in mind.
"I think right now in his development and order of what he's doing I think he's doing a great job," said Hackett. "You always want to protect a rookie more than anybody else because you want to set him up for success. I can't say that there is a definite way to do it because there have been rookies that have done a good job, and there have been guys that have sat. I think really we just have to figure out what's the best for EJ and in turn what's best for the team. What's best for the team is all that matters."
Last year's quarterback class may have merited more consideration for throwing rookie signal callers into the fire early. However, the Bills as an organization do not seem influenced by what transpired last season in places like Indianapolis, Seattle and Washington. "It's a case by case basis," Bills GM Doug Whaley told Buffalobills.com. "If he's ready and he wins the job then you go full throttle with him. If he's not then we have Kevin Kolb in place and we just go with that. There is no set or subscribed best way to do it. In this business the information makes the decision and we'll go out there and let them compete and if (EJ) wins the job then we'll go with him."