SEATTLE -- Being the first overall pick in an NFL draft is no guarantee of professional success; just ask Alex Smith, David Carr(notes) and JaMarcus Russell(notes) for confirmation on that. But former Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford(notes) appears, from early results, to be more in line with Carson Palmer(notes), Mario Williams(notes) or Eli Manning(notes) as first overall pick success stories go. Everything good about Bradford's college career -- the mobility, the cannon arm, and the amazing accuracy -- has transferred to the next level. And the primary concern -- that he might be too injury-prone to hold up to the rigors of the NFL game -- has not surfaced to date. After a three-pick performance in his first NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals, Bradford has looked very solid in a close loss to the Oakland Raiders two weeks ago, and last Sunday's 30-16 win over the Washington Redskins.
Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, who took over a team bad enough to win just one game in 2009, is cautiously optimistic about the prospects of his new franchise player. "I think he's been on kind of a steady climb," Spagnuolo said earlier this week. "He's had his ups and downs. I think any rookie NFL quarterback is going to go through that. It's been a little rocky, but for the most part, he's been very solid. I think the guys react really well to him, and he reacts well to them. Overall, in the three games, he's played at least well enough for us to win. We haven't done that, but he's progressing pretty well."
Temperament is a major issue with most young quarterbacks; the ability to respond to pressure and adversity is key against defenses that generally run much faster than what people face in college, and in offenses that are different than the spread systems so common in the NCAA. Spagnuolo has said that this composure may be Bradford's best hidden asset. "The one thing about Sammy is that he's very steady; he doesn't let too much bother him. He's a fierce competitor and he will get frustrated, but he seems to move on and away from the frustration pretty quickly. Taking a snap from center was new; he ran a lot of shotgun in college. He was learning his teammates and the speed of the NFL. It was kind of gradual for him, but it was evident as he progressed through preseason games two, three and four, that he was playing pretty solid and the guys around him were responding to him."
To Bradford, the changes haven't been a major issue, which is pretty impressive for a player who played very little in 2009 due to shoulder injuries. "I think a lot of people underestimate the amount of snaps that I took under center in college," he said. "My first year at Oklahoma, the first year that I played, we were under center more than 50 percent of the time. It's something that I am comfortable with; it's something that I have done. I think the more that I've been with the St. Louis Rams, the more comfortable I've become with it. But at the same time, in this West Coast Offense here, we do a lot of things out of the shotgun. It's not like we're primarily under center. I'm comfortable doing both things and I think our coaches do a good job mixing it up."
Against the Redskins in particular, Bradford's performance belied his relative inexperience. Within the schematic constraints of Pat Shurmur's WCO, Bradford showed the kind of mobility, decisiveness and accuracy, both short and long, you don't generally see from quarterbacks making their third NFL starts. To Seattle Seahawks safety Jordan Babineaux(notes), whose team will be facing Bradford for the first time this coming Sunday, the new quarterback multiplies the threats and expands the offense beyond the typical nomenclature.
"They've always had the running game -- Steven Jackson has been the most productive player for that offense and for that team since he got there," Babineaux told me this week. "Now, you see different passing concepts with Bradford. And I really think that as he learns the game, they're able to give him more plays and more responsibilities as far as making adjustments and that kind of thing. If you take a look at the last three games, they've done a good job as far as offensive production. They could easily be 3-0."
I asked Babineaux if the St. Louis WCO was anything like the one he used to face in practice every day when Mike Holmgren ran it a few years back, and he compared it more to the dynamic system in Philadelphia (Shurmur's old stomping grounds) -- more downfield stuff that required faster targets. "You definitely see some of the same pass concepts when you break down the film. I've also seen that they like to move Bradford around a lot, and give him the ability to throw the ball downfield -- he's had some huge gains with some good receivers."
Seattle middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu(notes), who will be more responsible than anyone else for breaking down what Bradford does and trying to throw it back in his face, told me that there's also an underrated receiver corps on that offense.
"They've got Mark Clayton(notes) as their new receiver; that was obviously a big acquisition for them. And Danny Amendola(notes) has been doing remarkable things out there. His route-running is pretty awesome, to say the least. I've seen him make a lot of guys look bad. He'll get you in space, and give you a little shake, and he's got good speed."
Tatupu also mentioned that Bradford's poise (an overused word when describing quarterbacks which seems to actually apply in this case) jumps off the game tape in different ways. "He doesn't look like a rookie," Tatupu said. "And he hurt his throwing shoulder? You can't tell. He's whipping that ball around and making great decisions. They're giving him a lot of freedom to check to what we call ‘Now' -- he'll have a run play on and see a guy not respecting the slot and coming in for Steven Jackson -- they have a heavy tendency for the run. They may show 90 percent run out of a formation, but if he picks up that slot; he'll just whip it out there. It's impressive that they can give that kind of freedom to a rookie."
First overall picks are supposed to be bridges to a hopeful future. It doesn't always happen, but it appears that with Sam Bradford, the Rams have struck gold in what was a barren landscape.