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Jerry Sullivan: Credit Bills for taking bold path

When Ralph Wilson handed control of the Bills to Russ Brandon last New Year’s Eve, he gave him the freedom to do things his own way. As president, Brandon wanted to set a bold new course for the franchise, one that wouldn’t accept the safe way but would be willing to shoot for the stars.

On Thursday night, the Bills lived up to that promise. They got their franchise quarterback, E.J. Manuel, a prospect who lacked the polish of some of the other college passers on the board but possesses the athletic talent and potential to be a star in the NFL.

Buddy Nix had said all along that it was time for the Bills to get their franchise quarterback. He said there were two or three franchise QBs in this draft. Nix also said it was a “scary” prospect to trade away the team’s No. 8 overall pick to move back and collect more picks.

But he took the risk, anyway. The Bills moved out of the eighth spot, sending the pick to St. Louis for the Rams’ first-rounder (No. 16 overall), plus the Rams’ second- and seventh-rounders. The teams swapped picks in the third round, with the Rams moving up seven spots.

Nix took the chance that no one would take a quarterback between Nos. 8 and 16.

In recent days, there had been a lot of buzz that the Jets, who had the ninth and 13th picks after trading Darrelle Revis, would take a quarterback to help them move away from Mark Sanchez.

The Bills didn’t care. They made the deal with the Rams. It was a pretty solid gamble, and it worked out. They got Manuel and an extra second-round pick that will help build depth into a roster that desperately needed it.

“We calculated [the risk] as best we could,” Nix said shortly after the Bills took Manuel. “You never know what’s going to happen in the draft. There are surprises all the time. Normally, I don’t get nervous, but I might have gotten a little nervous there toward the end.”

It was a shrewd maneuver, the kind the Bills have failed to execute too many times over the past decade or so. You wonder if they might have moved back, collected an extra pick, and still gotten Aaron Maybin, Leodis McKelvin or Donte Whitner. Instead, they gave away picks to make dubious moves up the board for the likes of J.P. Losman and John McCargo.

The Bills are still trying to recover from their draft blunders of the past 13 years. You don’t undo a decade of miscalculation in one weekend. But this is how you do it, by taking advantage of the desperation of other teams and using it to your advantage.

Nix, who said he wanted to draft a franchise quarterback before retiring as the Bills’ GM, gets credit for this move.

It also says a lot for Doug Whaley, the assistant general manager, the presumptive heir to Nix as general manager. This was also Doug Marrone’s first draft as head coach. Marrone is an offensive-minded guy, so you figure he had a lot to do with Manuel’s selection. In the end, it wasn’t the Syracuse connection to Ryan Nassib that ruled the day, but Marrone’s determination that Manuel had the greatest NFL upside.

Marrone was an offensive coordinator in New Orleans with Drew Brees. He knows what an NFL quarterback looks like. He liked what he saw in Manuel.

“He brings a lot of intangibles,” Marrone said. “One thing you notice when he walks into a room is his presence. He had great leadership at Florida State. I think one of the important things is earning the trust of our players.”

Marrone, not surprisingly, said there will be an open competition in training camp. I imagine the Bills would love Manuel to win the job and be the starting QB in the opener. You don’t draft a guy 16th overall if you want him to sit on the bench for very long.

The Bills have missed the playoff for 13 straight seasons and are trying to win back an increasingly disaffected fan base. They were desperate to create a renewed sense of possibility. People say no one sells hope like the Bills, and there’s nothing like a new franchise quarterback to lift fans’ hopes.

Manuel has his shortcomings, as Nix said at the pre-draft luncheon. Manuel can be inconsistent. There are questions about his ability to handle pressure in the pocket and his anticipation on timing throws. OK, so he’s not Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck. He’s not as refined as Nassib or Matt Barkley.

But the Bills weren’t looking for a finished product who could be a good NFL quarterback.

They wanted the possibility of greatness. You never can tell about such things. But Manuel, who is 6-foot-5, 237 pounds, is an intriguing athlete with a big arm and outstanding running ability. He won four bowl games, too.

“I’ve said this before,” Nix said. “You need to be able to play in the wind and the cold [in Buffalo]. He’s got huge hands and he’s really strong. His arm strength, he might depend on that a little too much. He might need some refining on touch and stuff. No question on his arm strength. He’s a huge man.”

Nix downplayed Manuel’s running skills. That’s typical of teams with QBs who can run. They want them to be pocket passers, first and foremost. The running ability is a bonus. But I have to think the success of Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson helped nudge them toward this pick.

The NFL is experiencing a revolution in running quarterbacks. Yes, the ability to stand in the pocket and make the throws is by far the most vital consideration. But with teams adopting more of the college-style offenses, there’s a trend toward quarterbacks who make plays with their feet.

Maybe it’s only a fad, but the Bills want to be on the cutting edge. They feel they drafted a quarterback who will eventually provide the best of both worlds – a big, mobile quarterback who can make all the traditional throws and pick up critical chunks of yardage with his legs when the pocket breaks down.

I feel the same way I did when Brandon hired Marrone. It’s not the safe, conventional choice. But when you’ve missed the playoffs for 13 straight years, you shoot high. You shoot for great.

“That’s right on,” Nix said. “He’s got the talent to take you to the dance. Physical talent.”

Nix isn’t talking about simply making the playoffs, which would be a nice change. He’s talking about the Super Bowl, which was the expectation in this town once upon a time, when the Bills had a real franchise quarterback.

I don’t know if Manuel has greatness in him or not. For their sake, they’d better be right. At least they finally took a shot.