For the rest of their professional careers, Geno Smith and EJ Manuel will be forever linked. And now just three weeks into their respective rookie seasons, we will get a chance to see them on the same field together for the first time as the 1-1 Jets host the 1-1 Bills Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
Smith, a West Virginia product who fell to the Jets in Round 2, was the second quarterback taken in the draft.
"The Jets just took the guy I think is the best quarterback in the draft, and they did it at No. 39 overall," said ESPN Draft Guru Mel Kiper on draft weekend.
"He's a deft, quick-rhythm passer with the potential to develop into a star under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg (see: Michael Vick and Jeff Garcia)," added NFL.com/NFL Network Analyst Bucky Brooks in April.
Thus far, Smith has completed 53.4% of his passes with 1 TD and 4 INTs. He was very good in his home debut, becoming the first Jet since Ray Lucas in 1999 to lead the Jets in both passing yards (256) and rushing yards (47). But after getting into a rhythm to start the second half last Thursday in New England, Smith hit on just one of his final nine passes and was intercepted three times in the final stanza of a 13-10 loss to the Pats.
"He's done some excellent things," said Mornhinweg this week of Smith. "There are some plays he would like to have back. It's just that simple. We'll go through some ups and downs as a team, all the individuals will go through some ups and downs, and certainly Geno is right there. He's seeing some things for the first time. That will continue to happen until he gets some experience. This experience is valuable for him in the long run."
Mornhinweg's West Coast attack is far different than the shotgun spread Mountaineers offense Smith operated while in Morgantown, WV. Before the draft, ESPN's Todd McShay called Smith "the best all-around QB in the class," but also indicated there were times when Smith took too long to release the football.
"When the answer does not come from his first read and he has to check to his second and then his third read and go through those progressions, sometimes it does not come as quickly," said McShay.
The 6'3", 221-pound Smith displays veteran poise in the pocket. But he has been sacked nine times and the Jets are working with the rookie on getting rid of the football and finding escape routes.
"It's always important to get the ball out and to get it out on time," Smith said. "You never want to sit back there and pat it and babysit the ball. So, that is an emphasis and going up against a defense and a guy like Mario (Williams), it is going to be an emphasis to get the ball out."
Manuel, a Florida State product whose stock skyrocketed before the draft, became the first QB taken when the Bills took him off the board with the No. 16 selection. He has completed 68.2% of his passes (mostly short and intermediate throws) with 3 TD and 1 INT, and last week he led the Bills to a thrilling last-minute triumph over the Carolina Panthers. The 6'4", 237-pound Manuel has been sacked only once, but the 23-year-old will be facing a different animal on the road this week.
"I think we're both rooting for each other," Manuel said of Smith. "Obviously this weekend we're going to be competing against each other, there's no doubt about that. But I think we were both happy for each other when draft day came."
Neither rookie passer is concerned with the draft anymore. Smith dismissed the notion that he will have extra motivation to prove that he should have been the first quarterback selected.
"I think that mindset would be selfish. It's about this team," he said. "It's about all of us going out there and getting a win for each other. I'm not going out there worrying about what happened at the draft because that's come and gone and those feelings are far behind me. I'm just focusing on leading this offense, leading this team and then going out there on Sunday and playing well."
If both first-year quarterbacks play effectively this season, Sunday's matchup at the Met could be the start of a new passing rivalry inside the AFC East. Both Smith and Manuel want No. 2 this weekend — a second victory for their teams.