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Calm presence

Rams’ Bradford prepares for first big test

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By Eric Edholm

ST. LOUIS — The rookie quarterback who has enough money to buy a chunk of his new team isn’t above running a lap when the offense makes a mistake.

Meet Sam Bradford — $50 million man and football junkie.

The top pick in April’s draft has been charged with turning around the state of a 1-15 Rams franchise that last season bottomed out after setting the league on fire at times during the glory days of 1999 to the middle of the next decade. Playing at a first-rate program like Oklahoma prepared him for a lot, but the biggest hurdle of his football life lies ahead of him.

Right now, Bradford knows his place. He’s the second-string quarterback behind A.J. Feeley, just trying his best to find a place on this team in transition without attracting too much extra attention to himself. If you ask Bradford, he’d try to tell you he’s just one of 80 players in camp trying to carve out a role.

“We ask everyone on the team that,” Bradford said of his penalty lap. “If you mess up, to take a lap. I messed up, took a lap, and that’s part of it.

“It keeps everyone accountable for their actions. It makes sure everyone is on the same page.”

Everyone watching Bradford thus far is on this page: He really can throw the football.

After his breakout performance of camp, a scrimmage at nearby Lindenwood University last week in which Bradford barely let a ball hit the ground, the stakes have risen even more. There hasn’t been this much anticipation for a preseason opening game in St. Louis in a long time. Bradford will make his debut Saturday against the Vikings. Although Feeley will start, head coach Steve Spagnuolo said Bradford would get time with the first team.

“Everybody should have an opinion (on when Bradford should start),” Spagnuolo said. “We’ll do what we think is right and we’ll do it based on what’s (happening) on the field.”

It’s only a matter of time before Bradford takes over the starting role for good. Usually the concern with a rookie quarterback is that coaches don’t want to crush a kid’s confidence by throwing him to the wolves before he’s ready. But with Bradford, he looks mature beyond his years and in control of the action, even when things don’t go perfectly.

“He’s definitely more than capable, mentally and physically, of handling it,” C Jason Brown said. “The work ethic, discipline, toughness, responsibility, ability … the kid has it all.”

Spagnuolo said that Bradford has more than met his expectations in most areas of his game, and in some cases exceeded them.

“He sees the field really well,” Spagnuolo said. Things are starting to … the game is slowing down. (But) this is practice now. I should say, the practice is slowing down for him. We’ve still got to get him in a game.”

In Tuesday’s practice, Bradford, running with the second-team offense, went against the first-team defense and immediately impressed. He faced a blitz on his first play, stood in the face of the pressure and fired a dart to undrafted rookie WR Brandon McRae. A few plays later, Bradford tossed a gorgeous fade to another rookie receiver, Dominique Curry, though Curry couldn’t hang on to the catchable pass.

So what did Bradford do? He went back to Curry, his hot read, on the next play facing more pressure. Drops were an issue all day, as was blocking. DEs Chris Long and George Selvie closed hard on Bradford on a rollout to the right, but he smartly turfed the ball when no receivers were open. That said, there were rookie mistakes, too. He threw high to an open Brooks Foster on a slant and later badly overthrew Danny Amendola on a post pattern.

Even with the occasional misfire, Bradford said that, to date, the pass-protection concepts have been the most difficult thing to grasp fully in the pros.

“I think that’s definitely one of the tougher things and one of the last things, maybe, for me to really get through my head,” Bradford told PFW. “I think now, a week and a half into (camp), I feel more comfortable knowing the protections that might have issues, knowing the protections that I might have to make adjustments to.

“It’s a matter of getting reps, but it’s also a matter of getting reps against blitzes. You can come out here all day against regular defenses and not have to make a single change. But to come out here against blitzes and actually have to go through your mechanics and change your protections — and knowing you changed it for the right reason — I think that’s the only way I am going to get better at it. And I feel I have gotten better at it.”

Of course, it’s not a bad thing to have a defensive-oriented head coach like Spagnuolo who has a reputation for dialing up exotic blitzes. Bradford said he has seen the kitchen sink in terms of coverages, blitzes and different looks so far.

“During OTAs, I definitely saw some blitzes and some coverages that I just had never seen on the college level. And I know that they have got stuff they’re saving for me that I have not seen yet,” he said. “But I think now, for the stuff that they have run through camp, I feel comfortable knowing everything that could come at us.

“It’s different than it is in college. It’s a lot more complicated. Guys come from everywhere; more guys come than usual. So you do have to be ready to get rid of the ball quickly.”

What Bradford hasn’t struggled with is his demeanor. He appears calm, in control. Never too high or low. After throwing what was believed to be his first interception of camp on Wednesday, a pass on which he never saw Quincy Butler squatting on the route, Bradford never put his head down, instead going straight over to QB coach Richard Curl for another of many lessons along the way to becoming a star.

Bradford has impressed his teammates so far with how he has handled the spotlight.

“He reminds me a lot of Matt Ryan. I had a chance to train with (Ryan) in the offseason,” said WR Keenan Burton, one of several wideouts trying to earn a place on this team. “It’s his demeanor. I couldn’t say where (Bradford) is at as a quarterback, but I know as a teammate he’s exactly where he needs to be.”

The Rams’ playmakers leave a bit to be desired right now. RB Steven Jackson is a force as a runner, but he’s also by far the team’s most established pass receiver, too. Donnie Avery is coming off a disappointing second season, and many of the other wideouts are unproven. The same thing goes pretty much at tight end.

So who will be Bradford’s go-to pass catcher?

“Whoever is open,” he says with a smile, echoing words often heard from seasoned pros such as Drew Brees.

It’s true, too. On Tuesday, Bradford’s favorite targets were McRae and Jordan Kent. On Wednesday, it was Amendola, Burton and Foster. As far as Bradford is concerned, everyone here is on even footing. If they’re open, that is.

“All of us (receivers) are fighting for position,” Burton said. “It has been great knowing that (Bradford) is going to look to the guy who can make something happen on that play, on any given play.”

Bradford has gone out of his way not to act like a 22-year-old who just received $50 million guaranteed. When approached about posing for a local magazine cover story, he passed, preferring they use an action shot. He has turned down several public appearance offers that he thought could be construed as a distraction from football and insisted, when the baseball Cardinals invited him to throw out the first pitch at a recent game, that Feeley and Keith Null, the other Rams quarterbacks, be right by his side.

JaMarcus Russell, this is not, and people are taking notice.

“A lot of people, you get that sort of money, you could almost put it in the tank because you have enough money to retire that day,” said a fellow rookie, OT Rodger Saffold. “But he has a real passion for the game. He wants to play. He wants to be great. He’s a football junkie, like a lot of us.”

When asked about it, Bradford said he’s not intentionally trying to deflect the white-hot glare of being a quarterback, a franchise savior and, well, a very rich young man.

“I am just trying to be myself, to be honest with you,” he said. “If my teammates like me for who I am and like my personality, that’s great. I am really not going to change that. I feel like I am trying to do things the best way that I know how to do them.

“You can say that (I'm the center of attention), but at the end of the day we’re still a team. Everyone is going to look at this whole offense and what this offense produces. I don’t think they’re just looking at me.”

On Saturday, though, they most certainly will. Bradford hasn’t played in a real game since reinjuring his shoulder against Texas for the Sooners early last season. Everyone is curious to see how the rookie fares in his first action. So far, all signs point to him performing quite well.

“I’m probably going to be a little nervous,” he said. “I’m definitely going to be excited.

“It’s been a long time. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m really not sure how I’m going to feel, but I definitely know I’m going to be excited for it.”

 

For authoritative coverage and analysis of NFL news, free agency and fantasy football, visit ProFootballWeekly.com.

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