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Sam Bradford and the Rams

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by Mike Horn, Staff Writer

Published, 4/1/14 

I'll get back to my strength of schedule series soon, and I want to follow up on a few issues in this article. But with the Rams signing Kenny Britt, it got me thinking about Sam Bradford. I've read a lot of people think he still has potential to be a fantasy starting QB and a healthy, head-on-straight Britt could help Bradford meet that potential.
 
Let's review: As a rookie in 2010, he ranked 28th in fantasy points per game (FPG), per the site's default scoring system. In 2011, he was injury-plagued and fell to 38th in FPG. He stayed healthy in 2012 and climbed to 21st. And this past year, he was 17th in FPG when he went down for the year after Week Seven. Leaving aside 2011, that's 28th, 21st, and 15th. So I could argue that he's on an upward path and that 2014 is the season he finally will be worth starting.
 
But I won't.
 
First, I'm not entirely willing to overlook 2011.
 
Second, Bradford's 2013 ranking was fueled in part by an easy strength of schedule, as noted here. Yes, he did face two tough defenses in SF and CAR. The SF game was his worst outing and the CAR game was a so-so showing for him. He also played 3 of the 5 worst defenses for FPG (Dal, Atl, and Jac and had a mediocre game vs. the Cowboys). On balance, Bradford got to face the easier part of the 2013 Rams’ schedule. Bradford got hurt before having to face Sea twice or SF on the road. Even if he stays healthy for all of 2014, he's going to have to play those defenses again.
 
So I'm not convinced about the upward trend. But even if I’m wrong about those two points, three factors are working against Bradford: coaching, the Rams’ poor history of building a WR corps, and their poor record in assembling an offensive line.
 
Coaching
 
Now Bradford has suffered from coaching staff turnover, which has included some uninspiring offensive coordinators. This could be hindering his development and fantasy production. No one is confusing Brian Schottenheimer or Pat Shurmur with Mike Martz in his heyday. Schottenheimer did coax a #11 FPG ranking out of Mark Sanchez in 2011, but that's the best any QB has performed in his offense and was fueled in part by Sanchez scoring six times on the ground. Sanchez's 3rd year in the system was his best, so that could be a point in Bradford’s favor as this will be his 3rd year with Schottenheimer. 
 
But that’s part of the problem. Schottenheimer is still the OC in Stl this year. I'd consider that a negative for Bradford's fantasy prospects. You may differ.
 
Also, Jeff Fisher seems committed to a system that counts on the defense and running the ball to win football games. Probably Schottenheimer’s familiarity with that approach with the Jets is what got him the job in the first place. Fisher has been a head coach for 19 seasons and his teams have ranked in the top 10 in pass attempts only three times – 2nd in 2004, 5th in 2005, and 10th in 1994. Not coincidentally, those were the three worst teams he coached measured by winning percentage: They won 5, 4, and 2 games, respectively. For his career, his teams have averaged 21st in passing attempts, and 27th since 2005, the last time he went pass happy. I think it’s safe to say Jeff Fisher teams will not chuck the ball around a lot except in desperation. 
 
I think the Rams will again be a mediocre team, winning between 7 and 9 games. That means I do not think they will throw the ball enough times to make Bradford a fantasy starter on quantity alone. If the Rams were more likely to throw the ball in the red zone, they might get enough passing TDs, that might help. But Schottenheimer’s offenses from 2006 to 2013 have run the ball 587 times in the red zone while passing it 581. Over that period, NFL offenses have passed more than run inside the 20, so typically Schottenheimer offenses as less likely than average to throw in that situation. He has evolved a bit, with 56% passing attempt on all red zone plays since moving to Stl (NFL average, 53% those seasons). Even so, that doesn’t seem like it will generate a high number of TD passes for Bradford.
 
I have a hard time talking myself into a story that either the quality or the quantity of the passing game will justify Sam Bradford as a starting QB for fantasy.
 
Wide Receivers
 
It is often pointed out that Bradford has had a weak supporting receiver corps, particularly at WR. Well, Stl spent FA money on a new TE in 2013 plus two high draft picks (a 1st and a 3rd) on WRs. That did boost Bradford a bit, as we've seen. 
 
But let's not ignore that Stl had already invested a pretty good amount in WRs in recent years. And those players are the ones who constituted the "weak supporting cast."
 
Let's look at the draft investments the Rams made in WRs from 2009 to 2013 (starting the year before they picked Bradford). I'll use two methods of calculating those investments: the "Jimmy Johnson" draft chart and a similar effort by Chase Stuart at Football Perspective that uses Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value (AV) statistic to value draft picks. This graph shows those two methods:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The blue diamonds are the AV method and the red triangles reflect the Johnson draft pick chart. The x-axis is the draft pick number. The left hand y-axis shows the value of a draft pick as calculated with the AV method. So the #1 pick in the AV method is worth just under 35 points, the 2nd pick about 30, etc. down the graph. The y-axis on the right side of the graph refers to Johnson's valuations, so if you find the red triangle for the #1 pick and read all the way to the right you'll see it's worth 3000 points in Johnson's system. The #2 choice is about 2600, etc.
 
Both systems generate similar-shaped curves, so they are consistent in some respects. But the AV system gives more relative weight to the picks in the 2nd and 3rd rounds and levels off much later in the draft. The Johnson system puts more relative weight on the very first few picks although both systems make the #1 pick extremely valuable relative to other draft slots.
 
So when I used those two systems to assign values to all the WRs drafted by the Rams in the last five drafts here's what I come up with:

Value of Draft Picks Used on WRs, 2009-2013
TEAM
AV System
Johnson System
Rank AV
Rank Johnson
STL
64
2629
1
1
TEN
48
2247
2
2
CIN
45
2223
4
3
JAX
45
2016
3
4
SFO
39
1992
5
5
OAK
36
1692
8
6
ATL
25
1625
18
7
MIN
37
1531
7
8
CLE
37
1371
6
9
KAN
32
1343
10
10
ARI
26
1323
16
11
NYG
34
1256
9
12
DET
28
1024
12
13
BUF
30
1015
11
14
DAL
26
1014
17
15
HOU
28
1010
13
16
DEN
26
998
14
17
PHI
20
930
22
18
NWE
26
721
15
19
TAM
17
608
25
20
CHI
19
593
23
21
PIT
22
577
21
22
SEA
23
565
19
23
NYJ
13
504
28
24
CAR
22
483
20
25
BAL
16
412
26
26
SDG
14
392
27
27
MIA
17
325
24
28
GNB
9
277
31
29
WAS
11
250
29
30
IND
10
186
30
31
NOR
7
84
32
32

The first column (Team) is self-explanatory. The 2nd column is the total draft value each team used on WRs according to the AV draft pick value system. The 3rd column is the total using the Johnson system. The 4th and 5th columns are the ranks in each system from 1-32 for each team with #1 meaning the team spent the most draft value on WRs in this period and #32 being the least value spent.
 
And the Rams are #1 in both methods. In case you've forgotten, here are those picks:

Year
Rnd
Pick
Player
Rec
Yds
TD
AV
JJ
2013
1
8
Tavon Austin
40
418
4
21.4
1400
2012
2
33
Brian Quick
29
458
4
12.3
580
2011
3
78
Austin Pettis
95
916
8
6.9
200
2013
3
92
Stedman Bailey
17
226
0
5.8
132
2012
4
96
Chris Givens
76
1267
3
5.5
116
2010
4
99
Mardy Gilyard
8
78
0
5.3
104
2011
4
112
Greg Salas
35
407
0
4.6
70
2009
5
160
Brooks Foster
2.3
27.4

The stats reflect the WRs career totals. The last two columns are the AV and Johnson (JJ) values of the picks spent on each player. Now look at all the players with at least 10 receptions total for the Rams from 2009-2013:

Player
From
To
Rec
Yds
Y/R
TD
Y/G
Danny Amendola
2009
2012
196
1726
8.81
7
41.1
Steven Jackson
2009
2012
177
1359
7.68
1
21.9
Brandon Gibson
2009
2012
174
2090
12.01
9
38.7
Lance Kendricks
2011
2013
102
1129
11.07
8
24.5
Austin Pettis
2011
2013
95
916
9.64
8
21.8
Chris Givens
2012
2013
76
1267
16.67
3
40.9
Daniel Fells
2009
2010
62
664
10.71
5
22.1
Jared Cook
2013
2013
51
671
13.16
5
41.9
Brandon Lloyd
2011
2011
51
683
13.39
5
62.1
Donnie Avery
2009
2009
47
589
12.53
5
36.8
Laurent Robinson
2009
2010
47
511
10.87
3
30.1
Danario Alexander
2010
2011
46
737
16.02
3
40.9
Tavon Austin
2013
2013
40
418
10.45
4
32.2
Daryl Richardson
2012
2013
38
284
7.47
0
12.3
Randy McMichael
2009
2009
34
332
9.76
1
20.8
Billy Bajema
2009
2011
31
310
10
2
6.9
Brian Quick
2012
2013
29
458
15.79
4
14.8
Kenneth Darby
2009
2010
28
157
5.61
1
5.2
Greg Salas
2011
2011
27
264
9.78
0
44
Mark Clayton
2010
2011
26
332
12.77
2
47.4
Zac Stacy
2013
2013
26
141
5.42
1
10.1
Keenan Burton
2009
2009
25
253
10.12
0
28.1
Michael Hoomanawanui
2010
2011
20
229
11.45
3
14.3
Stedman Bailey
2013
2013
17
226
13.29
0
14.1
Cory Harkey
2012
2013
14
134
9.57
2
6.7
Isaiah Pead
2012
2013
14
94
6.71
0
3.8
Steve Smith
2012
2012
14
131
9.36
0
14.6
Cadillac Williams
2011
2011
14
93
6.64
0
8.5
Mike Karney
2009
2010
11
30
2.73
0
1.2
Mike Sims-Walker
2011
2011
11
139
12.64
0
34.8

The "From" and "To" columns reflect the years those players were with the Rams. There are 30 names; that is tied for the most players with at least 10 receptions for a franchise in this period. It's a good indicator of how badly the Rams have struggled to find decent pass catchers, especially WRs, in this period.
 
Of the top 10, only 5 are WRs and only 3 were originally drafted by the Rams. The top pass catcher, Danny Amendola, was an undrafted rookie free agent who was with the Cowboys and Eagles before the Rams and who the Rams didn't choose to keep out of free agency. The #3 player (Brandon Gibson) was another former Eagle the Rams traded for and who also is gone from the franchise. The list is so poor that #7 (Daniel Fells) was a UDFA TE with the Falcons that the Rams picked up in free agency. Jared Cook at #8 was another FA TE – his 2013 season was so good that it made the top 10 totals for five years. Brandon Lloyd in 2011 didn't even play a full season in Stl and he still made it to 9th place for the entire time period. Donnie Avery was the first WR drafted in 2008 and returned next to nothing on the Rams’ investment (#33 pick overall).
 
So when I see the Rams investing heavily in WRs in the draft and getting diddly out of it, I start to think the team hasn't got a clue about evaluating WR talent (or blame the coaches, see above). Yes, I know Jeff Fisher (and GM Les Snead) took over the franchise only in 2012 and can't be blamed for everything that went before him. But the WR picks of the last two years haven't paid immediate dividends. 
 
For example, Austin was the 1st WR taken in 2013 and he managed just 40 receptions – 6 other rookies WRs had as many. Austin was hurt of course – shocking for a 5’9”, 174 pound player, I know. Austin’s 40 receptions ranked 9th out of 14 WRs taken in the top-10 picks over the last 10 seasons. He seems to be on the break point for future performance. The WRS who had more than 40 rookie catches (AJ Green, Justin Blackmon, Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones, Roy Williams, Michael Crabtree, and Calvin Johnson) were a pretty strong group. Those with less than 40 (Ted Ginn, Braylon Edwards, “Big” Mike Williams, Reggie Williams, Troy Williamson, and Darrius Heyward-Bey) generally went on to be busts, although there were a few flashes in there. I think Austin’s skill set and size are closer to the 2nd group than the 1st,so I’m not counting on him to be the player who breaks the trend of Stl WR draftees underperforming. But I could be wrong.
 
It’s possible that the 3rd year will be the charm for Brian Quick or that Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey will get it together this season. Of course, if the team believes that, why did they sign Kenny Britt? I’m still convinced that this group is not going to help Bradford.
 
Offensive line:
 
Another argument for Bradford is that he has had a weak OL. This also is not for lack of draft investment:

Value of Draft Picks Used on OL, 2009-2013
TEAM
AV System
Johnson System
Rank AV
Rank Johnson
PIT
58.4
2496.3
1
3
SEA
54.2
2945
2
2
CIN
49.6
2490.7
3
4
BUF
46.1
1685.2
4
10
STL
45.2
3211.4
5
1
SFO
43.4
2299.66
6
5
MIN
41
2233.8
7
6
JAX
39.7
2120
8
7
WAS
38
2093.34
9
8
KAN
37.7
1316.5
10
16
GNB
37.6
1497.78
11
13
CLE
37.6
1520.8
12
12
DEN
37
1216.2
13
18
MIA
37
1774
13
9
BAL
35.9
1346.8
15
15
NWE
35.7
1397
16
14
DAL
34.1
1659.94
17
11
OAK
33.8
999
18
19
IND
29
1241.2
19
17
ATL
27.7
690.4
20
22
PHI
23.4
866.2
21
20
HOU
21.9
554.8
22
24
NYG
20
444.6
23
26
DET
18.9
811.8
24
21
CAR
14.2
537.86
25
25
SDG
14
284.48
26
29
CHI
13.5
644.2
27
23
NOR
12.2
319.86
28
27
NYJ
10.3
316.4
29
28
ARI
9.5
128.6
30
30
TEN
5.1
59.9
31
31
TAM
2.5
29.4
32
32

The Rams had the 5th-most draft value invested in OL from 2009-2013 – or the most, depending on which system you believe in. Unfortunately, a lot of that was on Jason Smith who was a huge bust at 1.02 in 2009. They had more success with Roger Saffold in 2010 at 2.01. The only other pick they used on the OL in this span was a 5th rounder on Rokevious Watkins in 2012.
 
The Rams have tried to fix their line with trades, free agents, and picking up released players. They added Jake Long at LT last year and Scott Wells at C the year before. They also added Barry Richardson at RT in 2012 but let him go after a year (he’s played one game since). They did trade Jason Smith for Wayne Hunter; that didn’t help. Other pickups included former first-rounder Chris Williams and 3rd round pick Joe Barksdale after they’d been released.
 
The line has gotten better. Pro Football Focus ranked the Rams 26th in 2010, 28th the following year, and 26th again in 2012, but pegged them at 13th in 2013. Those ranks are similar to Football Outsiders numbers, except FO rated the line higher in 2012. Overall, the line hurt Bradford in his first few years, and the improvement may have contributed to his uptick in 2013.
 
The problem is that the starting center is going to be 33 unless Scott Wells is replaced and he’s played only 19 games the last two years. Long is coming back from a bad injury (ACL and MCL) suffered late in the season. Saffold tested free agency, was signed by the Raiders, and then failed a physical. The Rams claim to be unconcerned with Saffold’s shoulder and re-signed him, but it does raise some questions. Chris Williams is gone and it may be “good riddance,” but he has to be replaced.
 
That’s a lot of red flags for 2014, so I’d say the Rams OL isn’t projecting to be a strength right now. They do have some valuable picks that could change my assessment, but they’ve sort of committed to Long and Saffold at the tackles, so I’d be a little surprised to see a high pick on one this year.
 
Conclusion
 
For a long time, I think the Rams were terrible at talent evaluation. It’s possible when Jeff Fisher took over the franchise in 2012 that changed, but I think the jury is still out. If he can put a better cast around Bradford, that could help. But if you think the Rams prior to 2012 were poor at identifying good players, why would you think Bradford is the exception to that rule?
 
When I think of the three factors often blamed for keeping Bradford from being a fantasy-worthy QB – coaching, receiving corps, and offensive line – none look like they’ll be better in 2014 unless Britt has a major revival. Therefore, I have a hard time buying into him. It could be that more than those factors. It’s been injuries that have held him back. If so, a year of good health could make all the difference, but I’m not going to bet on that either. For me to own Bradford this year, he’s going to have to be awfully cheap, and I’m going to need a backup QB very badly.
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