Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel passed the eyeball test in his first practice with the Buffalo Bills Friday.
The 6-foot-5, 237-pounder from Florida State showed off his big arm and a nearly effortless ability to throw deep down the sideline during the first of three rookie minicamp practices inside the Bills’ fieldhouse.
“It felt great to be back with a team,” Manuel said afterward. “Through the pre-draft process, you get so used to doing things on your own or with guys who are training and things like that. But today, it was a real practice. Strap it up with cleats and a helmet back on. It was a great feeling.”
There were 33 rookies or first-year players on the field working in helmets, jerseys, shorts and no pads. The eyes of most observers were focused on Manuel, just as they will be when the team gets to training camp this summer.
It’s silly to try to draw too many conclusions from a football practice, much less the first one in May. Numerous Bills quarterbacks have looked good on the practice field but bad in games. Nevertheless, a big arm never is a bad trait on a prized rookie.
Manuel zinged a deep completion 35 yards down the left sideline to speedy Marquise Goodwin just two minutes into passing drills – with no defenders covering. On the fourth play against the defense, in the 7-on-7 session, he hit 6-foot-5 receiver Brandon Kaufman in stride on a 35-yard deep cross.
A little later undrafted rookie Da’Rick Rogers of Tennessee Tech had to display quick hands to catch a bullet on a 5-yard slant in traffic over the middle.
“He hammered one in there to me,” Rogers said. “He’s got a cannon on him.”
Manuel had good timing with rookie second-round draft pick Robert Woods, connecting with the Southern California product on three short throws in the first five plays against the defense. Manuel also showed good touch on a fade pass to the far sideline, 20 yards downfield, to Kaufman.
Manuel was a tad behind receivers on some of the short completions, hitting them on the back shoulder. And he threw one interception late, on an overthrow over the deep middle that Dominique Ellis picked off.
Manuel got about two-thirds of the snaps, with undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel of Washington State getting the other third.
“I thought EJ did well, and I thought Jeff threw well,” said Bills coach Doug Marrone. “I thought both quarterbacks did a nice job coming in here.”
“It’s what I expected,” Marrone said of Manuel. “Again, to work on the footwork and he made some nice throws. What I expected, I didn’t think he’d come in here and be the polished guy that you have. You’re learning a new system. You’re learning new coaches. You’re getting a feel for yourself.”
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett spent the position-drills portion of the practice working on drop-backs with Manuel and Tuel and developing the proper footwork rhythm in the passing game.
“I think that was one of the biggest things we worked on today,” Manuel said. “I’m sure we’ll continue to work on the footwork up into the pocket and things like that, and do it how coach Hackett wants me to do it. ... It’s all predicated on the pass concept, just pairing the footwork with the passing play.”
“I think we both are going to continue to grow with the progressions and being on time,” Tuel said. “The biggest thing for EJ and I is the footwork. We’re not used to a seven-step drop with a double hitch or a double step-up ... so just those little things they want us to get used to and we will.”
Manuel has split his time in the two weeks since the draft between his home in Virginia Beach, Va., and the Florida State campus in Tallahassee, Fla. He got back to Buffalo on Thursday and was in Bills headquarters with the rest of the rookies at 6 a.m. Friday.
He has been perusing the Bills’ playbook on his iPad since he got it the day after he was picked 16th overall.
“I’ve been drilling it like crazy,” he said. “Coach Hackett said to look over it, but obviously he wants to coach it his way to Jeff and I. We pretty much went from square one today and just went to work.”