You don't see many fifth-round rookie wideouts with real expectations, but Tajae Sharpe is one. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
08 Dec 2010
by Doug Farrar
When what you're watching drifts into the realm of hyperbole, it can be tough to separate yourself from that sense of amazement and report objectively on what you're seeing. More than any other year in which I've analyzed football players at any level, the top two picks of the 2010 NFL draft -- Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh -- have left me wondering if I was putting a little too much sugar in the cake. I've been comparing Suh to Mean Joe Greene for almost exactly a year. Although I did so with some trepidation (I believe Greene was the most disruptive defensive lineman in NFL history) ... from an evolutionary perspective, Suh appears to be at the beginning of a very special path.
I first experienced this phenomenon with Bradford in April when I was doing draft reports for Yahoo! Sports, and quarterbacks obviously came first. The more I looked at Bradford, especially during his incredible 2008 season in which he threw for 4,720 yards, 50 touchdowns, and just eight interceptions behind what may have been the greatest offensive line in NCAA history, the more one name came to mind, as much as I dreaded it. I could have cheated and gone with the Matt Ryan comparison, but Sam Bradford has reminded me of Tom Brady for quite a while, so that's what I had to go with. Specifically, it was (and is) Bradford's deep accuracy that brought the Brady who fired zinger after zinger to Randy Moss in the 2007 season to mind. That Brady, who threw for 4,806 yards, 50 touchdowns, and just eight interceptions, seemed to be Bradford's antecedent in more than just a statistical sense.
For me, those expectations were tempered a bit after the shoulder problems that plagued Bradford through his 2009 season, and the fact that he'd be doing time with the St. Louis Rams -- a team with just six wins in the last three years. For all his talent, there's only so much you can expect from a rookie quarterback. Little did I know that, after half a decade of bumbling around in the dark, the Rams were putting things together with a series of effective personnel moves. With a decent offense around him, and despite an almost comical string of receiver injuries, Bradford has been able to bring his talents to the NFL at an impressive level. He has also shown off a few new tricks.
I've written about Suh a lot in the past year, but I've waited until there was a decent sample size to make initial impressions of Bradford in the NFL. Now that it's time to do that, I also asked Greg Cosell, Executive Producer of ESPN's NFL Matchup show, to give me his take on where Bradford stands in the recent pantheon of rookie quarterback seasons, and just how he's getting to the top of that list. We'll start with his first NFL game, in which Bradford set an NFL record for pass attempts in a professional debut.
Of the 55 passes Bradford threw in that game, just a handful traveled more than 10 yards in the air before they were caught; he didn't air it out until there were just 27 seconds left in the first half. On this play from the Arizona 48-yard line, the Cardinals went with an A-gap blitz in Cover-3 against the Rams two-back shotgun. Bradford stepped to the right in the pocket and threw the deep sideline pass to Mark Clayton, who did an amazing job falling away from cornerback Greg Toler to make the 39-yard catch. There was another example of Bradford's deep ball with 4:05 left in the game. The Rams were down by four and driving when Bradford hit Clayton again, this time under cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie out of a four-wide shotgun set. Clayton ran a quick in 12 yards out and cut back outside as Rodgers-Cromartie bit on the initial route. In both cases, Bradford exhibited nice accuracy and excellent anticipation. Receivers don't seem to have to do too much adjusting to his throws, and this was true even in his opening NFL game.
The interception that ended that last drive was a different story. With fourth-and-10 from the Arizona 21 and 1:47 remaining, the Rams went shotgun again with tight twins right against Arizona's quarter-quarter-half coverage (Fig. 1). Bradford's two right-side receivers got lost in the zone, and he telegraphed his third read to tight end Billy Bajema on the other side just enough for safety Kerry Rhodes to jump the route and return the pick 65 yards to keep the lead safe.
|Figure 1: Bradford's interception|
Still, most of Bradford's passes came on quick timing routes and underneath routes that allowed him to make instant reads and get rid of the ball. I asked Cosell about how the Rams have been indoctrinating Bradford in this offense at a conservative pace -- he has the NFL's lowest pass length per completion at 4.79 yards -- and what it means in the grand scheme of things.
"I think it's a multi-dimensional offense that has everything in it, and I know that for a fact, but they're playing to their talent," Cosell said. "They've had a carousel at the wide receiver position, and they seem to be settling in now that people are getting healthy with Laurent Robinson, Danario Alexander, Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola as their slot guy and moveable chess piece. It would not surprise me to see them stretch the field a little more, and they're starting to do that. In the last couple of weeks, they've clearly designed plays in which the ball should go down the field. Sometimes it does. Sometimes, for reasons that have nothing to do with Bradford, it may not. But they're clearly trying to orchestrate more downfield throws, because I think they feel more comfortable with their offense."
That theory was stretched to its limits against a Lions defense that ranks 24th against the pass. Bradford threw 45 passes against Detroit, 19 of which went to Amendola, and 12 were caught ... for a total of 95 yards. Five yards per attempt to your primary receiver won't feed the bulldog, but I found this game to be an instructive example of how even the best rookie quarterback will struggle at the NFL level -- and how Bradford backed his way out of adverse circumstances.
One thing that hit Bradford hard was losing Clayton for the game on his third pass attempt -- yet another deep sideline route in which Clayton got tangled up with Lions cornerback Alphonso Smith. From there, it was all dink-and-dunk. His next pass, out of a rollout left, was flat-out dropped by tight end Darcy Johnson.
From there, the Rams dialed it way back, using Amendola as that moving chess piece Cosell mentioned. Amendola hit short route after short route (quick slants, bubble screens, and pretty much everything else out of the "Welker for Dummies" playbook), often right out of motion, in pass plays that were essentially treated as running plays from a yardage perspective.
I found this strategy frustrating because it seemed that offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was retrofitting Bradford with the West Coast Offense Backup Quarterback System. But Bradford has distinct and different skills that put him above the fray. Especially as the Rams were falling further behind, I was curious as to why the team wouldn't open it up the passing game. I didn't see another pass that went for more than 10 yards in the air until Bradford hit Mardy Gilyard for 17 yards with five minutes left in the first half. Tack on another 15 yards on a Detroit face mask penalty, and it was easy to see that the Lions really didn't like it when Bradford aired it out.
The Lions knew that, for the most part, they could play everything underneath -- witness the pass interference call given to Smith on the next pass after the Gilyard play. It was a quick in to Amendola, and the Lions didn't even look like they worried about the deep stuff. It was a questionable strategy, especially against a defense which makes a lot of subtle front changes and drops defenders. By the time the Rams aired it out to any degree, they were down by 25 points late in the third quarter, and the Lions' defense was obviously dropping more defenders into deep zone. I understand the need to bring the young quarterback along, but Bradford seems to be a possible exception under circumstances like these.
Cosell has told me before that, especially when analyzing draft prospects, he isolates the player from the surrounding cast to focus on specific attributes. But in this case, I asked him about Bradford's specific ability to raise the games of those around him.
"Because of his accuracy, he will always make his receivers better in the long run," Cosell said. "Because he's very compact, and he's very accurate. Believe me, I'm not comparing him to Tom Brady at this point in time, but I think he has attributes like that. Brady had Moss for a few years, and Moss was a certain type of player, but for the most part, Brady has not has what you would call elite receivers. And Bradford is the kind of guy -- because he's so compact and accurate, and he's exhibited such great timing and anticipation -- who can make receivers that you would not say are Top 10, better."
Bradford's best statistical game against a serious defense (his performance two weeks ago against the Broncos doesn't really count) came against a Panthers defense that has been great against No. 1 and No. 2 receivers. Shurmur stayed with the conservative game plan for the most part. Bradford didn't throw a deep pass until the second quarter, and that was a misfire to tight end Daniel Fells out of trips right that was upset by a completely uncovered James Anderson on a blitz. Anderson saw the trips to his side, saw the empty backfield, and must have been kicking his chops at that one. The first successful deep pass came early in the fourth quarter, on a stutter-go to Gibson. For the most part, Bradford managed the game he was given successfully, but the more I have watched this Rams offense this season, the more I'm wondering if Shurmur isn't taking a Lamborghini and racing it around a supermarket parking lot.
Because of the limited game plans, you have to take certain things with Bradford as you can get them, and that's what I wanted to focus on separately from his performances in specific games. One of the things I like most about him is his accuracy when he rolls right. He's obviously not leaving the pocket to open up throwing lanes like the more vertically impaired Michael Vick or Drew Brees. Instead, bootleg plays and boot-action work for him because the concept shrinks the picture, gives motion to possible zone-busting extended routes, and allows him to process his reads in longer blocks of time. Cosell reminded me how important running back Steven Jackson is to the boot-action concept.
"Well, boot-action is also a function of your running game ... Normally if you have a good zone running game, boot becomes extremely effective," Cosell said. "It's a 'flow' run game, and you get the defense moving in one direction, and you come out the other direction. And it limits the reads; not to say that Bradford can't make the reads, but he is a young quarterback, and it makes it easier."
When he's not rolling out, Bradford has also impressed me with his ability to stay calm in the pocket. A high percentage of quarterbacks will develop happy feet when they hit the NFL. Given Bradford's shoulder injuries in 2009, you might expect that he'd go that route, but Cosell cited this as a primary Bradford attribute more than once during our conversation.
"I think the thing he's exhibited consistently, which you're always concerned with when a quarterback comes to the NFL, is his poised composure and pocket mobility when there are people around him," Cosell said. "That doesn't happen a lot in college, particularly in those quick-strike offenses. Oklahoma ran something very similar to what Oregon is doing now -- getting the ball up quickly, snapping the ball within 20 seconds ... He didn't have to throw with a lot of bodies around him, but in the NFL, you do. I think he's shown a great ability to do that without any fundamental breakdowns.
"Bradford plays the game quickly, but not hurriedly. It's the old John Wooden maxim, 'Be quick, but don't hurry.' Bradford plays like that. It's like Aaron Rodgers -- he may have the quickest delivery in the league, and what happens then is that you are able to dilute pass rush pressure because the ball comes out so fast."
We talked about where Bradford ranks among the recent wave of quarterbacks having good-to-great rookie seasons. Cosell told me that while it's obviously difficult to get a clear picture of any quarterback after just 12 games, he would put Bradford above Matt Ryan and below Joe Flacco when talking exclusively about the specific array of skills required for elite quarterbacks.
I find it more difficult to place Bradford in a competitive sense right now because of the limited offense he's running. I see rookie mistakes, and I see flashes of the embryonic Brady I saw when he was at Oklahoma, but mostly, I'm waiting for the Sam Bradford I haven't yet seen. He's a big part of the Rams' resurgence, and Shurmur's "game management" concepts certainly seem intelligent in that regard.
Bradford's team is 6-6, and the Rams hold the tiebreaker over the Seattle Seahawks in that cauldron of mediocrity known as the NFC West. So it will be very interesting to see if Shurmur takes the training wheels off. I think that Bradford is ready to take those steps, even in an unexpected division chase. He's certainly not Brady yet (nor may he ever be), but there is something special in him.
25 comments, Last at 01 Jan 2013, 6:22am by mano