This is the first of a 10-part series that examines how well the Buffalo Bills have addressed each position during the offseason. Today’s installment looks at quarterback.
Doug Whaley gave life to the subject in late January, while standing in front of a small group of reporters on a small hill outside an entrance to an Alabama high school practice field.
The Bills’ general manager was there for one of the South squad’s pre-Senior Bowl workouts, talking about quarterbacks, about the possibility of the Bills adding one in the draft, about not ruling out that a high choice could be used for one.
From that moment on, the Bills’ long-term commitment to the quarterbacks on their roster − Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel − came into question. Sure, Taylor would be entering the final year of his contract and remain the starter for 2016, but just how strong would his grip on the position be, and what about 2017 and beyond? Exactly how comfortable were the Bills with keeping Manuel, who also would be entering the last year of his deal, in the No. 2 role?
The Bills seem to have provided some answers, while some questions also remain.
Here’s the breakdown at quarterback:
Returning: Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel.
Newcomers: Cardale Jones, fourth-round draft pick, Ohio State.
Better, worse or the same?: It would be easy to say the Bills stayed the same, because the top two spots haven’t changed. But it would be more accurate to say they’re a little bit worse.
The main issue is that they seemingly did nothing, at least in the near term, to improve their depth. And the near term is supposed to be the Bills’ focus, given the type of up-to-the-cap spending they’ve done in the past two years.
Taylor’s relative lack of size and inclination to do plenty of running elevates his risk for injury, as evidenced by the sprained knee he suffered during a run against Tennessee last season. With Taylor out for the next two games, the Bills got pretty much what was expected from Manuel: back-to-back losing efforts against Cincinnati and Jacksonville.
A team in get-to-the-playoffs-now mode simply can’t afford to have such a liability at its most critical position. Contrary to Whaley’s post-draft assessment, Manuel is not the best backup quarterback in the NFL. The GM can say whatever he wants about how much he believes in the Bills’ 2013 first-round pick. The fact is, the Bills did not pick up his fifth-year option and essentially have made 2016 his final year on the team.
No matter how they spin it, Manuel is a lame duck. Still, the Bills might very well have to turn to that lame duck again, and the way their QB depth chart stands, there isn’t likely to be another option in the coming season.
Jones is an ultra-raw project. He’s big and strong, with an extremely powerful arm. He’s also athletic and had some downright amazing moments at Ohio State.
But there appears little if any chance Jones will be ready to take the field in 2016. Fourth-round picks rarely provide instant contributors at quarterback. They rarely provide long-term answers, either, for that matter.
The Bills made a value judgement that boosting their quarterback depth was less important to ending their 16-year postseason drought than finding fixes for their defense. They drafted accordingly.
At the same time, they have done nothing to secure their long-term future at quarterback. A contract extension for Taylor doesn’t appear anywhere close to happening before the season. It might take place during the season, but that’s likely going to depend on how Taylor performs as the Bills continue with a wait-and-see approach.
The risk for Taylor is suffering an injury that could cause his value to plummet. The risk for the Bills is the potential of Taylor being more cautious with his play, perhaps doing more sliding than he was willing to do last season, so he can preserve his health for a new contract in Buffalo or elsewhere.
Here’s more food for thought: On a team looking to make a playoff push, Taylor needs all of the help he can get. At the moment, he is without a huge piece in the offensive puzzle, with Sammy Watkins having undergone foot surgery. Even with the optimistic prognosis of a return to action this summer, Watkins’ ability to fully recover and avoid re-injury is hardly a given.
Next: Running back.