The biggest story for the Rams this year has been the development and play of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. Now that we’ve seen "The Great Hope" take some snaps with the first team offense in training camp and chuck the rock in a "game situation" (if preseason games can be called such), we have the opportunity to reflect on his performance in relation to the highly esteemed* veteran quarterbacks on the roster, namely Keith Null and A.J. Feeley. What does Bradford’s performance mean when combined with rookie quarterback trends and current team’s performance? Should we ease our quarterback of the future into the league or throw him to the wolves in Week 1? When will Bradford get his first start? A detailed analysis after the jump…
First and foremost, we can rule out Keith Null ever starting again for the Rams unless something goes terribly, terribly wrong and both Feeley and Bradford unable to play…in which case I could foresee us signing another quarterback than give him the reins again. The guy had a 49.9 passer rating and threw three times as many picks as he did touchdowns (9 to 3) in 2009.
Feeley is the only discernable competition for the starting spot. Since being drafted in the 5th round of the 2001 NFL draft, Feeley has changed teams six times in ten season and has thrown a miniscule 665 passes, 372 of which were for completions. This has been mostly due to his semi-permanent role as a backup, yet he nonetheless has a career 69.6 passer rating, putting him in the realm of JaMarcus Russell’s 65.2 rating, and almost dead even with Alex Smith’s career rating, the guy who three one touchdown and eleven picks as a rookie.
How have Feeley and Bradford looked in practice? Well Bradford has already progressed in the eyes of Steve Spagnuolo to the extent that he is splitting first team snaps with Feeley at the current moment. In the Rams’ first preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings, Feeley started and played the first two series, finishing three of six for 19 yards and nearly getting intercepted on multiple throws. Meanwhile Bradford finished six of thirteen for 57 yards against mostly second-stringers. Bradford also hit the dirt four times, however this reflects the offense line’s poor play more than an inability to make quick decisions and evade the pass rush.
Bradford’s performance is likely to be at least comparable to Feeley’s. No one is expecting him to lead the Rams to the Super Bowl and claim the title of league MVP. For this reason, it seems like a good idea to start the fellow right from Game 1, which is a contest I believe the Rams have a shot at competing in.
If the first game of the season was a formidable matchup where the Rams are almost certain to fail, I would say let him hug the sidelines for a couple games. The argument to allow the line to gel and wait for the rest of the young lineup to get their timing down and enjoy a taste of NFL gameday is compelling, yet the reason to start him in this specific game comes down to building some confidence for the team and the young quarterback. It seems certain that by Week 1, Bradford will be the quarterback on the Rams roster most likely to lead us to a win over the Arizona Cardinals. If the Rams somehow pull off a win in Week 1, it completely changes the tones of the season. Even if Bradford has a poor performance and we win, it will have been worth it. Additionally, developing his game awareness and the necessary adaptations to the professional game that he will need in the future will simply not happen in practice. There is nothing quite like a motivated first-team defense trying to rip you to pieces as fast as it can.
Of course, great reward often comes with great risk. Many are concerned that our offensive line is simply too porous to start the highest paid rookie ever. Bradford is an investment and should be treated as such. My response? Starting a game doesn’t mean you play the whole thing. I say we let the kid (who is the best quarterback on our roster) play and if things get out of hand or the other team quickly pulls away, pull him. As long as we let him know that we expect him to struggle and do not destroy his confidence, it seems like a good plan.
Since 1990, 12 quarterbacks (including Bradford) have been selected first overall in the NFL draft. Below is a list of the rookie seasons for quarterbacks selected 1st overall in the past two decades, their number of starts, total passing yards, touchdowns, and interceptions. The statistics don’t suggest much either way in terms of development. It appears that there is one constant, however: even promising quarterbacks tend to struggle in their rookie season. Peyton Manning, the exception, had a fairly good year and is now arguably one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Carson Palmer had a fairly mediocre rookie year (we...it wasn't his rookie year, but it was the first year he had the opportunity to start) yet is still a great quarterback. Eli Manning had an awful rookie season but is considered a decent quarterback. It seems that the situation he is thrown into dictates the quarterback’s performance more than the talent.
Jeff George: 13 GS, 2152 YDS, 16 TD, 13 INT
Drew Bledsoe: 12 GS, 2494 YDS, 15 TD, 15 INT
Peyton Manning: 16 GS, 3739 YDS, 26 TD, 28 INT
Tim Couch: 14 GS, 2447 YDS, 15 TD, 13 INT
Michael Vick : 2 GS, 785 YDS, 2 TD, 3 INT
David Carr: 16 GS, 2592 YDS, 9 TD, 15 INT
Carson Palmer: 13 GS, 2897 YDS, 18 TD, 18 INT
Eli Manning: 7 GS, 1043 YDS, 6 TD, 9 INT
Alex Smith: 7 GS, 875 YDS, 1 TD, 11 INT
JaMarcus Russell: 1 GS, 373 YDS, 2 TD, 4 INT
Matthew Stafford: 10 GS, 2267 YDS, 13 TD, 20 INT
For a more in-depth statistical examination of QBs drafted #1 overall and their rookie performance, check out RBramfan's post here.
What do you think, when should Sam Bradford get his first start?
Also, a couple extra notes on today:
The opening point spread against the Rams in their second preseason game was (-3). Clearly (even if it’s a preseason game where oddsmakers adjust the spread for additional backup play) the Rams will be playing a comparable team, which will let us take a look at our shot of winning some of the easier games on the schedule.
Roger Hensley over at Stltoday.com argues that James Laurenitis has arguably been the Rams’ most surprising player, and his play will be of nearly equal importance in the upcoming season.
Christopher Harris of ESPN thinks it’s almost an assured thing that Bradford will start Week 1. "The kid would really have to spit the bit not to find himself under center Sept. 12 against the Arizona Cardinals," he wrote.