General Manager Doug Whaley is sticking with his guy. The Buffalo Bills chose 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel as their No. 2 quarterback over veteran Matt Cassel.
Manuel’s career, to date, has been a roller coaster.
This third summer included a wayward duck into the hospitality tent, an incompletion that drilled a cameraman on the sideline and many fumbled snaps. But as Cassel underwhelmed, Manuel delivered a lights-out preseason. A switch flipped. So barring another signing, the Bills will enter the 2015 season with Tyrod Taylor and Manuel as their quarterbacks.
On Saturday, the Bills also cut defensive tackle Red Bryant, center Dalton Freeman, safety Jonathan Meeks and inside linebacker Kevin Reddick. With the moves, the Bills are now down to 51 players, not including defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who will miss Week One to suspension.
The Bills are taking a calculated gamble here.
Taylor could bring excitement to Ralph Wilson Stadium — “magic,” as coach Rex Ryan called it. Maybe he is Buffalo’s own Russell Wilson, a 6-foot playmaker. This is also a player who has never started a game in the NFL. The “magic” may not transfer when coordinators unleash more chaotic blitzes at him. And, as of now, the Bills do not have a veteran Plan B on the roster. Cassel is the epitome of mediocrity, but he has started 71 games.
If the Bills are forced to scramble for a veteran by, say, October, they’ll be venturing into a thrift store of options on the open market. Matt Flynn, anyone? Tim Tebow?
That’s all the hypothetical Whaley and coach Rex Ryan hope they won’t face. The Bills believe Manuel did enough to make the team.
And that’s hard to argue.
In the preseason, the 6-foot-4, 237-pounder completed 20 of 30 passes (66.7 percent) for 358 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. His 146.9 passer rating ranked fifth in the NFL, behind only Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Sam Bradford and Matt Ryan and ahead of Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger.
Not bad company.
One moment, Manuel sounded like a player prepared for a second chance somewhere next. The next, he’s one play away from being the Bills quarterback again.
“I have no regrets,” said Manuel, the day Buffalo announced Taylor as the starter. “I felt like I did what I was supposed to do and did well in the games, like I said that was what I wanted to do was perform well. It’s pressure situations. Got an opportunity to go with the,” first unit “and did well so that’s how it goes.”
So there were Taylor and Manuel chatting throughout the final exhibition game, as Cassel stood off to the side.
Of course, there are major financial benefits for the Bills here, too. By releasing Cassel and running back Fred Jackson this week, the Bills cleared up nearly $6.7 million in salary-cap space, which should help the team in talks with Dareus and, potentially, fellow 2016 free agents left tackle Cordy Glenn and linebacker Nigel Bradham.
The biggest surprise Saturday? Buffalo kept five tight ends on the roster — Charles Clay, MarQueis Gray, Matthew Mulligan, Chris Gragg and sixth-round pick Nick O’Leary.
O’Leary seemed to be on the bubble through a lackluster training camp. But this is, as Gray put it, “tight end heaven.” Offensive coordinator Greg Roman utilizes the position in a multitude of ways, so O’Leary gets a chance to develop. He had his first reception of the preseason at Detroit on Thursday.
With Leodis McKelvin shelved on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury list to start the season, the Bills kept 6-foot-1 cornerback Mario Butler.
One source indicated that Buffalo tried to trade a wide receiver. With no deal done, the Bills keep seven — a group that includes returner Marcus Thigpen and special teams ace Marcus Easley. Safety Bacarri Rambo, who picked off Aaron Rodgers twice in Buffalo’s 21-13 win over Green Bay last year, got the nod over Jonathan Meeks.
AJ Tarpley locked up a roster spot with his eight-tackle night in Detroit.
With two spots open, the Bills may look to add an offensive lineman – they have only seven on the roster. Also, Matt Simms may be retained on the practice squad as a third quarterback.
Big picture, Saturday was a big win for Manuel. Benched after four starts in 2014, his career was in limbo at St. John Fisher College. For every three head-scratching plays on a practice field, Manuel turned heads under the lights. Against Pittsburgh, with a defender in his face, Manuel knifed a 27-yarder between two defensive backs near the sideline.
Teammates were impressed with how Manuel performed under heavy scrutiny.
“It seems like he doesn’t even hear the outside criticism,” center Eric Wood said. “It doesn’t mess with him. As a quarterback you have to do that. If you get wrapped up into what people are saying about you as a quarterback, it’s going to ebb and flow, and if you’re riding on that it’s going to shake you as a player.”
Manuel has a strong ally in Whaley and, now, another chance to prove he deserves to play in the NFL.
Said Manuel, “I’m not going to allow not being selected as the starter to stop me from continuing to work and get better, so that’s just my approach right now.”