Sam Bradford's Injury vs. Browns Proves Rams Walk Fine Line in Loaded NFC West

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2014

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford (8) leaves the field after getting hit by Cleveland Browns defensive end Armonty Bryant in the first quarter of a preseason NFL football game Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
David Richard/Associated Press

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford left the field early in the first quarter of Saturday night's preseason game against the Cleveland Browns with a knee injury.

While no one wants to ever see a player suffer a serious injury, Rams fans have cause to be particularly concerned about Bradford's status heading into the regular season.

Bradford, you may recall, missed nine games last season after suffering a torn ACL in his left knee. It was the same knee that was re-injured Saturday.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, initial tests suggest that Bradford has not suffered any damage to the surgically repaired ligament, but more tests will be coming Sunday:

While early indications suggest the Rams may have dodged a bullet, it is still very early in the injury-evaluation process.

"I really don't have any information for you as far as Sam [Bradford] is concerned ... We're very optimistic." Head coach Jeff Fisher said of the injury, according to the team's official Twitter account.

According to Associated Press writer Tom Withers, Fisher believes the injury is only a knee hyperextension and not something more severe:

Whether significant or not, Bradford's injury has to cause major concern for both the Rams organization and its fanbase. While St. Louis has plenty of viable playmakers on both sides of the football, Bradford is the team's best option under center.

The Rams are going to need him to perform at a high level—and more importantly, be available—each and every week this coming season if the team is to have any legitimate shot at competing in the dangerous NFC West.

It is hard to imagine the Rams residing in a more competitive division than the one that featured a 10-win third-place team last year, two teams that competed in the NFC Championship Game and the defending Super Bowl champions.

Even the Rams posted a respectable 7-9 record in 2013, with Bradford sidelined for the majority of the year.

David Richard/Associated Press

For St. Louis to take the next step and emerge as a playoff team, every phase of the game will need to fire on all cylinders.

This is especially true for Bradford, who has struggled to remain healthy (15 missed games) and develop into an elite passer during his four-year career.

Bradford ranked just 22nd among quarterbacks during his abbreviated 2013 campaign, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). His replacement, Kellen Clemens, ranked 25th.

Getting more out of Bradford should be a clear goal for St. Louis in 2014, and there were plenty of positive signs this preseason before Saturday's injury.

Bradford was 9-of-12 for 101 yards and a touchdown in his preseason debut against the Green Bay Packers a week ago, and went 4-of-9 for 77 yards against the Browns before heading to the locker room.

The Rams have done an excellent job of surrounding the former No. 1 overall pick with talent. Pass-catchers like Chris Givens (two catches for 94 yards and a score) and Brian Quick (four receptions for 47 yards) found a way to shine on Saturday night, even with Bradford out of the game.

However, there is little doubt that the Rams offense is more formidable with Bradford under center. The likely alternative is Shaun Hill, a 12-year journeyman who has some starting experience but a comparatively low ceiling.

Hill was just 2-of-6 for 45 yards on Saturday and 1-of-4 for 14 yards the week before.

Rams Quarterbacks This Preseason
CompAttComp %YdsTDInt
Austin Davis27545037131
Garrett Gilbert101952.610800
Sam Bradford132161.917810
Shaun Hill8174714320

Austin Davis, who performed well against Cleveland (14-of-22 for 198 yards, two touchdowns and an interception), is another possible option. However, the Southern Mississippi product is very much unproven.

This doesn't mean that St. Louis' season is completely lost if Bradford misses significant time due to injury. However, the fierce level of competition within the division means the Rams need all the help they can get once the regular season is underway.

Trying to compete without Bradford would be a major uphill battle.

This is why protecting Bradford has to be a priority moving forward, assuming Saturday's injury isn't already one of a serious nature. 

Otherwise, the Rams may be forced to spend another postseason watching from home as franchise-caliber quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are guiding their NFC West teams on deep playoff runs.