There seems to be an infatuation with Sam Bradford’s performance following last years regression from his 2010, Rookie of the Year performance. Many are claiming that Bradford is the next, David Carr or that this is a make-or-break season for the young quarterback. This type of hyperbole is commonplace in the NFL, especially for a small media franchise, since the less-covered players tend to get looked at through a brief overview of their performance at the end of the season, as opposed to actual analysis of their observed play on the football field. Analysts tend to live in the “now” and forget the struggles that former first overall picks have gone through at the beginnings of their careers. Bradford and the other first overall picks are taken that high for a reason. The teams drafting them are the floorboard of the NFL, and it can take some time to get a team back on track.
Since 2000, 10 of the 12 first overall picks have been quarterbacks, with the exceptions being DE Mario Williams and OT Jake Long. The rest of the players were brought to the team in hopes that they would turn the franchise around. We will take a look at a couple of players who were successful and a couple of “busts” and compare their performance to Sam Bradford.
2002, David Carr (Fresno State), Houston Texans
Carr was the first choice after Houston was given the rights to the expansion team in 2002. Carr is a classic example of supreme talent that was wasted in the NFL because an organizations failure to put the necessary piece around him. Carr was most infamous for the quantity of sacks that he took as a quarterback while playing in Houston. Even with the sacks, Carr managed to play a majority of this careers without missing games due to injury, although he did miss four during his sophomore campaign. Bradford has been likened to Carr by a number of analysts, not necessarily because of his abilities, but because of the organization failing to put the players around him. Here is how Carr performance in his first 2 seasons as a starters…
Passing: 400 for 739 passes, 54.1% completion rate, 4605 yards, 11.5 yards per completion, 18 TD, 28 INT, 91 sacks, 11.0% sack percentage (meaning Carr was sacked on 11% of all passing attempts)
Record: 4-12 in 2002 as a rookie, 3-8 in 2003 after missing 5 games with injury; For his career, Carr never made the playoffs, the Super Bowl, or the Pro Bowl
Best Receiver: Andre Johnson, drafted in 2003 3rd overall, 5 time Pro-Bowler
2004, Eli Manning (Ole Miss), San Diego Chargers
Eli started off his career with an interesting refusal to play for the San Diego Chargers, and was traded to the New York Giants. Eli Manning is a perfect example of why a quarterback cannot be judge solely on his statistical production on the field. In nearly half as many seasons, Eli has already won more Super Bowl rings than his future Hall of Fame brother, Peyton Manning. He was the MVP of both of those contests, beating the New England Patriots and Tom Brady on both occasions. Eli did not start for the Giants until November of his rookie season, and was actually benched in his fourth start against the Baltimore Ravens after finishing the first half with a 0.0 passer rating. Here are Eli Manning’s numbers in his first two season as an NFL starter, not counting his actual rookie year…
Passing: 595 for 1079 passes, 55.1% completion rate, 7006 yards, 11.8 yards per completion, 48 TD, 35 INT, 53 sacks, 4.7% sack percentage
Record: As a rookie in 2004, Eli want 1-6 as a starter; However, as a full time starter Manning went 11-5 in 2005 as a sophomore, and 8-8 in 2006
Best Receiver: Jeremy Shockey, drafted in 2002 with the 14th overall pick, Pro Bowler in both 2005 and 2006
2005, Alex Smith (Utah), San Francisco 49ers
Much like Manning, Smith did not get the starting job for the 49ers from day one. In Week 5, Smith got the start over then-starter Tim Rattay. In his limited time, Alex Smith did not perform well, ending his season with a 2-5 record in games played, throwing only 1 TD and 11 INT, and being sacked on 14.9% of pass attempts. Like Bradford, Smith went into his second season with a new offensive coordinator, Norv Turner. However, unlike Bradford, the 49er instantly put top tier talent around Smith, drafting Vernon Davis with their first round pick and handing Frank Gore the starting job at running back. Smith also got a new offensive coordinator in his third year, after Norv Turner was given the Head Coaching job in San Diego. Here are Alex Smith’s numbers from his first two years as a full time starter…
Passing: 351 for 635 passes, 55.3% completion rate, 3804 yards, 10.8 yards per completion, 18 TD, 20 INT, 52 sacks, 7.6% sack percentage
Record: 7-9 in 2006 during his first full year as a starter, 2-5 in 2007 after sustaining a grade-three shoulder separation early in the season
Best Receiver: Vernon Davis, drafted in 2006 with the 6th overall pick
2007, JaMarcus Russell (LSU), Oakland Raiders
JaMarcus Russell is the classic, new era example of a “bust,” a top selection that did not pan out for the team. Russell started off his career with a holdout, which lasted up until the first week of his rookie season. He only started one game in his rookie season, which was the season finale against the San Diego Chargers. He ended that game on a medical cart, after throwing 2 interceptions and losing a fumble. Here are JaMarcus Russell’s stats from his first two seasons after being named the official starter…
Passing: 318 for 614 passes, 51.8% completion rate, 3710 yards, 11.7 yards per completion, 16 TD, 19 INT, 64 sacks, 9.4% sack percentage
Record: 5-10 in 2008 after being marked as the starter, 2-7 in 2009 after being benched “indefinitely” by then-Head Coach Tom Cable in favor of Bruce Gradkowski; Russell was released following the 2009 season, where he cleared waivers and has not been picked up since
Best Receiver: Zach Miller, drafted in 2007 with the 38th overall pick
2009, Matthew Stafford (Georgia), Detroit Lions
Stafford marked the start of the new era of first overall picks to be a starter from the first game as a rookie, after beating out veteran Daunte Culpepper in the preseason. However, Stafford’s first two season as a starter were both riddled with injury, after sustaining a knee injury in 2009 and shoulder injury in 2010. Stafford did show glimpses of brilliance in his brief time on the field, becoming the youngest quarterback to throw for 5 touchdowns in a single game. However, he did not fully bud until the 2011 season, which was his first full year as a starter in the NFL. Here are Matthew Stafford’s numbers from the 13 games he played in during his first two seasons as a starter…
Passing: 258 for 473 passes, 54.5% completion rate, 2802 yards, 10.9 yards per completion, 19 TD, 21 INT, 28 sacks, 5.6% sack percentage
Record: 2-8 in 2009 as a rookie, 1-2 in 2010 before throwing in the towel with the right shoulder injury
Best Receiver: Calvin Johnson, drafted in 2007 with the 2nd overall pick, Pro Bowler in 2009 and 2010
2010, Sam Bradford (Oklahoma), St. Louis Rams
For King Sam, we are going to do the analysis backwards, with his numbers first then a breakdown after…
Passing: 545 for 947 passes, 57.6% completion rate, 5676 yards, 10.4 yards per completion, 24 TD, 21 INT, 70 sacks, 6.9% sack percentage
Record: 7-9 in 2010 as a rookie, which is the most wins by a starting rookie quarterback in NFL history, 1-9 in 2011 after sustaining a high ankle sprain earlier in the season, although he did play in several games despite the injury
Best Receiver: Danny Amendola, undrafted in 2008, signed and cut by Dallas Cowboys in 2008, signed to their practice squad, released after the season; signed and cut by Philadelphia Eagles in 2009, signed to their practice squad, released after the season
On this list, Bradford is the only quarterback to play the entire season as a rookie in the NFL, which, in turn, helps mark him as the only player on this list to win Rookie of the Year honors. Even playing in several games in 2011 with the high ankle sprain and depleted talent on the offensive side of the ball due to injury, he still easily has the best completion percentage, and is one of the two quarterbacks to throw more touchdowns than interceptions in his first two years. As a matter of fact, Bradford threw for as many touchdown, or more, in his 2010 season alone than Alex Smith, JaMarcus Russell, and David Carr threw in their first two years combined. He also doesn’t take huge amounts of sacks, which is seemingly where Bradford has gotten the “David Carr” tag. Even behind a putrid offensive line, Bradford has taken nowhere near the 91 sacks Carr took as a Texan, where he was essentially sacked more than once every 10 snaps. The only player to beat him statistically in the other categories is Eli Manning, who, although he was technically drafted by the Chargers with the first pick, really should be considered a 5th overall since he was immediately traded to the Giants who were a much better team.
Other notable first overall picks played much, much worse than Bradford in their first two years. Troy Aikman, the 6-time Pro Bowl, Hall of Famer, was taken with the first choice in the 1989 draft. He went 7-19 in his first two seasons with Dallas, throwing for 20 TD and 36 INT, and getting sacked 58 times. John Elway, the first overall pick in 1983, had a better winning percentage, but threw for 25 TD and 29 INT, for a little over 4200 yards. Terry Brawshaw, taken with the first pick in the 1970 NFL Draft, was easily the most pathetic of any of the quarterbacks listed here in his first two years. Although he was a semi-respectable 8-13 as a starter, he only completed 48.4% of his passes, with 19 TD and an amazing 46 INT, and racked up only 3669 yards for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The 2012 season will be a fresh start, another season to progress into the franchise quarterback for the St. Louis Rams. Bradford finally has a competent head coach, an offensive system suited for his skill set and, more importantly, the skill level of the players around him, some talented, young receivers, and a upgraded offensive line. Most important of all, he has his health back, which Matthew Stafford showed may be the most valuable asset for a young, budding quarterback. For all the hype about Sam Bradford not showing signs of an elite quarterback, he has been vastly superior to a majority of the quarterbacks taken first overall in the last decade, and beyond. Bradford was taken as a first overall choice for a reason, to help a team in dire need of a leader and pull that team out of the depths of the NFL. Bradford has shown that he can do that through his ability to elevate the talent around him, in taking a 1-15 team to 7-9 without many upgrades elsewhere on the roster. It is a process, but Bradford is not in the category of the JaMarcus Russells or David Carrs, something he has proven through his relatively superior production and ability to lead his team.