Doug Marrone era hinges on EJ Manuel

April, 25, 2013
4/25/13
11:48
PM ET
E.J. Manuel Al Bello/Getty ImagesBuffalo's selection of quarterback EJ Manuel could be as defining as it was surprising.

Rookie head coach Doug Marrone has yet to coach in his first game with the Buffalo Bills. But just a few months into his regime, it’s easy to pinpoint how to gauge his overall success or failure in the NFL.

The Marrone era in Buffalo will be defined by Thursday's shocking selection of former Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel -- no more, no less.

The Bills, led by general manager Buddy Nix, jumped out on a limb Thursday by making Manuel the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft with the No. 16 overall pick. It was perhaps the most surprising move of the first round, even after the Bills traded down eight picks with the St. Louis Rams to get the player they believe is the long-term solution at the position. Buffalo also gained a second- and a seventh-round pick and swapped third-rounders with St. Louis.

It is no secret that the job security of head coaches is closely tied to their quarterbacks. Look no further than the AFC East.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick struck gold by drafting Tom Brady 13 years ago in the sixth round. As a result, Belichick and the Patriots have dominated the AFC East ever since and have been to five Super Bowls, winning three. Belichick and Brady also are the all-time winningest coach and quarterback combination in NFL history.

On the other end of the AFC East spectrum, New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan is on the hot seat after 2009 first-round pick Mark Sanchez flamed out. Sanchez was the first pick of the Ryan regime, and both are on the hot seat in New York. Former Bills head coach Chan Gailey was fired after last season, in part, because veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was a bust after signing a $59 million contract.

The Marrone-Manuel tandem could turn out either way for Buffalo. But if I had to take an educated guess before Manuel throws his first pass and Marrone coaches his first game, this decision has the potential to blow up in Buffalo’s face in three or four years.

The Bills have the NFL’s longest playoff drought at 14 years and counting. They have a history of drafting the wrong quarterbacks (J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards) and signing the wrong veterans (Fitzpatrick). That makes it extremely hard to trust that the Bills went against conventional wisdom and got this one correct.

Manuel comes with good physical tools. He's athletic, mobile and has solid accuracy. But there is tons of pressure facing Manuel as the first quarterback taken for various reasons.

By association, it's expected that Manuel will be the best quarterback from this 2013 NFL draft. Adding to the pressure is Buffalo passed over Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib, who played for Marrone in college. It could only add salt to the wound for Buffalo if Manuel struggles and Nassib turns out to be a good quarterback when the Bills had the most intel with Nassib’s former head coach in the building.

West Virginia’s Geno Smith and USC’s Matt Barkley also were rated higher than Manuel by most experts. Manuel will be compared to those quarterbacks at the next level, too.

But the controversial decision has been made by the Bills and the time for second-guessing is over. It’s time for Manuel to get to work and live up to his billing as the top quarterback taken in this draft. Manuel will compete in training camp with veteran quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and Tarvaris Jackson. Maybe the Bills will get a one-year stopgap from Kolb or Jackson -- at best -- but Manuel will have to be ready to play sooner than later. The Bills say they are not rebuilding and are strong in several areas. One of the biggest things holding Buffalo back is its quarterback situation.

The Patriots, with Brady, remain the gold standard at quarterback in the AFC East. The Miami Dolphins appear to be heading in the right direction with second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. But New York and Buffalo have a lot of quarterback questions that were not answered in the first round.

The Bills have been looking for a franchise quarterback since the retirement of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. Manuel must develop into a franchise starter or it will set the Bills back for another three or four years.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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