Regardless of whether the St. Louis Rams select a quarterback in this year's draft -- and there have been recent rumblings, specifically by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that such a move could happen -- Sam Bradford already should know what's at stake this coming season.
There's no question he's a likable guy with obvious talent. It's also impossible to argue that tough breaks and a subpar supporting cast on offense have plagued him during his brief career. These are the variables that often arise when discussing Bradford's lack of success in St. Louis, and this is the year when it's time for his supporters to stop leaning on them.
As much as there is to appreciate about Bradford, the fact still remains that the Rams haven't enjoyed a winning season in the four years since he became their starting quarterback. That means something has to change this fall, especially since it's critical that the 26-year-old Bradford takes a major step in his development. He's gone from being impressive (he was the 2010 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year) to inconsistent (during the one year he spent with former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) to injured (he sustained a torn ACL in Week 7 of last season). It's time for Bradford to produce the kind of season that makes everybody believe he's still the right man for the job.
If you probe the Rams about that possibility, they will tell you all the right things. When asked about the confidence the team has in Bradford's future, a team source said "there was no concern" while adding that Bradford "is a very good quarterback."
On the other hand, the Post-Dispatch said the Rams have met with University of Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage, while another meeting/workout also reportedly occurred with Fresno State's Derek Carr. The paper also floated names such as South Carolina's Connor Shaw and Georgia's Aaron Murray as talents who could interest St. Louis come draft week.
It's not surprising that the Rams would be intrigued by some of the signal-callers in this class. Once you get beyond the top three players at that position -- Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel -- there are still going to be some talents to be had in the later rounds. It's also true that drafting a quarterback doesn't mean a team is actually giving up on the one it already has under center. But in this case, should the Rams actually spend a second- or third-day pick on a signal-caller, they have to know the discussions about Bradford's future will only intensify.
Head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead will have to deal with that fallout if that scenario actually plays out. Even if it doesn't, there are legitimate issues surrounding Bradford that have to be addressed eventually. One involves his massive contract, a deal that was signed before the NFL changed its rules about how much rookies could make coming into the league, and what it means when it's time to discuss a possible extension. Bradford already has earned all of the $50 million he was guaranteed under that contract, but he still has two years and $27 million left on that package.
That's a ton of coin for a quarterback whose numbers have been pedestrian at best. Bradford's career completion percentage (58.6) won't blow anybody away, and his career passer rating (79.3) is something that usually would be found on the résumé of a player destined to hold clipboards for a living. In fairness, Bradford regressed when the Rams changed offenses after his rookie season and tried to install a system McDaniels had used in New England and Denver. Bradford also was playing the best football of his career last fall -- he had 14 touchdowns and four interceptions through seven games -- before the knee injury sidelined him for the remainder of the year.
As encouraging as those numbers are, Bradford has grown past the point where statistics can define his value. He needs to start taking the Rams to places they haven't been in years and exciting fans in ways Kurt Warner once did. The Rams slowly have assembled a team that is dangerous enough to create headaches for some of the league's top contenders. Most of that potential has resulted from Fisher's coaching and a steadily improving defense.
If Bradford can take the next step in his development, then the Rams might actually push their way past the .500 mark and into contention. If he can't, then they legitimately should be looking for other options. St. Louis used to have the luxury of plugging along in the NFC West, a division that was once so bad that Seattle won it with a 7-9 record during Bradford's rookie season. That is far from the case anymore.
The Seattle Seahawks, fresh off their first Super Bowl victory, have a young quarterback in Russell Wilson, who has quickly become a Pro Bowler and one of the game's clutch performers. San Francisco reached the Super Bowl two years ago with Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback about to enter his fourth season with as much talent and potential as any player at his position. The Arizona Cardinals also won 10 games last season after coming out of nowhere in their first year under head coach Bruce Arians. These are the teams that stand in the way of Bradford's ascension in St. Louis.
Bradford's cause is affected even more by how quickly his peers have blossomed. Wilson and Kaepernick are dynamic talents. Andrew Luck has taken the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs in both of his first two seasons in the league, while Cincinnati's Andy Dalton has three postseason appearances under his belt. We haven't even gotten to Carolina's Cam Newton, Washington's Robert Griffin III and Philadelphia's Nick Foles, all of whom have been to the Pro Bowl and the playoffs themselves.
Some may find it unfair to compare Bradford to those players, but that's the way this deal works. There was a point when Bradford was the hot, young quarterback on the rise, and he had worked hard to earn that hype. Now he's hardly even discussed in the same conservation as those other young stars. When he is, it almost feels as if it's done out of sympathy, as if he's simply too nice a guy to be forgotten when so many things haven't gone his way over the last three years.
Bradford's career has been so up and down thus far that it's hard to know exactly how he'll respond to the pressure that comes from this season. It's also worth noting that Snead and Fisher didn't draft him, meaning their stakes in his future only go so far. Taking that into consideration, it is quite plausible that the Rams will try to light a fire under Bradford by adding some competition in next month's draft. The bigger question is whether Bradford actually delivers on all that promise that has followed him since his arrival in the NFL.