bradford-run2

In the distance, you can hear it. It’s the vessel of our infatuation (many misguided men have also worked “vessel” and “infatuation” into a pickup line before), and it travels at warp speeds. It carries our hopes, dreams, and goals forevermore. Most of all during this offseason, though, it carries the Rams’ offense, and it carries Sam Bradford.

Much like the Browns’ offense we looked at (again) earlier today, there’s been shovels and fork-fulls and dumpster-fulls of hype piled onto the Rams’ offense this offseason, but for a different reason.

In Cleveland, the hype train chugs because it’s filled with ideas, which means it’s also filled with the most potent kind of hope: the kind that can’t remotely be measured. Norv Turner and Rob Chudzinski are bringing a new offensive philosophy to the land that offense has forgotten, and their vertical thinking should — in theory (oh, in theory) — lead to much more success for Josh Gordon and Greg Little, and therefore also much more fantasy value.

But in St. Louis, the hope is rooted in bodies. Mostly new bodies, or others which are ascending the depth chart after being buried last year. The Rams were thin at wide receiver even before Danny Amendola walked during free agency, but then they were aggressive in the draft. They jumped up to secure Tavon Austin in the first round before selecting Stedman Bailey in the third round.

They joined Brian Quick, a seldom used speedy guy in 2012 who was selected with the first pick in the second round last spring. There’s also Chris Givens, who’s a rather fast character too, as he set the rookie record for consecutive games with a catch of 50 yards or more in 2012 (five straight games).

Throw in the fact that Jared Cook was acquired to stretch the seam and he’s pretty much a really large slot receiver who’s job title is tight end, and Austin is already receiving handoffs in practice as a running back (he had 643 rushing yards on 72 carries during his senior season at West Virgina), AND there’s a legitimate competition taking place at running back between Zac Stacy, Daryl Richardson, and Isaiah Pead which shows the depth of the backfield, and the only thing longer than the list of support for Bradford is this sentence.

So in an offense that could seek to stretch the field often by using four-wide receiver sets, there’s plenty of optimism around our boy Bradford, fantasy and otherwise. Is this his year then?

To attempt to find that answer, first we need to look back to see who, exactly, Sam Bradford is as a quarterback. Let’s disregard his injury-plagued 2011, Bradford’s second season when he missed six games, and looked weak in others.

The most prominent observation we can make is that early in his career, the deep ball was nearly non-existent. This was especially troubling during his rookie season in 2010 when Bradford was named the offensive rookie of the year. He finished third in pass attempts that year (590), which contributed to his high volume of completions while he eventually broke the record for successful passes by a rookie quarterback (he finished with 354 completions).

Yet he did that while averaging only six yards per completion, prompting Pro Football Reference‘s Chase Stuart to make the argument at the time that Bradford’s rookie year was overrated. Most notably — and damning — was the fact that he finished 31st in net yards per pass attempt. If he’s still that same guy now after two more seasons (well, really a year and a half), then seeing continued success from Givens is difficult. But the rest? They’re very Bradford-y sort of targets.

Bradford’s deep throwing has improved, so hope is not dead. Late this past season ESPN Stats and Information dug deep into numbers charting the — admittedly small — sample size of his +35 yard throws. Their findings were…encouraging:

In 2010 and 2011, Bradford completed 5 of 20 passes for 205 yards with one touchdown, three picks and a 46.9 NFL passer rating on throws traveling more than 35 yards past the line of scrimmage. That gave Bradford the third-lowest rating among 17 quarterbacks with enough attempts to qualify for inclusion.

Fast-forward to this season and the numbers on these extremely deep passes look like this for Bradford: 6 of 16 passing for 299 yards with three touchdowns, no picks and a 125.0 passer rating that trails only Matt Schaub’s 135.4 mark.

He set a career high in +20 yard completions, with 41 in 2012. There’s also good vibes to be found in his yards per attempt, which jumped to a still slightly below averaged 6.7, but that’s much better than his 6.0 as a rookie.

But when we a look closer at his YPA, there’s still been a little too much mediocrity. In his rookie year Bradford had five games when his YPA was at or below 5.5, and this past season that number still sat at three.

Is the real Sam Bradford then confined to short and intermediate passing, or has he been restricted by a lack of weapons? Given his improved deep throwing but the overall average length of his completions, it seems like he’s a hybrid quarterback. He’s more comfortable with intermediate throws, but the deep ball can now be executed a little more confidently. In this offense, that’s just fine.

There’s speed in abundance, but Givens is the only pure vertical threat, though maybe later Bailey emerges. Cook can work the middle through the slot, while Austin is ideally used in space through quick-strike throws. Quick certainly has speed, but with his large frame he’s been compared to Terrell Owens in his prime: a receiver who can get down the field, and he makes plays with his leaping ability and physicality without leaning on pure speed heavily.

With his new targets then, Bradford’s accuracy (59.5 completion percentage in 2012) and the development of his long ball gives hope that he can be everything to everyone in a season that will either act as a springboard for his career, or promptly crush him.

Buy, but don’t buy high. With his growth and weapons and all this wonderful optimism, Bradford could be the best-est late-round QB target ever, as he’s currently coming off the board at, oh, 155th overall in mocks, and he’s often the 22nd player selected at his position.

That’s some mighty delicious value.

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