Jaws' QB Countdown: Sam Bradford

A year ago, when the San Francisco 49ers were approaching training camp, ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer told me he suspected Alex Smith would be the best quarterback in the NFC West for 2011.

The thought caught me a bit off-guard. Sam Bradford seemed to be ascending. The Arizona Cardinals were excited about Kevin Kolb. Smith hadn't even consistently proved he could be the best quarterback on the 49ers' roster.

When I followed up with Dilfer -- we had been speaking informally at 49ers headquarters following a practice -- he wasn't necessarily down on Bradford, Kolb or the other quarterbacks. He just thought Smith was better prepared than the others to succeed under the circumstances.

Smith was the best quarterback in the division last season, and now we know another ESPN analyst, Ron Jaworski, expects more of the same this season. "Jaws' QB Countdown" unveiled the St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford as the 20th-ranked projected starter in the NFL, ahead of Kolb (25th) and Seattle's Matt Flynn (27th). We do not yet know how high Smith will rank, just that it'll be somewhere among the top 19.

In the meantime, Jaworski offered the following on-air thoughts regarding Bradford:

"I remember studying him when he came out of Oklahoma in 2010. What I really liked was his ability to sit in the pocket on his back foot, then drive through his throws and deliver with velocity and accuracy. Then I saw this red-zone throw in his fourth game in his rookie season [20-3 victory over Seattle in 2010], and I was even more impressed.

"Let me show you why that touchdown [a 15-yarder to Brandon Gibson] was so special. The defense dropped eight in coverage. That really squeezes your passing lanes. Here’s the throw. That is where Brandon Gibson caught the ball. Bradford delivered it right here. That is rare anticipation, for any quarterback, much less a rookie. There is no question Bradford is a top arm talent. At his best, he is a commanding pocket passer with a compact delivery and a strong arm. He can also get outside the pocket, extend plays and throw accurately on the run, even deep down the field.

"In 2011, Bradford, with very few exceptions, did not look like the same confident pocket quarterback that I saw as a rookie. He was tentative in the pocket, a function of both erratic offensive line play and receivers that could not win on the outside. But I was troubled by Bradford’s increasing tendency to anticipate the rush. I call that cabin fever. And Bradford struggled with that.

"2012 is an important year. The Rams' new coaching staff will manage Bradford in a run-first approach that ideally limits risk. But this is the NFL. You have to stand firm in the pocket and deliver the football. Right now, Bradford is a question mark."

I think it's clear Bradford has the talent. It's also clear the window could close on him if the Rams don't improve around him. Early indications suggest the Rams' new leadership is on its way to upgrading the roster. The team also has four first-round picks over the next two seasons.

The arrow continues to point up for Bradford's career, in my view. He has shown the competitive drive and toughness players need to persevere. We saw that when Bradford took every offensive snap as a rookie amid concerns over his durability. We saw it again last season when he fought through a high-ankle sprain to return ahead of schedule and stay on the field when he could hardly move.