Betting on Sam Bradford: Hype vs. reality

The 2013 narrative for St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is predictable. It is plausible. It is also probably overstating things for dramatic effect.

The narrative says the clock is ticking loudly for Bradford entering his fourth NFL season. It says Bradford faces a make-or-break season now that the Rams have surrounded him with young weapons. It suggests Bradford, with a contract scheduled to balloon in the absence of guaranteed money beyond 2013, could be vulnerable to release following the season if he doesn't finally break out.

The truth: Bradford faces an important and possibly pivotal 2013 season, but the team has options if Bradford's longer-term outlook remains ambiguous one year from now.

"To say this is a make-or-break season is rather strong," ESPN scout Matt Williamson said, "but it is certainly a 'prove it' season or a 'no more excuses' season."

Let us examine some of the dynamics, beginning with the contract.

Bradford is set to collect $9 million in salary this season, $8 million of which is guaranteed. His deal counts about $12.6 million against the cap. The salary jumps to $14 million in 2014, with a $17.6 million scheduled cap hit. That's the type of money top quarterbacks earn. What, then, if Bradford is not one of them? What if he's merely decent or pretty good, but not someone worth nearly $18 million a year?

The Rams could release Bradford, but that wouldn't make much sense unless he played horrendously -- something he has never done to this point. Remember, too, that the team would need an obviously better option at the position. Good luck finding one of those.

More likely and a lot less dramatically, the Rams could buy another year for evaluation. They are building for the long term with their own draft choices and those acquired from the Washington Redskins last offseason. The Rams already have drafted eight players in the first and second rounds under the team-friendly rookie wage scale, tied with Cincinnati and New England for most in the NFL. That figure is scheduled to grow by three in 2014. Their window is still opening. Time is on their side.

If there's no definitive verdict on Bradford in a year, the Rams could stay the course, or they could convert some of that $14 million base salary for 2014 into a signing bonus, keeping the cap hit relatively flat from 2013 into the next season. Bradford would still get his money. The team would get some relief.

The cap charge for 2015 would jump from $16.6 million into the $20 million range under such a scenario, deferring until then a decision on whether Bradford deserves what top quarterbacks command. One potential downside: raising the franchise-tag price for Bradford through an inflated cap figure in 2015.

Of course, all of this is premature from a Rams standpoint. The team likes Bradford now and expects more from him this season, the first one since Bradford's days at the University of Oklahoma that he will not be learning a new offense from a new coordinator. Speaking of those college days ...

"The Rams are tailoring things to resemble what he ran at Oklahoma, where he was so successful," Williamson said. "Three-wide and four-wide, shotgun formation, spread the field horizontally. It looks that way in St. Louis from the bodies they are bringing in."

Those bodies can move, and fast.

Eighth overall choice Tavon Austin and free-agent addition Jared Cook bring different types of speed to the offense.

Austin, at 5-foot-8 and 174 pounds, can accelerate and elude. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.34 seconds at the NFL scouting combine.

Cook, 6-5 and 248, is a straight-line threat at tight end. He has 4.5-second speed and posted a 41-inch vertical at the combine in 2009. Like Bradford, he's making big money more on potential than for what he has accomplished to this point.

The Rams' intentions seem clear.

"We've got exceptional speed on offense," coach Jeff Fisher said during the draft.

The evidence suggests Bradford is improving. His 2011 season was forgettable, but the Rams in general and Bradford in particular were unusually injured that season. Bradford went 7-9 as a starter in 2010, his rookie season. He went 7-8-1 last season, setting career highs for yardage (3,702), yards per attempt (6.7), touchdown passes (21), NFL passer rating (82.6) and Total QBR (51.6).

"He hasn't done enough yet to say I trust him no matter what like I do with Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson," Williamson said. "But if I was starting a team right now, I wouldn't be against starting it with Bradford. I would not say he is a bust. ... I still see why he was the first overall pick."

There is little not to like about Bradford except for the results. He throws the ball accurately and with authority. He proved sufficiently mobile last season as his health improved. His demeanor suggests he's sufficiently invested. Former teammates such as Steven Jackson have testified to Bradford's toughness.

And it's not like all the results have been negative.

Bradford made positive plays in critical situations last season, helping him rank fourth behind Peyton Manning, Kaepernick and Jay Cutler in Total QBR during fourth quarters and overtimes. The chart ranks quarterbacks last season by the total clutch-weighted expected points they added per game through rushing, passing, sacks, penalties and fumbles during fourth quarters and overtimes, adjusted for the importance of each situation.

What we haven't seen, to this point, is strong evidence Bradford can make those around him perform at a higher level. It's possible too many of the players around him to this point were irredeemable from a talent standpoint. A weak supporting cast has, by all accounts, dragged down Bradford.

To what extent can Bradford maximize Austin, Cook and others with obvious raw talent? The Rams should find some answers this season.

"It does feel like this is a make-or-break year for Bradford even though the Rams have options," Williamson said, "and if I were to bet, I bet he would make it."