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Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Perception vs. reality: Bradford's rise

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Sam Bradford
Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford has seen his draft stock rise in recent weeks.
Sam Bradford showed up at the NFL combine a new man -- bigger, stronger, healthier.

The Oklahoma quarterback looked like the type of player an NFL team drafts first overall. He carried himself that way, too. His surgically repaired throwing shoulder has more than held up during subsequent workouts, including his pro day Monday. The already accurate Bradford seems to be throwing with even more authority than he showed previously.

"It's funny, what happens in a month," Steve Muench of Scouts Inc. said Tuesday. "I am very fascinated by the whole Bradford thing. He might be a very good pick at No. 1. I still think Ndamukong Suh is the safer choice."

Suh and fellow defensive tackle Gerald McCoy were the headliners in mid-February when Muench and NFL Draft Scout's Rob Rang gathered here to discuss the Rams' options with the first overall choice. As I wrote then, there wasn't much doubt about it:
Neither Rang nor Muench -- nor anyone else I've consulted -- has strongly projected anything other than Suh or McCoy for the Rams at No. 1. Both give Suh the slightest edge.

But when Rang released his latest mock draft Monday, Bradford was the top choice and increasingly the favorite. Muench, who previously said he would have "a very difficult time" taking Bradford first overall based on questions about his shoulder and Oklahoma's offensive scheme, now says he is "absolutely more comfortable" with Bradford at this stage.

The challenge now becomes separating perception from reality. How much has really changed?

"I have championed Suh for so long and it almost breaks my heart to go with someone other than him," Rang said Monday. "What has changed is my understanding of just how willing teams are to risk going for a non-sure thing at quarterback over a sure thing at another position. The reality is, unless the Rams want to win 4-5 games next year and the year after that, then sooner or later you have to get a quarterback."

My early read on Bradford's candidacy held that selecting him first overall might buy time for the Rams' current leadership as the team navigates an ownership change following a 1-15 season. The new owner might be less apt to clean house with a franchise quarterback freshly in place. That thinking ideally shouldn't play into a decision, but it certainly could, particularly if the Rams thought there was a good chance Bradford would develop.

"The two concerns people still have are the offense that he played in -- and I do think it is a concern, it was not a pro-style offense -- and that his team in 2008 was so talented that he had all kinds of time to find his receivers, so how will he handle pressure?" Muench said. "I think the second one is a bogus argument. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees are great because they can read the defense and beat it. From watching Bradford's decision making on film, I think he’s going to have no problem with it."

Tim Klutsarits, who has worked in St. Louis radio and writes about the Rams regularly, pointed to Bradford's improved health and the Eagles' handling of their quarterback situation as keys to the change in perceptions.

"I think if the Eagles wanted to make a deal in February, that would have changed things," he wrote via Facebook.

The assumption back in mid-February held that St. Louis might find its next starting quarterback once the free-agent signing period opened March 5, notably because there wasn't a college quarterback worth selecting first overall.

The Bradford option appeared more likely after the Rams signed A.J. Feeley to a contract consistent with what backup quarterbacks earn. Feeley, who agreed to terms March 6, knows the Rams' offense. He hasn't played much recently, but he could step into the lineup on a short-term basis while Bradford got acclimated. Perceptions would certainly be different if the Rams had made an early play for Donovan McNabb or even Michael Vick.

There's that word again. Perceptions.

"I think it is important to note that the Rams have never said anything that definitively points to them picking Bradford," wrote Jerry from Sacramento, a regular on the NFC West blog, in an e-mail. "It is all media hype and smoke."

Jerry is right to a degree, but there's no question Bradford has allayed fears in recent weeks. He has made real gains. He's more viable as a No. 1 overall choice than he would have been before adding weight, carrying it well and throwing effectively for personnel evaluators Monday.

"I didn't think I could be as confident in Sam Bradford as I am right now," said Rang, who attended Bradford's pro day workout in Norman, Okla. "It's not so much how good he was in his pro day or at the combine or just speaking to people. It's all those factors. It's how much bigger and stronger he is.

"We will sometimes see players bulk up for the combine and drop weight for their pro days. Bradford came in heavier. Those factors make me think this guy is a potential franchise quarterback and you have to take a franchise quarterback when you have a chance."