As I write this the first pick in the NFL Draft, Sam Bradford, has not yet signed his contract, but there is no reason to think that he won’t do so soon, or that he won’t join his new team in St. Louis for most or all of training camp. Negotiations are underway and both sides realize that a record deal is going to be signed, so there is little contention.
Unless something unexpected happens and Bradford is forced out of action for longer than expected like JaMarcus Russell was in the same position a few years ago, the next big challenge for football handicappers is deciding how to handle the star from Oklahoma. He’s a ridiculously talented guy, but he’s coming off a serious injury - to his throwing shoulder, no less - and he’s joining a stunningly bad team, so it’s not easy to assess the likely outcome of this season and beyond. Figuring out how to bet on him - especially early in the season - is ultimately going to be a matter of feel and instinct. Here are five issues to consider as you decide for yourself:
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Depth chart - What Bradford does is not relevant if he doesn’t end up getting a lot of playing time. If he shows up at camp on time and is healthy, though, you can reasonably assume that he is going to play a lot.
If you look at the depth chart you don’t see a lot of real contenders for the starting job. Put another way, if Bradford can’t manage to win the starting job quickly then there are real issues.
His backup is A.J. Feeley, a guy who hasn’t taken a snap in a game since 2007 and who hasn’t played in more than three games in a season since 2004. Feeley is currently the starting quarterback on the team according to the coaching staff, but that’s obviously not a long-term position.
Third stringer Keith Null played the last four games of the year for the Rams last year, and was about as good as you would expect a sixth round pick from West Texas A&M to be. Not good, in other words. He threw three TDs against nine interceptions.
If Bradford isn’t quickly a better option than either guy quickly then there is an issue. For better or worse Bradford is likely to see a lot of playing time - to get thrown to the wolves - right from the start.
Health - Bradford hurt his shoulder in the first game of the season last year. He came back and played one game against Baylor - far from his best - before being injured again, this time for good, early in the big game against Texas. Both times it was the same throwing shoulder that was the issue. That’s an obvious red flag.
You can be sure, though, that no team would have picked him with the top pick knowing that they would be paying him tens of millions of guaranteed dollars if they weren’t confident the arm will be fine.
He threw brilliantly at his pro day, and has performed as expected since. His health can’t really be viewed as a big concern. In fact, you could spin last season as a positive - he didn’t take much game abuse last year, so his body is probably healthier and more rested than any QB in the league right now.
Efficiency - The biggest problem that young quarterbacks always have is with their efficiency. They consistently throw too many incompletions, and far too many interceptions per touchdown.
Bradford is likely to have some of those same problems, but what stands out about him more than anything else is his ability to be efficient. As a redshirt freshman thrown in to action he completed 69.5 percent of his passes in a pass-heavy offense, and threw 36 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. The next year he jumped to 50 TD passes while staying at eight interceptions. His completion percentage, yards per attempt, and TD/Int ratio are all exceptional throughout college - exceptional in a way that we rarely see right from the outset of a career.
Bradford clearly has an inate ability to find and connect with an open receiver. He’s also a very smart player who learns and adapts quickly. The jump from college to the pros is massive for a quarterback, but he seems better suited than most to make that jump. Most rookie quarterbacks complete less than 60 percent of passes, complete less than 40 percent on third down (often much less), and throw more interceptions than TDs. Bradford has a good chance of beating expectations in at least one of those counts.
Offensive line - That last section may have caused some optimism, but this section will temper that a bit. No quarterback can be brilliant without brilliant offensive line play, and it’s far from certain, or likely, that Bradford will get that this year.
The offensive line has long been a problem, and is a big reason why Marc Bulger got so beaten up in his later years and why he was increasingly ineffective. They have taken big steps towards shoring up the line - like drafting Jason Smith with the second overall pick last year - but it’s still a work in progress, and it’s not always going to be smooth this year.
Bradford is going to get more than his share of attention from big d-linemen this year. If he’s at all nervous about his shoulder then that could be a big issue.
Offensive tools - A QB is only as good as the tools he is surrounded with. That’s a mixed bag for Bradford. Stephen Jackson is consistently excellent, and will continue to be as long as his body holds up - he’s seven years into his career already and has carried 1,548 times for 6,707 yards, so there is some wear on the tires. Jackson will be Bradford’s best friend. The receivers likely aren’t going to be quite as helpful. There are some intriguing guys on the roster, but none that are proven at a high level. Donnie Avery wasn’t very good in his second year (though he didn’t have much to work with at QB); Laurent Robinson has promise but is coming off a broken leg; and Mardy Gilyard is just a rookie. He doesn’t even have a certain outlet at tight end - Randy McMichael bolted to the Chargers, so the likely starter is Daniel Fells - a guy who had just 21 catches in 14 games last year before breaking his leg.
Bradford is going to have to develop quick relationships with those guys and figure out who he can rely on if he doesn’t want to be eaten alive. It’s hard to imagine that difficult process going smoothly.
Allen Eastman is back with his 99 System for NFL picks in 2010 and before he even came across this system he was considered one of the best NFL handicappers in the business – now he is just unstoppable. Last season the 99 System was 27-13 ATS and this system not only helped his clients make a boatload of money, but also helped Eastman to third place in the prestigious Las Vegas Hilton NFL Contest.