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Pulling the Plug in Buffalo: Premature or Prescient?

It's too early to give up on EJ Manuel, right? The Bills seem to be preparing for it.



It’s been speculated for months that EJ Manuel could become the rare first-round quarterback to be replaced after just two years on the job, but the threat has seemed to gain some serious steam last Friday when the Bills made journeyman Kyle Orton the third-highest paid backup in the NFL. It was originally reported to be a one-year deal, but the contract is actually two seasons in length and carries an $11 million cap hit in that time span.

The signing comes on the heels of a preseason in which Manuel has thrown for 517 yards, two interceptions, and just one touchdown in five appearances. He completed 64.9 percent of his passes, but they came on a paltry 6.7 Yards per Attempt — a discouraging sign for the point in the season where defenses are at their most vanilla. Manuel struggled in training camp and hasn’t seemed to progress from the passer he was in a forgettable, injury-riddled rookie campaign.

Would Buffalo sink $11 million into Orton if they didn’t expect him to play? Only Matt Schaub and Matt Moore will make more than him this season among those holding clipboards, and Schaub will do so because he lost the job on Labor Day to second-round pick Derek Carr. Manuel wasn’t abjectly terrible in 2013, but there wasn’t much to hang his hat on. Among all first-round quarterbacks who attempted at least 100 passes as rookies since the merger, he ranked in the 47th percentile in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (calibrated for era) and just the 32nd percentile in Y/A. The latter underscores Manuel’s most glaring flaw as a quarterback. He avoided picks at an acceptable rate, but his über-conservative play style was the main reason why Buffalo ranked 27th in passing DVOA last season. (Jeff Tuel helped a little, too.)

But why are so many ready to press eject on the Manuel era? Rookies are supposed to struggle, after all, and there are some damn good quarterbacks below the former Seminole in ANY/A+. Troy Aikman, John Elway, Bert Jones, Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb, and Phil Simms all struggled in their debut seasons, and Terry Bradshaw didn’t post his first above-average year until he was 27. What’s the rush for a rebuilding team? And how rare is this scenario?

Well, until Brandon Weeden was kicked to the curb in May for Johnny Manziel, I can only find seven other instances of a first-round quarterback being permanently replaced on the depth chart or removed from the roster altogether within two years of his drafting.

  • Expected to be Jim Hart’s successor, Steve Pisarkiewicz started only four games for the other St. Louis Cardinals and was dumped on Green Bay before his third (and last) year in the league.
  • Art Schlichter threw just 37 passes for the 1982 Colts before became the first NFL player in 20 years to be suspended for gambling. Baltimore was forced to take another quarterback in the very next draft, but that didn’t work out for them for entirely different reasons.
  • Dan McGwire, known mostly as Mark’s brother and for being the tallest quarterback in history, looked awful enough in 30 1992 passes to lead Seattle to take a quarterback in round one just two years after they’d drafted him with the 16th pick. Rick Mirer wasn’t much better.
  • The other signal-caller to go in the ’91 first round, Todd Marinovich, was drafted at 21-years-old and had busted out of the NFL by 23. Unlike McGwire, though, he at least has a great 30 for 30 special dedicated to him.
  • Tommy Maddox never had a shot in Denver. Drafted by Dan Reeves as a blatant “fuck you” to Elway at the peak of their feud, Maddox wasted away on the bench and was traded to the Rams two years later once Elway posted career-best numbers in the first season after Reeves’ firing.
  • Jim Druckenmiller owes me a cold beverage,” said Peyton Manning in the spring of 1997. Manning’s decision to return for his senior year at Tennessee made Druckenmiller the first quarterback taken in the draft, but San Francisco quickly realized he was too raw a project to ever succeed Steve Young. The last pass he threw would be in the XFL.
  • As a Bears fan, I don’t want to talk about Cade McNown.
Yes, this is a 6'8'' quarterback wearing a shaded visor in the early 90s.

Yes, this is a 6’8” quarterback wearing a shaded visor in the early 90s.

Thanks to Buffalo’s bizarre decision to trade their 2015 first-round pick to move up five spots for Sammy Watkins, Manuel won’t join McGwire and Weeden as the only quarterbacks in history to see their team take another passer in the first round just two years after they were (or in Schlichter’s special case, one year). But if Orton supplants Manuel at any point this season, it would be reasonable to expect the Bills would search for his replacement in the second or third round next May.

I predict situations like Weeden’s will become more common. Schlichter and McGwire were bad enough to give their teams the opportunity to land elite quarterback prospects at the top of the draft, but new leadership in Cleveland had no such opportunity when they made the decision to move on. They simply viewed Weeden for what he was — a sunk cost that needed no further pampering. The new CBA has depressed rookie salaries to the point where it is far easier to cut ties with a bust, and it’s better to address the wound as soon as possible instead of giving unearned third years to guys like Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder. Gone will be the days of Sam Bradford terrorizing a roster with his $17.6 million cap hit.

If Manuel has another year similar to 2013 — one where he finished 29th among 37 qualified passers in ANY/A– then can you blame Buffalo if they roll the dice again? It’s early in Manuel’s career, yes, and he’ll be just 25 come next may, but could you ever see him developing into a franchise-caliber quarterback? Or even being just good enough to hoist a Lombardi?

Since the Watkins trade has already cost the Bills a chance at Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston, their best bet may be to roll with Orton in 2015 and position themselves for another stud prospect. I heard that Christian Hackenberg kid is pretty good.

About Brandon Magner (27 Articles)
(@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the one-year MBA program at the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He is now enrolled in the University of Kentucky College of Law.

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