PITTSFORD, N.Y. (AP) — After a shaky start to training camp, Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel has had a renewed confidence on the practice field in recent days.
Buffalo is looking to keep that momentum on its side in its first real test of the preseason when the Bills play the New York Giants in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, on Sunday.
“Obviously we want to go out there and put out a great product,” Manuel said. “It’s national TV. It’s the kickoff of the NFL season so obviously we want to start off with a bang.”
Most of the attention has been on Manuel at Buffalo’s training camp in suburban Rochester.
The Bills have surrounded the second-year quarterback with an assortment of playmaking options, including newcomers Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams at wide receiver and incumbents C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson at running back.
With an assortment of talent at the skill positions, the pressure is on the former first-round pick to step up and lead the Bills into the postseason for the first time since 1999.
As expected, the results have been mixed two weeks into training camp.
Watkins, the dynamic rookie chosen fourth overall after Buffalo traded up in the draft, has been electric.
After injury-filled seasons one year ago, Spiller and Jackson are healthy and running well. But Manuel’s first week on the practice field was littered with incompletions, slow reads in the pocket and questionable decision-making.
Manuel has made progress throughout Buffalo’s second week of camp. On Wednesday, he appeared to have more command in the pocket and connected with second-year receiver Robert Woods for a pair of impressive touchdowns in the red zone. He also connected with receiver Chris Hogan on a decisive throw in a tight window down the middle of the field. On Thursday, he was aggressive early in the practice session and found Watkins for a 99-yard touchdown down the left sideline.
“We have been making strides,” Manuel said. “Even in the dog days of last week, I felt like we were still making strides to get to this point. It’s not always going to be perfect. The O-line has been doing a great job. Our communication has really picked up. I think that’s just allowing us quarterbacks to have time to throw the ball downfield to our receivers.”
After displaying a conservative nature on the field as a rookie, Manuel’s aggressiveness in recent days has been encouraging. The quarterback said that he has watched film of top quarterbacks around the league — including Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton — and gained more of an appreciation for taking chances down the field.
“I think a lot of the throws that I’ve started to make this year, at least attempted to make, I wasn’t doing it last year,” Manuel said. “I think instead of being more cautious … our receivers, they want to make plays. They want the opportunity to make a big catch. I think watching a guy like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, they cut it loose. They allow their receivers to go out and make a play and earn their money. I think that’s what I’ve started to do.”
Manuel and the Bills still have a long way to go, but the quarterback feels that their progress is heading in the right direction.
On Sunday, they get their first chance to prove it.
“I think we’re progressing along the timeline that we want to be progressing,” Manuel said. “We’re still four weeks away from the opener in the regular season, so as long as we continue to put a brick in each day and get better and better, I think we’ll be more than ready to go.”