Bills would be wise to gauge EJ Manuel trade market

It's a spring of new beginnings in Buffalo. Hear the name EJ Manuel, and the words "fresh start" or "second chance" are sure to follow.

That's good news for the third-year quarterback, who could stand to benefit more than any player from the Buffalo Bills' high-profile coaching change. If all goes well for Manuel, he'll live up to his status as a first-round pick and secure the Bills' starting job this summer.

But if he doesn't take the necessary step forward, the Bills would be wise to consider trading Manuel, potentially sooner rather than later.

As much as teammate Sammy Watkins believes Manuel is a "totally different guy," it's not something that can be proved at this time of the year. Come July, when training camp starts, there is a very real chance that Manuel is the same quarterback who struggled for the Bills early last season.

The Bills must weigh Manuel's trade value against his potential to become the team's franchise quarterback. It's not exactly an inverse relationship, but in general, the longer Manuel goes without proving himself as a viable NFL starter, the less he'll be worth on the trade market.

There is a precedent of recent first- and second-round quarterbacks who have been traded by the team that drafted them. Here's a look at those deals, and what was acquired in return:

  • In March, the St. Louis Rams traded Sam Bradford (the first overall pick in 2010), a 2015 fifth-round pick and a 2016 conditional pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for Nick Foles, a 2015 fourth-round pick and a 2016 second-round pick.

  • In March 2014, the Jacksonville Jaguars traded Blaine Gabbert (the 10th overall pick in 2011) to the San Francisco 49ers for a 2014 sixth-round pick and a possible conditional 2015 draft choice based on Gabbert's 2014 playing time. The Jaguars did not receive that pick.

  • In March 2012, the Denver Broncos traded Tim Tebow (the 25th overall pick in 2010) and a 2012 seventh-round pick to the New York Jets for a 2012 fourth-round pick and 2012 sixth-round pick.

  • In July 2011, the Eagles traded Kevin Kolb (the 36th overall pick in 2007) to the Arizona Cardinals for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick.

  • In March 2010, the Cleveland Browns traded Brady Quinn (the 22nd overall pick in 2007) to the Broncos for Peyton Hillis, a 2011 sixth-round pick and a fifth-round pick in 2012.

  • In April 2009, the Broncos traded Jay Cutler (the 11th overall pick in 2006) and a 2009 fifth-round pick to the Chicago Bears for Kyle Orton, a 2009 first-round pick, a 2010 first-round pick and a 2009 third-round pick.

The Tebow trade would be the closest parallel to the Bills' potentially dealing Manuel this summer.

The Broncos cut the cord on Tebow after two seasons, as the Bills would be doing if they traded Manuel this summer. Statistically, the two quarterbacks were remarkably similar in their first two seasons. From 2010 to 2011, Tebow made 14 starts, posting an 8-6 record, a 73.2 passer rating and a 35.3 Total QBR. From 2013 to 2014, Manuel also made 14 starts, posting a 6-8 record, 78.5 passer rating and a 35.1 Total QBR.

The Broncos were able to net a mid-round pick for Tebow. If the Bills could get the same haul -- hypothetically, a 2016 fourth-round pick -- for Manuel, should they do it?

Right now, the answer would seem to be "no," since Manuel's potential to become the Bills' starter outweighs the value of the asset that the Bills could acquire in return for him.

But when does the scale tip in favor of trading Manuel? If the Bills draft a quarterback with either their second- or third-round picks next month, the prospect of trading Manuel becomes much more appealing.

The sweet spot for trading Manuel could be early August. At that point, Bills coaches would have two months of spring camps and about two weeks of training camp to have evaluated him. If they don't like what they see, they could try to strike a deal before the rest of the NFL has a chance to see Manuel on film in preseason games.

If the Bills wait too long to explore a trade -- hypothetically, the end of August, around the time of final cuts -- two factors will work against them. First, Manuel's value could take a hit if he performs poorly in the preseason, and second, teams will be much less comfortable adding a quarterback and teaching him their system just days before the start of the regular season.

Should veteran Matt Cassel win the Bills' starting job and the Bills keep Manuel as their backup for this upcoming season, they could still try to strike a trade the following spring.

The closest parallel to that version of a deal would be the Jaguars' trade of Gabbert, which went down before his fourth season. In that case, the return was less than the Tebow haul; the Jaguars only received a late-round pick.

At this point, there's no evidence that the Bills are even discussing a trade for Manuel, and their organizational message is that he deserves another shot at proving why he was the Bills' top pick two years ago.

But as much hope as a fresh start brings for Manuel, the Bills would be smart to consider all of their options with him -- including a trade -- and to make a level-headed determination of when his market value will peak.