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By Joe Buscaglia
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Bills' Manuel begins journey to prove himself as starter

For the first time in 2014, the Buffalo Bills have reconvened and are starting their preparations for the upcoming season. While there weren't any drills on the field, it was a time for players to do some conditioning and strength work, all the while communicating with the coaching staff for the first time since the end of the season.

"Obviously we’re extremely excited as coaches and as an organization when the players start coming back in this building," head coach Doug Marrone said Tuesday. "Even though you’re limited to doing a lot of things and we know it’s voluntary. It’s great to see the players back knowing that we do have a lot of hard work ahead of us."

According to the coach, the attendance was near 100-percent for the first day with only a few exceptions. Marrone said that he has the understanding that it will get to full attendance very shortly.

Topping the list of those present for the first day will be the player directly tied to the success or failure of the Bills in 2014: starting quarterback EJ Manuel. There is little doubt that it's a quarterback-driven league, and Buffalo will have to hope that Manuel irons out all the wrinkles from his game as a rookie. The quarterback agrees with all of that, and knows he needs to prove himself in 2014.

"A year after you’re drafted you have one year under your belt so I know you usually want to make that big jump from your rookie year to your second year, your sophomore year," Manuel said. "I’m eager about it. I’m very excited and I think I’m taking the right steps right now. I tried to jot down everything I felt I needed to work on and I felt like I made the proper steps up to this point and helped myself get prepared for that so now it’s just staying a part of the plan.

Those in attendance could notice a different air about the second-year player. Not having to deal with the whirlwind that is the NFL Draft process like he did this time last year, Manuel looked noticeably more loose and comfortable in speaking with the media.

Even Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson noticed the differences during their on-field workouts in Miami a couple of weeks ago. Johnson alluded to the zip, and how Manuel's throws were all on point. The wideout even said that Manuel was much more vocal, telling teammates where to be and what to do if they had a misstep.

"The main reason was because I’ve been doing so much studying I can pretty much go out there and call whatever I want to call," the second-year quarterback said. "As far as me maturing as a quarterback and as this team’s quarterback, that is what they want from me. That’s what I want to be able to do, I want to have the responsibility to tell those guys that the route wasn’t right and they won’t take that personally."

Manuel and some of his receivers met for a five-day stretch in California, and then a four-day stretch in Miami. There they all participated in churning through the playbook from an on-the-field perspective.

It's all encouraging in April, but most know that with a playoff-worthy roster in place for 2014, it's on the young quarterback to lead the team back to the place that the Bills haven't been since the turn of the century. Right from the end of the season, the decision makers of the organization have at times gone out of their way to say how invested in Manuel they are for 2014.

It's Manuel's team, and they'll either sink or swim with the progress of their young quarterback. Much of that will be determined by his health after missing six games in 2013 due to various knee injuries.

Manuel said that his knee, which endured another procedure since the end of the 2013 regular season, was back to normal and even characterized himself as a full participant during Tuesday's workouts.

"I haven’t had any limitations throughout the whole offseason since it was time for me to start working out and running and throwing," he said. "No limitations at all, I feel great."

Manuel and the majority of his teammates participated in what is termed as "voluntary offseason conditioning" workouts Tuesday. If the players so choose, they are able to be at team facilities working out for five separate four-day stretches, all happening in consecutive weeks.

Once that period ends, the next line of work for veterans of the Bills will be with the start of Organized Team Activities on Wednesday, May 28. There will be a total of 10 of those on-field workouts, which are also voluntary, that extend into June. It all leads up to the team's three-day mandatory minicamp that begins on June 17, which will be the last time the team can work with their players until the start of training camp in July.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

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