Fantasy Football: Why St. Louis Rams QB Sam Bradford Will Be a Gem in 2012

Dan Kukla@@kooks13Correspondent IIIJuly 18, 2012

Fantasy Football: Why St. Louis Rams QB Sam Bradford Will Be a Gem in 2012

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    St. Louis still believes in Sam Bradford's ability to break out as an elite NFL quarterback.

    Fantasy football owners should too.

    Bradford is a tough player to evaluate if you're just looking at the numbers from his first two seasons as a pro.

    In 2010 he won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award while improving the one-win Rams to 7-9 and a tiebreak away from winning a division title. He answered questions about durability by starting every game. He broke Peyton Manning’s rookie record for completions (326) with 354 while throwing for more than 3,500 yards at a 60 percent completion rate. All this came without even one receiver scoring more than three touchdowns or gaining 700 yards.

    In 2011, however, Bradford suffered a sophomore slump as the Rams dropped back to the basement with a 2-14 record. Durability questions came swirling back as he played only 10 games. He completed only 53.5 of his passes. His turnover total of 12 doubled his touchdown total of six.

    The obvious question facing fantasy owners now is what version of Bradford will we see in 2012? The answer likely lies somewhere in between, but here are six reasons that it will be much closer to—if not better than—his rookie season.

Last Year Is The Clear Outlier

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    Sam Bradford's success as a rookie can be attributed to his talent. His struggles as a sophomore can be attributed to circumstances.

    The talent will still be there in 2012, but the circumstances have changed.

    Josh McDaniels took over as offensive coordinator for the Rams in 2011. The obvious effect on Bradford is that he had to learn a completely new offensive system in a lockout-shortened offseason. The system itself, however, had an even more pronounced effect on his production.

    McDaniels employs a pass-heavy scheme that should produce fantasy gold for quarterbacks. It certainly did for Tom Brady and Kyle Orton.

    But the Rams didn't have a strong enough offensive line to support the scheme. Too many deep routes exposed this weakness early and often. St. Louis' receivers also proved to be much better suited for underneath routes, as they failed to spring loose down field.

    An inadequate offensive line combined with a lack of vertical threats resulted in disaster for the man holding the ball. Bradford was sacked a league-leading 55 times (once every six times he dropped back) and battled injuries nearly the entire season.

    Brian Schottenheimer replaces McDaniels as Rams OC this season. He employs a West Coast system that resembles what Pat Shurmur ran during Bradford's stellar rookie campaign.

Security Upgrade

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    If you think offensive linemen don't matter in fantasy football then you fail to realize that the fake game is still based on real life.

    Regardless of who stands in as offensive coordinator for the Rams, they need an effective offensive line to produce success with the skill players fantasy owners know so well.

    Former Green Bay Packer Pro Bowler Scott Wells comes to St. Louis as the most important player added to the Rams' roster this offseason. He is considered one of the better centers in the NFL and the best center available this summer.

    Besides anchoring Sam Bradford's protection on the offensive line, Wells will also call it. Calling protections at the line of scrimmage was one of many new responsibilities placed on Bradford last year. Aaron Rodgers benefited from Wells' veteran presence and Bradford will too.

    Last year's injuries created a revolving door on the Rams' OL. As new players shuffled in and out, so did opposing defenses.

    Better health on the offensive line in 2012 will help the starters work more effectively as a single unit in their protection of Bradford. So will new Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau.

    Formerly with the Falcons, Boudreau coached guards in Atlanta to help out towards the tackles when they went uncovered. Pro Bowl center Scott Wells can hold his own in the middle. His presence allows Boudreau to employ the same system in St. Louis.

    The scheme will help shore up the edges. Rams tackles Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold struggled on their own last year.

    Rams guard Harvey Dahl served as the team's best blocker during his first season in St. Louis. He also succeeded under Boudreau in Atlanta and will be even better for the Rams now that he is back with his former coach.

    Better protection means better health for Bradford. It also means more time to throw. This all adds up to more opportunity for success, a luxury St. Louis' signal-caller did not receive in 2011.

A New Backfield Weapon

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    Another fantasy football fallacy is the concept that quarterbacks see better production when paired with a poor rushing attack because they have to throw more.

    Sam Bradford will benefit greatly from Jeff Fisher's tradition of strong ground games.

    The Rams already have a feature back in place. Steven Jackson ranks third among active NFL running backs in total career rushing yards.

    Second-round draft pick Isaiah Pead thrives in the open field. The passing game is where he is at his best. Pead isn't limited to screen plays, but can run downfield routes as well. He is a weapon that can strengthen the Rams running game and expand how Rams running backs are used out of the backfield. He is also a strong blocker that can help in protection.

    Opposing defenses now need to account for more than one rusher. Bradford certainly won't mind. More emphasis on the ground game will keep the pressure on those opposing defenses and off St. Louis' quarterback.

A Quickly Remodeled Receiving Corps

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    St. Louis finally upgraded Sam Bradford's targets.

    Second round draft pick Brian Quick comes to camp as a true No. 1 wideout.

    The Appalachian State product is bigger and more athletic than Justin Blackmon. He has the tools to be the best wide receiver in his draft class. Transitioning from a small FCS school to the NFL will be tough, but any receiver like Blackmon coming from a spread offense faces the same challenge.

    Danny Amendola is healthy. Quick's presence means he no longer must serve as lead receiver. Instead, he can excel as a pure slot receiver.

    Draft pick Chris Givens brings speed that will open up the inside for Amendola. Bradford already likes what he sees.

    "Extremely fast," Bradford said of Givens, according to ESPN's Mike Sando. "He's a guy that defenses are going to have to be extremely aware of. If they fall asleep on him for a half second at all, he’s going to be by them. That's nice to have, just that added speed."

    And don't forget about Danario Alexander, who is already making noise this offseason. If he can stay healthy—a major issue for him in the past—he too offers over-the-top speed that can stretch the field and must be accounted for by defenses. Like Givens, his skill set perfectly complements Quick.

    If Alexander or Givens lines up opposite of Quick, defenses will face the tough task of covering a deadly combination of speed and athleticism.

    Lance Kendricks can become a dominant tight end if he cuts down on the drops in his second year. Greg Salas is another sophomore looking to improve on a promising rookie season. Steve Smith joins the Rams as a more veteran presence hoping to become a consistent force as well.

    Bradford's elite accuracy is also deadly. He now has enough weapons to go for the kill.

Personal Coaching

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    Sam Bradford will finally receive personal instruction from a quarterbacks coach.

    Josh McDaniels performed those duties as a side job when he was offensive coordinator. Now Frank Cignetti can give Bradford his full attention.

    "I've said all along, I think Cig's great, especially for the fundamentals of playing the position," Bradford said according to Ryan Van Bibber of the Turf Show Times. "Every day he comes to me with an emphasis of the day, whether it's pass game-footwork, run game-footwork, play action fakes, boots, off the run game. And just to have someone who's constantly reminding to do the little things is very helpful as a quarterback."

    A little extra coaching will go a long way for Bradford in 2012.

Talent Meets Opportunity

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    Jeff Fisher, Scott Wells, Isaiah Pead, Brain Quick and Frank Cignetti all add up to one happy Sam Bradford.

    The pieces are in place to maximize Bradford's talent.

    Bradford quickly flashed his NFL potential as a rookie. He did that on a much less talented team under an inexperienced head coach.

    You can call last season a sophomore slump, but really it wasn't much of a season at all. Like most of his team, Bradford was plagued by injuries. He was never healthy enough to find that same rhythm from his rookie year.

    Being thrust into a completely new system with no offseason didn't help either.

    The great disparity between each of Bradford's first two seasons indicates that one was an aberration. Considering the circumstances in 2011, we can expect him to play more like his 2010 self.

    Bradford brings elite accuracy and decision making. His arm strength is not elite, but it is good enough to succeed at the NFL level. These are the most important elements for an NFL quarterback. Bradford is not lacking in any of them.

    Now that the Rams completely improved Bradford's situation and he has a full offseason to work in it, the third-year quarterback will finally play up to his potential as a former No. 1 draft pick.

Where to Draft Bradford

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    Quarterback is a loaded position for fantasy purposes in 2012. The rise of Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton makes it hard for former studs such as Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan or Matt Schaub to crack the Top 10.

    This is actually a good problem for owners eying Sam Bradford. There's no room for him to be drafted as a starter in standard leagues, so he can be acquired on the cheap as a backup with huge upside.

    You don't need a backup QB at all if you land an elite stud like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Drew Brees. You can easily grab a serviceable one-week replacement when the bye weeks roll around, so don't waste a roster spot all year on a player you will likely only use once. Save that for a running back or wide receiver, because those positions routinely produce breakouts every year.

    Anyone after those top three options, however, requires insurance.

    You want a more proven commodity to back up injury risks like Michael Vick or Stafford. But matching Bradford as a reserve with starters like Newton, either Manning or Tony Romo makes a lot of sense.

    Only a high-upside breakout will outperform those options from your bench, so drafting a known commodity like Jay Cutler is pointless. Bradford is a riskier pick, but a big payoff comes with limited downside. Bradford can be quickly replaced if he continues to struggle, but he can also change the fate of your team if he hits his lofty ceiling.