No player on the St. Louis Rams roster elicits the kind of debate that quarterback Sam Bradford does. His play improved during the Rams 7-8-1 run this season, but he has a long way to go before filling out the potential of a first-overall pick in the NFL Draft.
ESPN's Ron Jaworski rolled out his final QB rankings for the 2012 season last week. Here's what he had to say about Bradford, who he had ranked at No. 21:
I'd rate Bradford somewhere between OK and good this year. It started to look like he has regained his form from his first season. I think there's plenty of potential here still, and if the Rams can get him some more help in the draft, he clearly can move up these rankings.
I know the mere mention of Bradford incites a torrent of angry comments, but it's a subject that's not easy to overlook. Mike Sando raised a really good point about Bradford on Friday.
Now, for the not-so-good news: Bradford's QBR score was a below-average 43.2 against all other opponents. His starting record in those games was 5-7, with four of the victories against Arizona (twice), Buffalo and a tanking Tampa Bay team.
I've felt as though a player drafted as early as Bradford was drafted -- first overall in 2010 -- should occasionally dominate a game. There should be times when the opponent leaves the stadium thinking something along the lines of, "Hey, when Sam Bradford gets hot like that, there's not much anyone can do about it."
We haven't seen those types of games from Bradford.
Think about some of the Rams' other top pick. Chris Long and Robert Quinn have had a few of those games. Janoris Jenkins has a couple of them under his belt already too. Jason Smith is long gone because he could never muster an above average outing.
We know the long list of reasons that have contributed to Bradford's middling performance over his first three seasons. The offensive line troubles, lack of receivers, injuries, coaching changes. Nobody would deny that those things have played a big role.
But all of those things were lessened this season. The offensive line allowed 34 sacks, the lowest total since the Rams won a Super Bowl. The team's sack rate was 6.1 percent, which ranked 13th out of 32 teams per Football Outsiders. Danny Amendola, when healthy, improved his performance. Chris Givens and Brandon Gibson dramatically improved, and for the first time in years the Rams had three receivers with at least 600 yards. The top four receivers and tight end Lance Kendricks combined for only 15 drops.
The old familiar excuses were much less of an excuse this season.
None of this is to suggest it's over for Bradford. No, it doesn't look to me like he's going to live up to those Troy Aikman comparisons, but he still has the chance to be a good quarterback, the kind who can occasionally take over a game.
This next season Bradford's fourth and his second consecutive one with the Rams under competent administration. He has three seasons left on a burdensome contract that will command $12.6 million in cap space this year, almost $18 million next year and $16.5 million in its final year.
Expectations for Bradford have to rise in the season ahead. The coaches, the line and the receivers cannot be the crutch to justify league-average play at elite prices. The offensive line is likely to get some upgrades, but the Rams are pretty committed to the group of receivers they have now. The bulk o the offensive improvement rests on Bradford's shoulders. The Rams are his team in 2013.
Personally, I think Bradford will improve this year, which also means I'm upping my expectations for his fourth year. Everyone should.