Beyond the stats: From Weinke to EJ (Part II)

EJ Manuel probably had the worst game of his short career last week against Baltimore. He threw two interceptions, had two fumbles, and completed just 45% of his pass attempts. His ball security, questioned by Jon Gruden last spring, was an issue. He also missed a WIDE OPEN Stevie Johnson because he couldn’t set his feet and fell away from the throw. But despite all of that, the Bills still won.

In this week’s similarity score comparison, I increased the number of players in the comparison. The list of players is now expanded to include Blaine Gabbert, Byron Leftwich, Ben Roethlisberger, Vince Young, Joey Harrington, Matt Leinart, Kyle Boller, Josh Freeman, Eli Manning, and Alex Smith.

Some of those players didn’t start more than ten games in their first seasons, but they will add some interesting comparisons for now. Once Manuel surpasses a player’s games played, that player will be removed from the study. Now, on to the fun stuff!

Through four games, EJ is still most similar to Russell Wilson. In fact, his similarity to the Seattle quarterback increased to 95.8% from 93.9% last week. Wilson and Manuel both struggled in their fourth games, with three turnovers a piece and quarterback ratings (if you believe in those) in the forties. Wilson got better over time, so there’s quite a bit of hope for Manuel too. Wilson is a pretty great player and Manuel’s similarity to him so far is great.

The second most similar rookie quarterback is also encouraging: Cam Newton (90%). Carolina was 1-3 through Newton’s first four games, but he was impressive nonetheless. Manuel has about thirty fewer pass attempts to this point in his career that Newton did and is completing passes at a slightly lower rate as well. Buffalo’s young quarterback has been just as productive, however, throwing the same number of touchdown passes and two fewer interceptions. Manuel has some growing to do, but eventually becoming a dynamic threat like Newton was something Bills fans were excited about when learning about his size and speed.

The next three players in the similarity ranking are Mark Sanchez (89.9%), Andrew Luck (87.3%), and Josh Freeman (85.4%). One player, maybe two before the SNAFU down in Tampa, is a player Buffalo would like their rookie to become. (Hint: that player isn’t Mark Sanchez).

Luck was an interesting player, because he completed passes at a lower rate than Manuel currently does, but he threw more than any of the other players in this comparison through four games. Luck was sacked nine times through his first four games, while Manuel has been sacked eleven times, but their total sack yards are just one yard apart from each other, showing Manuel has limited the damage of sacks better than Luck did. Luck, however, was the better scrambler to this point, gaining 104 yards on 16 attempts, compared to Manuel’s 24 attempts for 77 yards.

The similarity scores for all 24 players are in the table below.

Although Andy Dalton’s overall similarity score is just 83.3%, his passing similarity was 97.8%, the highest in the group. Dalton and Manuel completed and attempted almost the same number or passes (Dalton: 72/124, Manuel: 74/130). Dalton developed chemistry with a rookie receiver, AJ Green, throughout the year but only targeted him on 33 passes in their first four games. EJ Manuel is developing chemistry with his own rookie receiver, Robert Woods. Manuel has thrown to Woods 26 times so far, but has become a growing part of Buffalo’s passing game.

EJ Manuel struggled in his past two games but still compares favorably to some impressive, young quarterbacks. His development won’t follow the exact path of these other rookies, but his similarity to the successful ones is encouraging. Wilson and Dalton won their fifth games as starters (Newton lost despite throwing two touchdowns and running for another).

Manuel attempted two deep throws of note. First, he completed a beautiful touchdown pass to Robert Woods. The offensive line kept the pocket clean for Manuel, who had the whole middle of the field open for Woods. The photo series below shows the space Manuel and Woods had to play with.

The second throw had a narrower, but still very large window. Stevie Johnson was open for any throw between the numbers and the right sideline, but Manuel was under pressure. He wasn’t able to step into the throw, and just used his upper body to heave the ball. The pass sailed deep and wide for an incompletion that should have been a walk-in touchdown.

Manuel will take the next step in his progression when his footwork improves when he is under pressure. The Jets game exposed his deficiencies when he doesn’t have time to set his feet and put his lower body into his throws (more on that here). If he can do that and take better care of the ball, Buffalo can continue to feel good about their young franchise quarterback.

Michael Purinton

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