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Doug Whaley: It's a 'make-or-break year' for EJ Manuel

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- One day after reiterating at a pre-draft news conference that his team was without a proven franchise quarterback, Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley gave another honest assessment of EJ Manuel in a radio appearance Tuesday.

"He knows this is his make-or-break year," Whaley told WGR 550. "This is his time to step up and show everybody he's got a clean slate with a new coaching staff. It's his time. He's dedicated himself. He's working with Steve DeBerg in the offseason. The one thing we know is he's going to work his butt off, and he's committed. We'll see how the chips fall."

How much time will the Bills allow Manuel to prove himself? That's unclear. The Bills can call it a "make-or-break year" for Manuel, but the reality is that it could be a make-or-break summer for him. If Manuel doesn't win the starting job and Matt Cassel takes the reins by September, Manuel's opportunity to live up to his first-round status will have dried up, barring an injury or an in-season collapse by Cassel.

Whaley also mentioned the possibility of drafting another quarterback, adding some commentary about how Manuel's spot is being perceived.

"You could always add a quarterback if you don't have a proven guy out there," he said. "I know everybody's talking about, 'Well, he doesn't believe in EJ anymore.' He hasn't proven it yet. We still believe in EJ. We still believe he has a chance to do it. He hasn't proven it yet."

There hasn't been a stated lack of belief in Manuel by Whaley this offseason, but the message has taken a sharp turn.

Last offseason, the Bills stayed out of the free-agent quarterback market, as Whaley was adamant that he was set with Manuel, Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel on the roster. The team did not host any quarterback prospects on pre-draft visits and did not select one in the draft. Throughout the spring and summer, the message was that Manuel was the undisputed starter and the Bills would do whatever it took to build around him.

That changed when the Bills scrambled late in the preseason to sign Kyle Orton, and now the position is wide open in what coaches have called a three-way race between Manuel, Cassel and Tyrod Taylor. Instead of making Manuel the centerpiece of the discussion at quarterback, Whaley has referred to the quarterback position in generalities, using terms like "that position" and "that franchise quarterback."

That's not to say the Bills are wrong by opening up their options; in fact, most would agree it's what's best for the team right now. But even as Whaley says the Bills "still believe in EJ," the organization's stance and message at the position have noticeably changed.