Every year, ESPN’s John Clayton releases his rankings of the NFL starting quarterbacks. His hierarchy is broken down into three tiers. First, he was the “elite” category, which oddly features nearly half of the NFL starting quarterbacks, and is supposedly reserved for ” signal-callers who are good enough to elevate a team into the playoffs” and that possess the ” ability to throw for 4,000 yards, complete 60 percent of his passes and generate more than 20 points a game.” Considering that only 12 teams make in into the playoffs each year, it seems contradictory that 13 players would be considered elite without fulfilling all of the aforementioned criteria; but, I digress. Anyways, the second tier is the “Chad Pennington” level, which encompasses 12 quarterbacks, and is supposedly marked by those quarterbacks who are “budding elites or quarterbacks who are good enough to take a team to the playoffs.” The final tier, which is home to 5 projected starters, as well as the Seahawks’ and Cardinals’ quarterback slots which had yet to be decided, is reasonably entitled the “Hit-or-Miss” division, with no explanation of the criteria for placement.
As usual, his comment section blew up with outraged fans, highlighting their own slightly skewed opinions. By my observation, the most comment atrocities listed were that Clayton lowballed Matthew Stafford, spotting him at #12, and overvalued Tony Romo at #8. Sam Bradford, surprisingly, came in at #18 behind Cam Newton, Josh Freeman, and Alex Smith in the second tier. Clayton had this to say about his analysis of Bradford,
"“Getting rid of the Josh McDaniels offense should add a touchdown per game to the 12.1 points the Rams averaged last season. Bradford will work shorter, smarter passes, which will illustrate his potentially elite skills”"
With only two seasons under his belt, it is hard to project where young players are going to end up. Making that decision more difficult, is the fact that Bradford has looked both elite and, frankly, pathetic in his first couple of season. Last season specifically, Bradford missed a good number of games nursing, what probably should have been, a season ending high ankle sprain on his non-throwing leg. He was not the only casualty on the injury front, with several notable starters knocked out on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. As it pertains to Bradford, the most significant of those may have been the loss of Danny Amendola, who caught 85 passes in 2010 and was an integral part of Bradford’s Rookie of the Year campaign. Aside from the wide receiver injuries, Harvey Dahl was the only offensive lineman to play every snap in all 16 games last season. On top of the injuries, several other things may have contributed to the down year, including the installment of a new offensive system, which was exacerbated by the lack of an offseason, the nature of Josh McDaniel’s play-calling, the Rams’ failure to hire a QB coach, the constant shuffling of “starting” wide receivers, and the scoring deficits forcing a one-dimensional offense. However, at the end of the day, all of the excuses in the world do not make up for lack of production on the field, points on the scoreboard, and lack of appearances in the postseason.
So the question remains, is Bradford’s spot at #18 a fair one? Well in terms of the criteria laid out by Clayton, regardless of whether he followed them or not, yes! Some would consider Bradford to be a “budding elite,” having demonstrated the ability to make all the passes required to succeed at the NFL level. He also shows he is “good enough” to get the his team to the playoffs, having the St. Louis Rams in position in the final week of his 2010 rookie season to steal one of the division champions spots before falling to the Seattle Seahawks.
It is obvious to most that Bradford meets the criteria for the second tier, aside from those Bradford-bashers and fantasy-evaluaters who analyze a quarterback’s worth off a couple of statistics they pull off ESPN.com’s site without actually watching him play throughout the season. A better question is how does he “fit” within that tier in comparison to the other quarterbacks around him. Slightly below Bradford on the second tier are Andy Dalton (Bengals), Matt Cassel (Chiefs), Carson Palmer (Raiders), Ryan Fitpatrick (Buffalo), Mark Sanchez (Jets), and rookies Andrew Luck (Colts) and Robert Griffith III (Redskins). Above him, Clayton has a handful of player with Alex Smith (49er), Josh Freeman (Bucs), Cam Newton (Panthers), and, heading the top of the second tier group, Jay Culter (Bears). So how does he fit there? Well, one of my biggest pet-peeves in sports is the overvaluing of players based off performance over an extremely small period of time. This overvaluing is why players like Matt Flynn, Matt Cassell, and Kevin Kolb received massive contracts, but do not pan out once their abilities get measured over an extended period of time. Overall, I think the four players above Bradford are agruable, but I do have a small problem with three of the players…
In the world of statistical analysis, an outcome is held with higher “validity” when more samples are added to the analysis. In the context of football, this means that a player’s “true” abilities can more accurately assessed after they have played for a longer time in the NFL. A perfect example of that is Peyton Manning, who averaged 3,937 yards, 26 touchdowns, 21.5 interceptions, and a QB rating of 80.9 in his first two season, but averaged 4,217 yards (+217), 30.6 touchdowns (+4.6), 15.2 interceptions (-6.3), and had a 94.9 QB rating (+14.0) for his entire 13 year career. In his 5 seasons as a starter, Jay Cutler has averaged 3,456 yards per season, 21.6 touchdowns per season, 16.2 interceptions per season, and a QB rating of 84.5. As a starter, Culter has already been traded by the Broncos, a phenomenon that does not typically occur to “franchise” quarterbacks at the beginning of their careers, finished a season over .500 only once, and made it into the playoffs only twice, one of those with an 8-8 squad in Denver. He is a good quarterback, but has shown that he cannot “elevate a team into the playoffs” unless he in the ideal situation or exceptional talent around him. Alex Smith… I shouldn’t need to go career performances to show that he cannot elevate a team to the playoffs and that he is quite possible the worst offender of overvaluing based off of the talent around him and the situation that he is in. On the other hand, Cam Newton rewrote the rookie record book, and even met a majority of Clayton’s “elite” statistical criteria, with 4,051 yards passing and a 60.0 completion percentage. However, that is only one year in the books, and despite his individual production, only propelled the Carolina Panthers to a 6-10 season (3rd in the NFC South). How he will progress throughout the rest of his career is a mystery! However, you shouldn’t place players higher in a ranking simply because you think they will turn out to be a great quarterback.
Even though Bradford’s second year was hampered by injury and poor production, he has at least shown the ability to elevate a team and the players around him to a level that will get them into the playoffs. Regardless of your opinion of Bradford, no one can arguably say that he is the product of the talents around him, and the transition from the 1-15 team that drafted him to the 7-9 team that was single game from a playoff birth was heavily dependent on the individual play of Bradford.
Final Verdict: Bradford belongs in the second tier of quarterbacks, for now, but not behind proven-to-be-average quarterbacks or players that have only played a single season, and a losing season at that. He should be ranked somewhere in the 13-16 range, based on his talent, production, and, more importantly, his proven ability to elevate the talent around him to another level when he is on the field.