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Sizing up the Bills’ QB situation: Can Taylor keep improving?

This is the first of a nine-part positional review of the Buffalo Bills’ 2015 season. Today’s installment looks at the quarterbacks.

By Vic Carucci

NEWS SPORTS REPORTER

Back in offseason workouts, when it seemed passes were ending up everywhere but in the hands of receivers, you wondered if the choice for the Bills’ starting quarterback job might very well be “none of the above.”

There was the incumbent, EJ Manuel, whose confidence figured to still be reeling after he lost his starting job four games into the 2014 season, his second in the NFL. There was long-time veteran newcomer Matt Cassel, whose physical limitations figured to be many in the twilight of his career. And there was a younger veteran newcomer, Tyrod Taylor, who had never started an NFL game and whose best known quality was his running.

This was hardly a promising three-way competition. At various points, it seemed the winner might very well come down to the lesser of the evils.

But Taylor ultimately proved much more than that, making enough plays with his arm and his feet in training camp and the preseason to become the obvious choice.

After making the first 14 starts of his career (he missed two games with a knee injury), he established himself as the best quarterback the Bills have had in a while and, perhaps, their best hope to become the long-term answer.

The breakdown follows:

Signed: Manuel, Taylor.

Pending free agents: Josh Johnson.

What went right: Taylor going 8-6 as a starter (even if the final two wins were in meaningless games) and ranking seventh in the NFL with a passer rating of 99.4. That’s the same number that Carolina’s Cam Newton, a shoo-in for league MVP, had and it put Taylor in the company of other elite quarterbacks.

He wasn’t all that prolific, ranking near the bottom of the league in attempts (380), completions (242) and yards (3,035). But he was efficient, throwing 20 touchdown passes to six interceptions. Taylor’s 568 rushing yards broke Doug Flutie’s single-season record for a quarterback and his exceptionally fast feet were a weapon for which every opponent had to account when he scrambled or on designed runs.

At times, he didn’t show enough patience in the pocket and was too eager to take off. Taylor must also do a better job of going through his progression reads, made more difficult by the fact he stands only 6-foot-1 and has trouble seeing over much taller linemen. For instance, he too often didn’t see tight end Charles Clay in one-on-one situations. In addition, Taylor must work on sliding; his fearless running makes him susceptible to injury, such as the sprained MCL in his left knee he suffered at Tennessee on a horse-collar tackle.

What went wrong: Taylor missing two games with the knee injury. Manuel took over and went 0-2. His first loss, against Cincinnati, might have been somewhat forgivable because the Bengals have been one of the top teams in the league for most of the season. But his loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, easily the lowest point of the season, was inexcusable. And it was mostly on Manuel, because he melted down in the second quarter with a fumble returned for a touchdown and a pick-six on consecutive plays.

That two-game stretch was all of the proof necessary that the Bills have the wrong man in the No. 2 quarterback spot. If you needed more proof, the Bills provided it by deactivating Manuel for their Nov. 12 game against the Jets and making Johnson the backup and saying it had something to do with Johnson’s “familiarity” with the Jets’ defensive scheme. Either you believe in your backup or you don’t.

Where they go from here: Taylor showed, at the very least, he can be a legitimate No. 1 quarterback for the foreseeable future – as in the 2016 season, which is the last of a contract that will pay him a base salary of $1.13 million. Whether the Bills want to commit to more than that with a contract extension before the season or a multi-year deal before he hits free agency in 2017 is uncertain.

General Manager Doug Whaley strongly indicated during the season-ending news conference that the Bills would be inclined to take a wait-and-see approach. That might be a risk worth taking. If the Bills don’t want to pay him now, they would gladly pay him later (and much more) if he has an off-the-charts season. That would put more of a squeeze on their already tight cap, but you find a way to make room for the salary of a franchise quarterback. The Bills need a new backup to replace Manuel. Assuming they aren’t settled on Taylor as a long-term starter yet, it would make perfect sense to use a pick in the first few rounds of the draft on a quarterback.

Next: Running backs.

email: vcarucci@buffnews.com

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