Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is focused on teaching EJ Manuel proper footwork as a big first step in getting the team’s prized rookie quarterback ready for the NFL.
Manuel needs to match his steps in the pocket to the pass routes the receivers are running as he learns the Bills’ new offense.
“Footwork is tied into everything,” Hackett said after the Bills’ spring practice Tuesday. “Everything is within your footwork. It’s a very big learning process. For us, we use our footwork, we use our progression, and we move up in the pocket.”
The Bills’ offense, like many in the NFL, is rooted in West Coast offense principles. That means there are a lot of three- and five-step drop backs by the quarterback, who needs to get the ball out of his hands quickly and on rhythm to give the receiver a chance to run after the catch. The pass routes stretch the field horizontally as well as vertically. The quarterback goes through a progression across the field in identifying where to throw the ball, and his feet are moving in the pocket as he scans the field for an open man.
“It’s all predicated on the pass concept, just pairing the footwork with the passing play,” Manuel said.
At Florida State, Manuel had a lot of plays in which he had to read only half the field as he stood in the pocket or rolled out in the direction the play was going. It’s not that Manuel wasn’t taught fundamentals. He worked from under center a lot at Florida State and employed pro-style drop backs. Some college quarterbacks in spread offenses use mostly rocker-steps, not real drop backs, after they get a shotgun snap. The Bills don’t have to teach Manuel from scratch. But Manuel now has to adopt the rhythm and footwork Hackett wants as he scans the full field for receivers.
“It’s been fun to watch him come along, especially when he was first here, he was kind of a drop back and stand there,” Hackett said. “Now there’s a little more rhythm to it. You see him stepping up, working up and making plays. Those are things he’s got to get used to, things we ask him to do here.”
Hackett also has changed the way Manuel moves the ball as he’s dropping back. Manuel is putting his hands on the ball the same way he always has done, but Hackett wants his quarterback to be more comfortable. Instead of consciously holding the ball toward the left side of his chest as he’s dropping back, he’s now allowing the ball to rock back and forth a bit.
“It’s not my hand placement, it’s moreso where I place the ball in my drop,” Manuel said. “So now I’m going breast to breast, instead of in college I was holding it in one spot when I was dropping. So now it’s a little more fluid in my drop.”
It’s something Hackett saw watching film. “It was a big question I had,” Hackett said.
The emphasis is on Manuel feeling instinctive, not trying to teach him some new, unnatural way to carry the ball.
“I think for a quarterback, they have to be comfortable back there to be able to step up into the pocket,” Hackett said. “They have to be able to move. If you force anything on them, you can’t do that because now they’re thinking about holding the ball instead of everything else. Just go back there and be calm, cool, collected and go to work.”
Hackett doesn’t have to worry about the throwing motion of the 6-foot-5 Manuel. The 23-year-old has hands that are 10≤ inches from thumb to pinky finger. (The hand sizes of last year’s top NFL rookies: Andrew Luck 10 inches, Robert Griffin III 9½ inches and Russell Wilson 10œ inches.) The ball spins out of Manuel’s grip nicely, and his release is quick.
“His arm strength, it’s effortless to throw the ball,” Hackett said. “So it’s exciting to see him and try to develop him into an even better quarterback.”
Manuel has shown some touch to go along with a big arm. On Tuesday, he hit rookie receiver Da’Rick Rogers on a pretty touch pass, dropping the ball over Rogers’ shoulder 35 yards downfield. Rogers had burned the coverage and made the catch in perfect stride.
“I taught him that,” Hackett said, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “That was all me.”
Bills receiver Stevie Johnson participated in individual drills for the first time in voluntary offseason workouts. He has been sitting out because of a lower back injury.
“It definitely feels good to just be out there on the field, even through the little pains I have,” Johnson said. “It’s getting better every week. They gave me a six- to eight-week thing to even get on the field, and it’s only been about three, so I feel good.”
Besides safety Jairus Byrd, who is unsigned, two other veterans have not yet appeared at the voluntary organized team activity workouts. They are defensive tackle Alan Branch and linebacker Manny Lawson, both unrestricted free-agent acquisitions.
“They have things going on personally, and good situations for them, where they have to be supportive of their families,” coach Doug Marrone said this week. “Again it is a situation where these workouts are voluntary.”