Rookie E.J. Manuel Leads the Way for the Young Buffalo Bills

Team Will Feature Several First- and Second-year Players

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Rookie E.J. Manuel Leads the Way for the Young Buffalo Bills
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Jeff Tuel staves off competition from veterans Matt Leinart and Thad Lewis.

COMMENTARY | There's a youth movement unfolding at One Bills Drive. Just ask the Buffalo Bills' Doug Marrone -- a rookie when it comes to head coaching at the NFL level.

Marrone and the Bills enter Sunday's Week One matchup with the New England Patriots as 10-point underdogs. The double-digit slap from oddsmakers, however, likely has more to do with the unknown -- a rookie-heavy roster -- than it does with the past, which includes a 13-year playoff drought.

Rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel, the 16th overall selection, will open the season as the starter, the team announced Sept. 4, with undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel serving as the backup. As of right now, the Bills will not dress another quarterback -- marking the first time since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 that a team will enter the season with only rookies at the position.

"I think it's very difficult. If someone is reading it or hearing it and they've not been around those two people, they might say, 'He's crazy,'" Marrone said of starting the season with two rookie quarterbacks. "I think that if you've been around them and watched them, you'd say, 'These two guys look pretty darn good.'"

Call it crazy, but there's no denying that Marrone's approach is unique, especially when compared to his predecessors. During the last decade, the Bills have mixed young signal-callers with the likes of veterans Drew Bledsoe, Kelly Holcomb and Ryan Fitzpatrick. The results were mostly forgettable.

Perhaps the fresh approach is just what the doctor ordered.

"We both are still learning," Manuel said. "I think we both have a good grasp on the offense. We both had a lot of reps during the summer camp."

Taking the field with several rookies doesn't seem to bother Marrone in the least.

"I think that's our situation, and we feel that we're going to go in to it with the players we feel give us the best chance to win," Marrone said. "I don't have a problem if someone is a rookie, a veteran -- whatever it may be. Our job as coaches is to make sure we put people on the field that we can rely on and we feel that we can win with. That's our responsibility and accountability to the rest of the team. To answer your question, no I don't, I don't worry about."

In fact, when Manuel missed the team's final two preseason games with an unspecified knee injury, Marrone was ready to move forward with the 22-year-old Tuel.

"I'm excited about it," Marrone said on Aug. 26, when he announced that Tuel would be the Week One starter, if Manuel wasn't ready to go. ". …Because it's fun. You've got a guy out there that's played a lot and has a lot of snaps. It's exciting to get out there and play. It's a great opportunity for him, if that's what presents itself."

For Tuel -- who in the matter of four months went from being a longshot to make the roster, to nearly opening the season as a starter -- it's all about dropping preconceived notions.

"Just explains that you can never expect - you can never know what's going to happen in this league; you've always got to be ready," Tuel said. "That's why I've said since the day I walked in this building that I'm going to prepare myself, because you never know what could happen. Even going back in college, I had my redshirt-burned freshman year. The first time I played was in the Coliseum against USC in 2009, so it's happened to me before. I came here and started just preparing like I was a starter since day one. It can happen."

Tuel's story is more just right place, right time, though. The team made a snap decision -- three days of practice and a little more than a quarter of play -- to cut ties with Matt Leinart, rather than hanging on to him in hopes of rejuvenating his 2004 Heisman Trophy-winning form.

But it hardly ends with the quarterbacks.

At wide receiver, Marrone and his new coaching staff announced less than a month after arriving in Buffalo that veterans Donald Jones and David Nelson would not be re-signed. The Bills will instead look for immediate impact from rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, both of whom were impressive throughout training camp and the preseason.

"A lot of times with young receivers, when they come into this league, you're always talking about, 'Hey, have some patience in your routes and in what you do.' And that's the one thing about Robert [Woods] - it's a great trait from him," Marrone said of his young receiver. "So when I think about, even pre-draft, when people talked about Robert being NFL-ready, I think that's what people were talking about - just that patience of finding the zone, patience in running the route and not being too quick."

Rookie kicker Dustin Hopkins -- who is currently ailing a sore groin -- beat out veteran Rian Lindell during training camp, while second-year pro Shawn Powell has control of the punting duties.

On defense, the Bills recently parted ways with veteran linebacker Bryan Scott, which will likely result in increased playing time for Nigel Bradham, who is entering his second season. Scott, who was widely considered a team leader, was not the lone veteran released from the defensive side of the ball; the team also waived goodbye in February to linebacker Nick Barnett and strong safety George Wilson.

Whether or not the youthful Bills prove oddsmakers wrong is anyone's guess. But one thing's for certain: Veterans are on a short leash.

All quotes in this story were obtained first-hand.

Charles Roberts covers the NFL's Buffalo Bills and the University at Buffalo football program as a credentialed member of the media. His work has appeared in several local and national print and online publications; he has also been called upon for radio spots.

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