Of all the horrendous quarterback performances last season – Eli Manning, Geno Smith, and Matt Schaub, most notably – a name that often gets swept under the rug is Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. While it’s not necessarily fair to expect the world of a rookie passer - especially one thrown onto a roster devoid of a surplus of offensive talent - when a franchise invests a 16th overall draft pick on a signal-caller, rationality often gets thrown out the window.
Manuel’s 2013 season was marred by inconsistency. According to Pro Football Reference, in Weeks 1, 7, and 10, Manuel completed 69.6% of his throws for 196 yards, 2 touchdowns, and only 0.3 interceptions per game. While the yardage is certainly not impressive, his efficiency was middling at worst.
In the other seven games he played, Manuel only completed 55.1% of his passes for 198 yards, 0.7 touchdowns, and 1.1 interceptions per game. The yardage remained mainly unchanged, but the shift in his touchdown-to-interception ratio should raise a red flag.
In addition, Manuel isn't an overly mobile quarterback, which limits his statistical floor unlike other athletic play-callers like Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick. Manuel only averaged 3.5 yards per carry, and only exceeded 40 yards rushing once last season.
When we look deeper by using numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which shows how a player’s performance affects his team’s point total, the picture only gets uglier.
While taking a look at rookie Sammy Watkins' prospects for 2014, numberFire’s Leo Howell briefly touched on how bad Manuel was using our metrics. Below are Manuel's 2013 numbers, and how he ranked among the 39 quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs.
|Passing NEP||Passing NEP per Pass||Success Rate|
|-47.84 (38th)||-0.14 (38th)||42.04% (33rd)|
Hypothetically, if Manuel was a running back, a negative NEP number would be easier to understand. After all, it’s much more difficult to have a positive impact in the running game compared to the passing game, where big plays are much more likely to occur. But as it stands, Manuel is a quarterback, which makes his -47.83 Passing NEP even worse than it initially appears.
Manuel ranked near the bottom in every category among passers last year, and only Geno Smith was worse in regards to Passing NEP. As JJ Zachariason points out, history doesn't favor Smith’s future prospects, and Manuel may fall into that same category.
In order to gain an understanding about where Manuel might go from here, I believe it’s important to find some historical reference. I searched every season since 2009 to find quarterbacks who have finished in the bottom-five in terms Passing NEP with at least 200 attempts in a season being the cut-off point.
I’ve listed a few examples in two categories: Successes (players who despite having a terrible season eventually rebounded and improved their play) and Failures (players who never recovered from their horrific performance and now toil in relative obscurity).
At the top of this list is Matthew Stafford. As a rookie in 2009, Stafford finished as the fourth-worst quarterback in terms of Passing NEP (-55.54) out of 34 qualifying players. Stafford finished fifth-worst in Passing NEP per drop back (-0.14) and sixth from the bottom in terms of Success Rate (41.00%) - the percentage of attempts that factor positively towards total NEP. In 2010, Stafford missed 13 games and didn't reach the 200 attempt threshold.
In 2011, however, he jumped to fifth-best in Passing NEP and Success Rate, and eighth in Passing NEP on a per drop back basis. With the exception of his 2012 Passing NEP per pass, which ranked 18th, he has remained in the top 15 in all three categories every season since 2011.
Another player who made a similar improvement was Matt Cassel. In 2009, Cassel finished 32nd in Passing NEP (-57.06), 25th in Passing NEP per drop back (-0.11), and 29th in Success Rate among the 34 qualifying players.
Until his mini-resurgence last season, Cassel languished near the bottom in all three categories. In his nine games played in 2013, Cassel ranked 23rd in both Passing NEP (3.33) and Passing NEP per drop back (0.01), and 26th in Success Rate (44.07%).
As you can see, Cassel has not made the jump that Stafford did, but he represents another tangible example of a player climbing out of the metric cellar to be at least average in regards to their play.
Enough jokes have been made about Mark Sanchez for me to forgo that part of this analysis. We’ll instead use hard data in our evaluation. Sanchez’s 2009 rookie season was putrid. He finished 33rd in Passing NEP out of the 34 qualifying players. Only JaMarcus Russell was worse – I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in. He finished 32nd in Passing NEP per drop back, (-0.18) and 30th in Success Rate (39.59%).
The only time Sanchez climbed out of the cellar was in 2010 when his Passing NEP (4.81) ranked 23rd out of 34 qualifying players. Sanchez is now the third-string quarterback in Philadelphia, and appears to have missed his opportunity to get meaningful NFL snaps.
Another good example is Blaine Gabbert. Earlier this week, while discussing Khiry Robinson, I referenced Mark Ingram as one of the biggest NFL Draft busts in recent memory. Gabbert belongs is that very same discussion. Drafted 10th overall in 2011 to the Jacksonville Jaguars, he finished dead last in Passing NEP (-86.44) among 34 qualifying players. In 2012, he finished 35th out of 38 in the same category (-36.90). Gabbert was recently traded to the 49ers, who will look to revitalize this once promising rookie’s career.
Is Manuel Doomed?
While there are other examples of quarterbacks finishing near the bottom of the league in Passing NEP and making small improvements over the next few seasons, none have emerged as top-tier options. And as we've written about in the past, rookie quarterbacks who start off their careers poorly rarely turn into something meaningful in the NFL.
Can EJ Manuel eventually ascend like Matthew Stafford did? The answer depends largely on the progress he makes in his second full season under head coach Doug Marrone. The Bills traded up to get wide receiver Sammy Watkins in this year’s NFL Draft, which should help Manuel right away.
In terms of fantasy football, we here at numberFire have him ranked as the 24th quarterback according to our newly released rankings. In most leagues that start only one passer, Manuel is nothing more than an occasional streaming option in the event of injury or a plus weekly match-up.
In terms of real football, the odds of Manuel breaking the historical trend are small. In order for him to become a top-end NFL quarterback, a lot of things need to break in his favor in the next few years – improved accuracy and decision-making top this list. If the Bills continue to invest in offense talent to surround Manuel, however, his long-term prospects could improve.