Sam Bradford ready for next step, but ...

When will Sam Bradford be a No. 1 fantasy quarterback?

Ask just about anybody who has seen Sam Bradford play, and they can't help but be impressed. He's smart, accurate, poised and is a great physical specimen at 6-foot-4 and 228 pounds. He's coming off an NFL rookie-record 3,512 passing yards, and despite durability concerns when he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2010, he took every snap under center in his first season. He did all this without his top receiver, Donnie Avery, who missed the entire season because of an ACL injury.

This year, Bradford is a solid No. 2 quarterback in standard fantasy leagues. The Rams stockpiled receivers this offseason and hired a new offensive coordinator in Josh McDaniels, who piloted the 2007 Patriots to a record-setting offensive season. McDaniels brings a spread offense with a lot of four-receiver sets, which will allow Bradford to throw the ball downfield more. Last year with Pat Shurmur's West Coast offense, the rookie attempted only 35 fewer passes behind the line of scrimmage (113) as he did beyond 10 yards (148). It has been reported that about 60 percent of the playbook is new, so the learning curve won't be as steep for an entirely new volume of plays.

Some pundits are concerned that Bradford could fall victim to the "sophomore slump." I don't know who invented this farcical label, especially as it relates to NFL quarterbacks, but most signal-callers feel much more comfortable in their second season after all the adjustments needed during a rookie campaign. Bradford has admitted that most of the time during his rookie season he never looked beyond his first and second options, and he was still sacked 34 times. If you look at some of the quarterbacks who have gotten significant playing time as a rookie in recent years, most of them improved their passing yards per game and TD/INT ratio in Year 2. (One exception is Matt Ryan, whose sophomore stats were a mere 7 passing yards per game below his rookie campaign.)

Notable QB second-season stat differentials
Josh Freeman: +30 pass YPG, +3.6 TD/INT ratio
Michael Vick: +98 pass YPG, +1.3 TD/INT ratio
Peyton Manning: +24 pass YPG, +0.8 TD/INT ratio
Eli Manning: +119 pass YPG, +0.7 TD/INT ratio
Mark Sanchez: +43 pass YPG, +0.7 TD/INT ratio
Joe Flacco: +40 pass YPG, +0.6 TD/INT ratio
Donovan McNabb: +131 pass YPG, +0.5 TD/INT ratio
Matt Ryan: -7 pass YPG, +0.1 TD/INT ratio

Bradford was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2010, posting strong numbers: 60 percent completion rate, 220 passing yards per game, 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions (1.2 TD/INT ratio). These statistics were even more remarkable when you consider his top three receivers were a trio that the majority of fantasy owners couldn't pick out of a lineup: Danny Amendola (689 receiving yds), Brandon Gibson (620 yards) and Daniel Fells (391 yards).

Bradford has better receivers this year thanks to the free-agent signing of Mike Sims-Walker and return of Donnie Avery, who appears to be back at full strength. Sims-Walker posted a combined 1,431 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 2009 and 2010, while Avery has 100 grabs for 1,263 yards and eight touchdowns in his two NFL seasons. Rookie receivers Austin Pettis and Greg Salas, as well as rookie tight end Lance Kendricks, are also expected to contribute. Kendricks had eight catches and two touchdowns in his first three preseason games. Amendola will continue to run the tough underneath routes, while running back Steven Jackson remains one of the better pass-catching backs in the league.

Bradford also had some interesting splits as a rookie, though some were a tad alarming. For instance, his passer rating dropped in each quarter of play, going from 91.1 in the first quarter to a dreadful 55.7 in the fourth quarter (he had 3 TDs and 10 INTs in fourth quarters). After he threw 30 times in a game, Attempts 31 and beyond were downright ugly; he went 68-for-120 (56.7 percent) for 704 yards, 1 TD and 8 INTs for a 48.7 QB rating. And he certainly didn't play well down the stretch, posting just one touchdown (and six interceptions) over his final five games.

Bradford also didn't light up the weak NFC West opponents as expected, throwing more picks (six) than scores (five) in division play. His 6.0 yards-per-attempt average for the season was the second lowest in the league among qualifying NFL quarterbacks. Only Jimmy Clausen (5.2) was worse.

There were some favorable splits, though. He was better outdoors (8 TDs, 3 INTs, 84.4 passer rating) than indoors (10 TDs, 12 INTs, 72.5 rating), which could be key this year because the Rams could play all eight road games outdoors (if the Cowboys and Cardinals decide to open their retractable roofs). The conservative play-calling also played a role here, as Bradford didn't have to worry about throwing many long passes through the cold air.

The schedule for St. Louis will be much tougher this year, as the Rams go from the easiest schedule in the league in 2010 to the 11th-easiest slate in 2011. That still sounds like a cakewalk, but their horrendous division skews this number. The Rams face many elite NFL teams, including the Packers, Eagles, Steelers, Saints, Cowboys and Ravens.

Bradford has looked decent this preseason in McDaniels' new system, completing 24 of 43 passes (55.8 percent) for 278 yards, 4 TDs and 2 INTs. That said, his yards per attempt is a mere 6.5 despite having an 83-yard touchdown pass. In his third game against Kansas City, he started 8-of-8 for 76 yards and 2 TDs, but completed just one of his final eight pass attempts.

ESPN.com projects Bradford for 3,899 passing yards, 21 TDs and 14 INTs. The yardage seems about right, but I'd project something more like 25 TDs and 18 INTs. I see St. Louis having to play catch-up in a lot of those matchups with the NFL beasts, allowing Bradford to average close to 40 pass attempts per game, which would be a significant jump from 36.9 last season.

Many of the above reasons will prevent Bradford from producing elite fantasy quarterback numbers this year. He'll be a solid backup, though, especially for owners of Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub and Ben Roethlisberger, who all have Week 11 byes while Bradford's Rams host Seattle. Bradford lit up the Seahawks at home for 289 yards and two touchdowns in last year's 20-3 victory.

Next year, look for Bradford to be firmly in the next tier of fantasy quarterbacks with veterans such as Schaub, Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, and Eli Manning, and fellow youngsters Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco.

Bradford might have the most upside of any of this second tier, considering he's just 23, and most every other skill-position player for the Rams is 30 or younger (although Jackson is an old 28, with more touches than any other running back in football since 2005). Bradford will spend 2011 building a rapport with his young supporting cast, which will be orchestrated by youthful offensive coordinator McDaniels. If all goes as planned, Bradford should be ranked in the 10-12 range among fantasy quarterbacks entering 2012.