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Bye week positional review: Quarterbacks

Just a couple months ago, the Buffalo Bills were locked in a three-way quarterback competition.

My how times have changed.

Tyrod Taylor emerged from that competition as the starter, while one of his challengers was shown the door and fans are screaming for the other to be shown the exit, too.

With Matt Cassel in Dallas and EJ Manuel’s spectacular crash-and-burn performance against Jacksonville, the Bills are left in the same, familiar-but-unenviable position they’ve been in since Jim Kelly retired: Hoping that Taylor is the answer at the game’s most important position.

With the team having reached its bye week, The Buffalo News is taking a position-by-position look at the state of the roster. First up is quarterback.

Taylor: To borrow an oft-used phrase from head coach Rex Ryan, it would be understandable for the Bills and their fans to be “cautiously optimistic” that Taylor is the right quarterback to not only finish this season – there is no debating that – but also start the next several.

Through five games – in which the Bills have gone 3-2 – Taylor’s level of play has surpassed even the loftiest expectation when he was signed away from Baltimore, where he threw only 35 passes in 14 games over four years with the Ravens.

The statistics paint a promising portrait. Taylor’s quarterback rating of 103.6 ranks fifth through Sunday’s games. His yards per attempt of 8.01 ranks seventh. His completion percentage of 70.1 is second among qualified quarterbacks.

Next-level statistics compiled by analytics website Football Outsiders have also been favorable to Taylor. The website’s DYAR, or defense-adjusted yards above replacement, values a quarterback’s performance compared to a replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. Taylor ranks 12th in that category and ninth in the website’s defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), which measures the value, per play, of a quarterback over an average quarterback in the same game situation.

Taylor has also shown that “it” factor that doesn’t show up in box scores. Nothing seems to rattle him, and in the biggest situations when his team has needed him to make a play, he has. The Bills’ go-ahead touchdown drive against Tennessee is evidence of that. Taylor converted a third-and-23 situation with a 24-yard run, then uncorked a percent deep ball down the right sideline to get the Bills on the door step.

But the drive came at a price. On Taylor’s first-down run, he suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee on a horse-collar tackle by Titans linebacker Zach Brown. There’s the rub with Taylor: One of his best attributes will also forever be one of the Bills’ biggest sources of worry. Taylor is not big for the position at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds. As the first five weeks have shown, the Bills’ best chance at winning comes with him on the field. The team needs to strike the balance between Taylor being a rushing threat (31 carries for 187 yards, 6.0 yards per carry) and avoiding the injury risk that comes with taking off. Grade: B.

Manuel: If it’s true laughter is the best medicine, a good dosage after Sunday’s disaster came from a tweet from the website Buffalo Rumblings, which pointed out that Manuel is the first quarterback in NFL history to lose games in three different countries. Impressive, considering he’s made just 16 career starts.

The takeaway from Manuel’s two-game stint with the Bills this season is simple: He’s not good enough. Maybe he can latch on as a backup quarterback in some other city after this year. He’s probably somewhere in the middle of the pack in a power rankings of backup quarterbacks (yes, that’s actually been done). That says more about the state of the position than it does Manuel’s ability.

The well has been poisoned here in Buffalo, though. His own coaching staff didn’t want him as Taylor’s backup. That was forced on them by General Manager Doug Whaley.

Two games is enough of a sample size to see that Manuel has not become the quarterback Whaley hoped he was getting when he had a hand in selecting him in the first round of the 2013 draft.

Among the issues for Manuel are:

• His accuracy. Even on completed passes, it’s often atrocious, at times forcing receivers to adjust to the point they’re unable to run after the catch. As CBS analyst Rich Gannon put it perfectly Sunday, Manuel “makes the easy throws look difficult.”

• His ability to scan defenses. Example No. 1: The way he locked onto intended receiver Robert Woods before throwing a pick-six to Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith on Sunday. Example No. 2 actually came on a completed pass to running back LeSean McCoy in the first quarter. Instead of throwing what would have been an easy touchdown to either Charles Clay or Chris Gragg in the red zone, Manuel dumped the ball off to McCoy. The drive ended in a field goal. If you haven’t seen the replay, spare yourself, it’s maddening.

• His carelessness with the ball and pocket presence. In two starts, he’s thrown three interceptions, fumbled twice, one of which was lost, and taken six sacks.

Never mind that Ryan said after Sunday’s loss he has “100 percent confidence” in Manuel as his backup. It’s simply that the coach doesn’t have a viable alternative on his roster.

If Manuel is called upon again to start for the Bills this season, it’s hard to see how his coaching staff or teammates will have any confidence in his ability to lead the offense. Grade: F.

Cassel: He leaves the Bills with a 1-0 career record thanks to taking the first snap – a botched trick play – in the season opener against the Indianapolis Colts.

His legacy, however, will be more about the rift that was caused by his trade. Just days after he was cut at the end of the summer – a move that had major (and understandable) salary-cap implications for the Bills – Cassel was re-signed to a more team-friendly contract and immediately installed as the backup quarterback by Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Quarterbacks coach David Lee referred to him as the “glue” of the quarterbacks room.

Whaley peeled that glue away when he dealt Cassel and a seventh-round pick to the Cowboys after Week Two for a fifth-round pick in 2017. Statistically speaking, there has not been a great difference between Manuel and Cassel since the former entered the NFL in 2013. Cassel’s first start with the Cowboys on Sunday – in which he threw three interceptions – showed the Bills didn’t trade away Joe Montana.

But what they did do was put the coaching staff in a position it didn’t want to be in – that being forced to play Manuel. If the Whaley-Ryan marriage eventually ends in divorce, this will be a key piece of evidence as to why. Grade: Incomplete.

• Josh Johnson: “Journeyman” might not be a strong-enough word for the veteran whose on his sixth team in seven NFL seasons. Signed after Taylor was hurt in Week Five, Johnson has served as Manuel’s backup the past two weeks. After Manuel’s meltdown against Jacksonville in the second quarter, social media erupted with calls for Johnson, but Ryan said after the game he never considered making such a move.

The Bills were comfortable enough carrying two quarterbacks after Cassel was traded that Johnson’s roster spot could be in jeopardy after Taylor returns. Grade: Incomplete.

• Dustin Vaughn: He spent a little less than a month on the Bills’ practice squad in the time between Cassel’s trade and Johnson’s signing. Grade: Incomplete.

Next: Running backs/fullbacks.

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