Vikings

Minnesota Vikings May Not Have Made the Right Move, but Sam Bradford is a Clear Upgrade

Shaun Hill is bad.

Recognizing this, the Minnesota Vikings decided to trade a first-round pick this year and a conditional fourth-round pick next year to acquire former Eagles and Rams quarterback Sam Bradford to upgrade from the starting quarterback position while Teddy Bridgewater recovers from a devastating quarterback injury.

There’s a very good chance that Sam Bradford represents a distinct upgrade over Shaun Hill, and he was scheduled to start for the Philadelphia Eagles this year because he likely represents that kind of quality.

Whether or not that one-year rental (or more) is worth a first-round pick and then some is worth debating.

Because that question comes down to a question of valuation, three things need to be determined: what the value of a first and a fourth is, what the value of Sam Bradford is, and what the value of Shaun Hill (or the next best option) is.

The Vikings have “penciled in” Shaun Hill as the starter for week one (which means isolating the cost of Bradford to 15 games), but I doubt that remains the case, and a simplified playbook will allow Bradford, who has three years of experience in a Coryell system (the same terminology that Norv Turner uses), to play in the first game of the season.


Vegas

Perhaps the best way to do this is to estimate the Vikings win total with and without Bradford.  At least one Vegas bookie upgraded the Vikings to 9.5 wins over the 8 wins they would have estimated with just Shaun Hill at quarterback

A 1.5-win upgrade is more meaningful near 8-8 than it is near 2-14, so it’s not as if a linear evaluation of that win potential is useful.

Rather, the chances, according to Vegas, that the Vikings would hit the playoffs rose dramatically.

In all honesty, if the Vegas valuation makes sense, then that’s probably worth it.

But there’s a deeper story at play. The Vikings were 9.5-win marks by Vegas late in the offseason, before Bridgewater was injured. A line move by casinos back to the original win total seems to imply that Sam Bradford is just as good (or close enough) to Teddy Bridgewater and I’m not sure that’s the case.

As it so happens, bettors were pounding the over so that every $150 bet on the over would have only returned $100 back if the Vikings had 10 or more wins. The same was true of the eight-win total in a Bridgewater-less Vikings. Bettors thought it was a better than eight-win team without Bridgewater, just as they thought it was a better than 9.5-win team with him.

(UPDATE: Sportsbook.ag did what I predicted, and the odds have settled at 9.0 wins with even odds for both the over and under).

How bettors react to the new Vegas line will be more meaningful than the line itself, if Vegas odds are anything to go by.

If they choose to grab the under, then the win total Bradford theoretically brings could be lower than the difference added by raw Vegas lines. If the Vikings were an 8.5-win team without him and a 9-win team with him, is it worth a first-round pick?

Let’s divorce the question from “what Vegas thinks” to the original three questions—what is a first-round pick worth, what is Sam Bradford worth and what is the cheapest replacement worth?


First Round Pick Value

What’s a first-round pick worth? Anecdotally, it’s worth somewhere between Anthony Barr and Matt Kalil. It could be worth a franchise left tackle (Ronnie Stanley? Taylor Decker?) or a high-level safety (Karl Joseph or Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix?).

Or the Vikings may have averted a bust.

Maybe it’s useful to list recent first-round picks and order them so we can get some understanding of the median value.

  • Harrison Smith
  • Anthony Barr
  • Teddy Bridgewater
  • Sharrif Floyd
  • Xavier Rhodes
  • Trae Waynes
  • Laquon Treadwell
  • Matt Kalil
  • Cordarrelle Patterson
  • Christian Ponder

So perhaps the Vikings gave up on five years of Xavier Rhodes for two years of Sam Bradford (or whomever you think the middle value is; it’s not important).

Maybe the Vikings gave up a Rhodes-quality player. Photo Credit: Luke Inman
Maybe the Vikings gave up a Rhodes-quality player. Photo Credit: Luke Inman

The upside there is incredible, too—there are only three busts in that group (if we exclude Treadwell and Waynes, that’s two busts of seven).

Looking at the general value of player selected by slightly-better-than-eight-win teams might be useful as well. A team that would have gone 8-7-1 in the regular season would, on average, grab the 18th pick over the last four years (18.5th, 19.5th, 15.5th and 19.5th over the last four years).

We can use Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value metric to figure out what that means. They’ve create a metric for each position to determine, generally, how valuable a particular player is. It takes into account positional statistics (like interceptions and sacks), unit performance (a team with the third-best offense will give a small boost to AV to all teammates starting for that offense, for example) and postseason honors (bonuses for Pro Bowl appearances, All-Pro appearances and MVPs).

It’s not perfect, but in large groups, it will do—making it great to figure out the value of a pick selected between the 16th and 20th slots of the first round. This is where luminaries like Tamba Hali and Maurkice Pouncey were picked, but also where disappointments like Jarvis Moss and Larry English were selected.

In general, the pick value seems to be worth 5 points of Approximate Value, which of course is not very helpful on its own.

For nearly any position group, a score of 10 signifies an All-Pro quality player who consistently is at the top of his game. That’s like Orlando Pace or Walter Jones. Someone with a score of 2 will probably have one or two starting seasons but will be a backup capable of spot duty. Those are players like Trai Essex or Frank Omiyale (or, before how well he performed last year, Joe Berger).

Chad Greenway, Kyle Rudolph, MyCole Pruitt, Matt Kalil, Everson Griffen
Maybe the Vikings gave up the next Chad Greenway, picked 17th overall. Photo Credit: Luke Inman

At a score of 5, players will generally be consistent starters but not necessarily earn more than one, if any, postseason honors. Players in between 4.5 and 5.5 AV include Todd Herremans, Bryant McKinnie, Eric Winston or Jeff Backus. They tend to be above the average starter, which is why they earn consistent work, but not elite.

For the most part, it seems like the Vikings gave up about five years of an above-average starter at a position of need—which, if you can’t tell from the examples, is likely an offensive tackle in this year’s draft.

Over at Inside the Pylon, Ethan Young characterized it somewhat differently by taking into account contract value and years of contract. For him, giving up four years and then some (a first round pick) for a quality player at a rookie contract required very high play if the return is two years (with one year of the contract counting against the Vikings because of how expensive Bradford will be in 2017).

His conclusion is stark:

That type of value is equal to having a player like Michael FloydDavid DeCastro, or Dont’a Hightower play for free for the next four years.

The Vikings are not giving up an abstraction of high value. They are giving up the chance to draft a player likely at the quality of Dont’a Hightower.

It’s not that Sam Bradford needs to be Tom Brady to be worth a first-round pick. If the Vikings traded for four years of Sam Bradford instead of two years at a cheaper contract, they probably only would need a player at the quality of Matt Stafford. But the combination of the expensive contract and the opportunity cost of a player like Todd Herrremans, two years of a player demands a high peak.

Five years of play at an AV of 5 is of course 25 total AV. For two years of Sam Bradford in return, the logical next step is that he be an All-Pro caliber player. That’s probably not fair from either me or Young, because I don’t think that these things are necessarily linear and it introduces the same sort of question that we get every year at the Hall of Fame (what’s better a good, long career, or a short but elite peak?) but it gives us a way to think about it.

Of course, there is the possibility that that first-round player will bust. That’s worth pricing in, but two things should be pointed out. The first is that in that pick range, only about 35% of picks did not start for five years or make a Pro Bowl. The second is the fact that the Vikings have been unusually good at scouting the first round in the last several years, with only one “bust” since Rick Spielman took over general manager duties in 2012 (or perhaps two, depending on your opinions of Patterson and Kalil).

I don’t think the fact that 35% of picks in that pick range wash out is a suitable reason to discount the pick. Of the Vikings’ 22 starters, ten of them are first-round picks. Given that teams bring in about seventeen rookies into camp every year and only one of them generally is a first round pick, those are pretty great odds.

List the Vikings’ best players, and they will almost all be first-round picks. Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater represent the pick value well, and the fact that Everson Griffen came from the fourth round while Linval Joseph and Eric Kendricks came from the second round doesn’t mean it is easy to make up that lost value.

Besides, the two starting defensive ends come from the same round value as the pick they traded away in 2018!

There is of course the chance that the Vikings only want a year of Sam Bradford. In which case, a first-round pick for a rental demands extremely high-level play from Bradford.

For what it’s worth, that’s not how the Vikings view it. Rick Spielman, in a podcast appearance with Ross Tucker in Ross Tucker Football Podcast argued that the two-year contract was essential to the deal.

“This is not a one-year rental”

“This is not a one-year rental,” he said. “That’s why we were willing to give up a first. We don’t know where Teddy’s going to be after his surgery. I don’t have any doubt that Teddy is going to rehab his rear end off to get back to where he was, but it’s the unknown. So by having a two-year deal on Sam Bradford, you definitely protect yourself going into the 2017 season.”

We may find out soon, though.

Being able to perform surgery and look at the full extent of the damage will give the doctors and trainers a very good picture of how to approach rehab and what the schedule for recovery will look like.

From what I’ve heard from people in the medical community, we’ll get an even better prognosis on his total recovery time 6 months after surgery. The amount of stiffness in movement during physical therapy evidently will give us quite a bit of information.

Until then, Sham Hillford.


Sam Bradford and the Numbers

Photo Credit: NFL Gamepass Screenshot
Photo Credit: NFL Gamepass Screenshot

How good is Sam Bradford? Using Young’s standard above, the answer is obviously “not good enough,” but if we want to be a little more lenient we can explore the question in full.

From a statistical standpoint, Bradford is a conundrum. Those who evaluate quarterbacks by wins would of course not be very happy (Bradford is 25-37-1, or .405), but I doubt anyone who has made it this far into the piece really cares about that as an evaluative tool.

Thanks for making it this far, by the way.

Largely speaking, there are a few quick evaluative measures one can use to get a quick read on a quarterback. In order of personal preference, they are Pro Football Focus grades, implied yards per attempt, ESPN QBR, Football Outsiders’ DVOA, adjusted net yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, passer rating, adjusted yards per attempt and yards per attempt. The box score statistics can be found at Pro Football Reference.

I know several of those are pretty controversial and I don’t mean to include measures that seem out of place or can feel ultimately lazy. My research has largely shown that this is the order by which you can rank these metrics to predict wins, and is therefore a decent measure of quality.

For clarity’s sake, “implied YPA” looks at accuracy after eliminating batted passes, throwaways, drops, spikes and throws while being hit and multiplies it against the average depth of target, thus giving us the yards-per-attempt in a situation that is more in the control of the quarterback.

The “net” in any “net yards per attempt” metric refers to adding sacks and sack yards to the equation, while the “adjusted” in any “adjusted yards per attempt” adds a 20-yard bonus for touchdowns and a 45-yard penalty for interceptions.

When the different types of data generally agree, that is almost certainly the truth. Aaron Rodgers is good, Blaine Gabbert is bad (wait… right?).

Check out where Bradford’s most recent season ranks among qualifying quarterbacks in each of those metrics:

Metric Rank Qualifying QBs
PFF 12 38
Implied YPA 13 36
QBR 31 33
DVOA 24 37
ANYA 26 37
NYA 18 37
Rating 26 37
AYA 28 37
YPA 25 37

That’s a pretty wide spread. So he’s the twelfth-best or the second-worst.

It seems like the consensus is around 26th, which would be an upgrade, theoretically over Shaun Hill. We’ll get to him in a bit, but it needs to be pointed out that a consensus among the same kind of metric (all the YPAs) is not meaningful in the same way as a consensus between the top four metrics would be—especially because in the end, they all kind of measure similar things.

Also, if we have one year of data, is that meaningful enough? How do we know that this isn’t an Aaron-Rodgers-in-2015 or Tom-Brady-in-2013 low, or a Josh-McCown-and-Nick-Foles-in-2013 high? Career numbers are more telling in those four cases.

To be fair to Bradford, including his rookie and sophomore years numbers might unduly weigh him down, especially with the fact that he simply took more attempts his rookie year than any other year. Those two years are his worst statistically, so I’m not excluding them in order to further the point.

Metric Rank Qualifying QBs
PFF 18 42
Implied YPA 30 42
QBR 33 42
DVOA 23 42
ANYA 25 42
NYA 28 42
Rating 24 42
AYA 27 42
YPA 34 42

So he goes from just below average (PFF) to not-quite starting quality (QBR and YPA). If we condense the box score statistics, we get about 27th. Between that, DVOA, QBR, Implied YPA and PFF, he ranks about 26th—so just below average.

The spread is smaller, but I’m not sure the message is any clearer.

As we move away from hard data, we can evaluate other information that may sway our opinions. For example, we know that Pat Shurmur has been around Bradford for two years—one year as an offensive coordinator and one year as his quarterbacks coach. He was also played a lead role in scouting Bradford for the Rams. Who knows better than he does how good Bradford is?

In Shurm We Trust Photo Credit: Screenshot NFL Gamepass
In Shurm We Trust. Photo Credit: Screenshot NFL Gamepass

On the other hand, two teams have tried to displace him. The Rams traded him for Nick Foles, while the Eagles drafted Carson Wentz. How good can a quarterback be if two teams tried to move on from him?

They may not have gotten rid of him without a fight, but they made a substantial investment to have him not play quarterback for their football team, in a quarterback-thirsty league. This isn’t quite the same as discovering that Kirk Cousins, a fourth-round pick, happens to be a better fit than the first-round pick from the same year.

Who knows better than Shurmur? The teams that employed Bradford for extended periods of time, and front offices whose jobs are to determine value, not just whether or not they like a player.

Bradford is a uniquely interesting question. There are some statistically minded that see little difference between Bridgewater and Bradford. John Pollard, who works at STATS, Inc, sees a virtually identical quarterback coming to Minnesota.

Pro Football Focus comes at it from a different angle, and they argue that Minnesota is back in the race for a Super Bowl appearance.

Last season, Bradford played with the worst receiving corps in the league, a group that dropped 7.6 percent of his passes to lead the league. He missed all of 2014, and while there was some early-season rust, he was one of the top-graded quarterbacks during the second half of the season. On the season, he actually finished 12th in PFF quarterback grades, at 85.3, one spot ahead of 13th-place Bridgewater at 82.6.

I’m also worried, statistically, about what happens when evaluating a quarterback in Chip Kelly’s system specifically. The numbers for Chip Kelly quarterbacks seem to be misleading:

Quarterback PFF Rank Implied YPA Rank QBR Rank DVOA Rank ANYA Rank NYA Rank Rating Rank AYA Rank YPA Rank
Nick Foles 19 4 7 5 4 4 7 4 6
Sam Bradford 12 30 31 24 26 18 25 28 26
Mark Sanchez 30 38 22 28 27 15 25 27 11
Mike Vick 26 5 23 24 10 4 25 4 2

The idea that Bradford has been surrounded by a uniquely bad cast has been a common one. It’s one that was peddled in St. Louis constantly. Chris Brown at Smart Football in 2011:

[W]hat I saw was a smart young quarterback on a bad-to-mediocre team with a horrendous supporting cast, who managed to get himself through a lot of ballgames by taking the conservative option, dumping it off, and picking spots to throw downfield.

At NFL.com, R.B. Fallstrom in 2012:

Even with slot receiver Danny Amendola back from a dislocated elbow that cost him most of last season and Steve Smith aboard with a low-risk free agent deal, the Rams are thin at wide receiver. Jackson had 1,000 yards rushing for the seventh straight season, but often carried the offense on his back. A combination of injury and lack of a supporting cast led to a sophomore slump for Bradford, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2010.

Will Brinson with CBS in 2013:

After an outstanding rookie season that saw Bradford come up just short in pursuit of the playoffs, he hasn’t been progressing the way pundits prefer. That’s not all his fault though: Bradford hasn’t had any offensive weapons at his disposal since he played for Oklahoma.

Matt Harmon at Backyard Banter in 2014:

Sam Bradford’s supporting cast also did not do much to assist him. Chris Givens and Daryl Richardson showed they were not the featured players the team had hoped, while Brian Quick continued to progress at a molasses-like pace. Tavon Austin, when Schottenheimer wasn’t misusing him, spent the early part of his rookie season dropping balls and making mistakes. Newcomer Jared Cook just continued to put out the same inconsistent effort laden performances the Titans had previously grown to expect from him. The Rams offensive line, while better than in prior years, was far from perfect in 2013.

Nathan Jahnke at Pro Football Focus in 2015:

His Philadelphia supporting cast includes DeMarco Murray, Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson — all of whom rank among the top 10 players at their position. The Eagles also have several young, promising wide receivers. That is a better supporting cast then Bradford ever had with the Rams.

Sam Bradford actually ranked ahead of Teddy Bridgewater in Pro Football Focus’ ratings

I do happen to think these are broadly legitimate arguments, especially when it comes to the offensive line, to dismiss or provide context for poor statistical performance. It’s a reason I don’t evaluate quarterbacks by win totals, and I use these arguments myself when providing context to Bridgewater’s numbers.

But one needs to be careful when avoiding blame for the quarterback. It’s easy to fall into this trap, and one Vikings fans fell into for Christian Ponder.

The argument isn’t a bad one in a vacuum, but it’s too seductive to be accurate in all applications, especially without being careful. At what point do those reasons turn into excuses?

In the unusual case for Philadelphia, we do have some test cases for Bradford’s supporting cast: the fact that Bradford was arguably the worst of the Chip Kelly quarterbacks. It is true that he was also the most disadvantaged in several ways—that Kelly assumed full personnel control while making odd moves and that the rest of the NFL was catching up to Kelly by then.

And hey, Nick Foles did markedly worse in St. Louis than Bradford did.

Still, the split between Bradford’s time in standard NFL systems in St. Louis vs. his time in a uniquely enabling offensive system is pretty stark.

Bradford Team PFF Rank Implied YPA Rank QBR Rank DVOA Rank ANYA Rank NYA Rank Rating Rank AYA Rank YPA Rank
Eagles 12 24 31 24 26 18 26 28 25
Rams – All 4 Years 25 38 38 31 32 34 31 33 34
Rams – Final 2 Years 20 38 24 17 27 30 28 28 32

So, with the Eagles, he’s about the 21st-best quarterback. With the full four years of the Rams, he was about a 32nd-ranked quarterback. With just the final two years, he’s a 26th-ranked quarterback (or thereabouts).

Who is Sam Bradford?

It really seems like the Kelly system is uniquely enabling. Foles put up his best numbers with Kelly, despite having a year before and after Kelly to compare to. Michael Vick’s numbers under Kelly were better than the two years prior or the two years afterwards. Mark Sanchez put up career numbers under Kelly; far better than anything he could put together in any single year in New York. And Sam Bradford turned from a quarterback ranking around 35th to a quarterback ranking around 25th.

Statistics give us possibly no answers at all.

Context-sensitive measures, like Pro Football Focus and ESPN’s QBR, disagree strongly. If drops and pressure are a big reason for Bradford’s poor numbers, QBR should capture that. If the depth of passes are a reason that QBR keeps docking Bradford, PFF and Implied YPA should capture that.

We’ll take a look at the film quickly with Bradford, but what we have now may still answer the question of worth. Was it worth giving up an Eric Winston-quality player in the draft for five years in order to get one or two years of the 25th-best quarterback in the NFL? It may depend on Shaun Hill’s quality, but my immediate reaction is no.


Sam Bradford and the Film

Cian Fahey, a writer at Football Outsiders and several other online publications, published a piece at his own website—Presnap reads—about Sam Bradford and what the film on him reveals.

American sports are engulfed in statistical analysis. A quarterback who has been around for a relatively long time, who has never put up spectacular numbers and never played on a winning team isn’t going to be well received by analysts or fans.

Bradford hasn’t put up good numbers or played on winning teams, but his skill set and his performances on the field have been consistently good over the course of his career.

Fahey hammers home one particular argument: supporting cast. Specifically, that Bradford was unusually the victim of drops. That bears out and Cian illustrates that problem excellently.

STATS, LLC has Bradford with the highest percentage of passes dropped in 2015. They have him with the highest percentage of passes dropped in 2013, too. His receiver drop rate ranks highly (third) in 2010 as well, though he seems to have avoided that fate in both 2011 and 2012.

Pro Football Focus also ranked him first in having poor drop luck in 2015. They largely agree with STATS, LLC in 2013 as well, ranking his drop rate as the fourth-largest.

Fahey also briefly mentions Bradford’s issues with his offensive line in St. Louis, but that is one that is more difficult to sympathize with as a Vikings writer. That problem will be worse in Minnesota than it was in St. Louis, so giving him credit for that seems pointless.

Still, if that factor was so dominant as to impact his statistics, that would be captured in the metrics that strip drops—specifically implied yards per attempt and ESPN QBR. Is that the only reason statistics may not have captured his “true” value?

I watched ten games—six from last year and four from his 2013 season, just to see how much an effect the system could have and whether or not Bradford is as quality a player as Fahey or Pro Football Focus claim.

Supporting Cast

Throughout Bradford’s career, supporters have long lamented his teammates as essentially being unrosterable. While I’m not sure the most hyperbolic version of these arguments are true, I do think that those supporters are correct.

Bradford’s receivers were garbage.

When there are quarterbacks who consistently fail to produce and fail in strikingly similar ways multiple times, it is more likely the case that the signal-caller is at fault, not his teammates. In the case of the high drop rates that followed Bradford around regardless of year or teammate, I don’t think that’s the completely case. I’ll discuss more how he does contribute to it, but it would be facile to argue that he causes it.

For a quarterback like Colin Kaepernick, a lack of touch can increase drops on otherwise catchable throws because an accurate pass will rifle off the hands of receivers and would be counted as a drop. Bradford has no issue controlling the velocity of his passes for context, so that’s not the reason.

The consistency with which receivers would get open isn’t as much of a problem in either Philadelphia or St. Louis, but their ability to attack or contest the ball was lacking and with limited catch radii along with poor hands, it’s easy to sympathize with Bradford.

Add to that some weaknesses along the offensive line, a poor running game and an unnecessarily simple offense in Philadelphia, and one can begin to construct an argument for why Bradford is frequently underrated.

Having bad players around a quarterback will make a quarterback look (and produce) worse than he is. But that doesn’t mean the quarterback himself is good.

 

Accuracy

Bradford is a generally accurate quarterback. There are some excellent pieces, like those written by my now-colleague at 1500 ESPN, Matthew Coller, and by Fahey above that argue that Bradford isn’t just generally accurate, but demonstrates consistently good ball location. On that point, I’d have to disagree.

For the most part, Bradford does a good job throwing the ball with leverage against the defense to a place the receiver should generally be able to get it. But any precise than that and he has trouble. He does not consistently lead his receivers into additional yards after the catch and often throws too high for them to generate more.

They have to fight for the ball more often than they should have given how open they are, and that’s because his passes get to the general area but are imprecise.

That’s an unusual thing to say for the quarterback that ranked sixth in percentage of passing yards that came after the catch, but it’s true.

Bradford Ball Placement

Bradford leads Matthews into Death 2

It’s a persistent problem, though there are games where his ball placement is better—like against Carolina. Generally speaking, however, his accuracy only extends to creating specific zones for the receiver instead of placing it to help the receiver the most.

That ball placement issue is related to the drop rate. In the GIF above, you can clearly see Jordan Matthews bobble a high pass before getting knocked out by (who else?) Brandon Meriweather. Drops like that—and most drops Bradford was the victim of—are similar, where the receiver is generally at fault on an individual basis.

But he’s not really helping his receivers with the ball placement. A few interceptions aren’t credited to him by analysts because the ball bounces off the receiver’s hands, but if the ball is thrown behind the receiver often enough, even a good player will have significantly more drops than if the ball was placed for catchability.

This isn’t to say his receivers were good or that they otherwise would have good hands without them—it’s more to say that Bradford may have been the difference between leading the league in dropped passes and having the fifth-most dropped passes.

You’ll also note that Bradford may have helped kill Matthews by leading him into a safety. That’s a problem, but I’ll put that into the next section because that’s more about decision-making than it is accuracy.

 

Decisionmaking

It’s frustrating to watch receiver after receiver drop passes for Bradford. But it’s almost as frustrating to see Bradford check out of easy decisions for more difficult and less impactful ones.

In the below GIF, not only does Bradford eventually throw too high for his receiver to generate YAC, he moves off of a receiver at the bottom of the screen (Bradford’s right) who’s already gone hip-to-hip with a cornerback and then breaks completely free.

Bradford Move Off Read

The pressure obviously plays a role and he has to move in the pocket, but he sees his receiver win leverage and never checks back even when he has room and time.

Many times, he’ll make the wrong half-field read entirely. He initially looks to the 3×4 side, where three receivers are on one side of the formation, with four defensive backs covering them. On the other side of the field, there’s one receiver manned up against a cornerback with no safety on top.

A safety drops back quickly and they rotate into Cover-2, but the coverage the Giants run is a Cover-2 beater anyway. It would have been an easy gain for a lot of yardage.

Bradford Half-Field Read

He also chose not to give his receiver a chance on the nine route despite winning leverage, though that’s not as big of a problem because of the safety bearing down on him and the fact that he keeps losing real estate to the sideline.

These sorts of decisions consistently happen, and he even will occasionally mess up his read on the read-pass options, handing the ball off after making the wrong read on a linebacker or pulling back to pass and putting his receivers at risk.

Below, he reads the linebacker to determine whether or not to hand the ball off. The linebacker is frozen by the nature of the play, which leads to a numbers advantage for the blockers at the point of attack. Instead, Bradford pulls back and throws it to a receiver who then runs right into that linebacker.

Bradford Wrong RPO Read

I start off with negatives that nitpick to make a larger point; Bradford makes better decisions than a lot of quarterbacks.

Like I said earlier, he puts the ball away from defensive backs much more often than not and if he had had an average receiving corps, he may have had one of the lowest interception rates in the league. Bradford knows how to avoid turnovers and the fact that he ranked 25th of 35 receivers in interception rate is a crime—he should be closer to 5th or 6th.

Despite the issue with the RPO above, Bradford can read keys. Generally speaking, quarterbacks will read two things—defenses or keys. If they’re Matt Ryan, they’ll read something else entirely, best suited for high school quarterbacks, but that’s another story altogether.

If they’re reading a defense, they’ll diagnose the coverage and attempt to throw the best route given that coverage. If they have a Cover-2 beater on one side (like a corner route) and they see the other team is running that coverage, they’ll throw that beater.

If they’re reading a key, they will read a key defender on one side of the field and throw based on what that defender does.

Both are important, but QBs will need to do both in order to avoid trap coverages. Bradford seems to neglect or ignore reading coverage in favor of, almost exclusively, reading keys.

Still, he’s very good at that and that’s worth a lot—most quarterbacks entering the league, even first-round picks, will struggle with that.

Bradford also understands the structure of the play and is well aware of situation and context for his throws. He knows where the sticks are and though Philadelphia had issues converting third-and-long, Bradford was not the primary problem most of the time. Understanding the structure of the play and executing it are two different things, of course, but one is required for the other.

 

Pocket Management

Sam Bradford does not play scared.

Quarterbacks who cannot perform under pass-rush pressure will fail. It seems to be the biggest reason for busts and the key quality for all successful, or even mildly successful quarterbacks. Blaine Gabbert, for example, is actually a pretty good quarterback with a clean pocket and no blitz. But he’s one of the worst in the league, if not the worst, at responding to pass-rush pressure.

The prerequisite to all of that is not to play scared.

Sam Bradford does not play scared.

He may be cautious, but he’s not scared. He senses pressure appropriately without panic, he steps into throws with pressure bearing down on him, he manages edge pressure with movement in the pocket, he steps around incoming defenders and will wait if he needs to wait for a receiver to get open even as a 280-pound behemoth comes bearing down on him.

That doesn’t mean he’s good under pressure, but he’s definitely not bad.

Against the blitz, he frequently ignores the hot read and does not throw into the blitz, where a vacant defender would be. While defenses have become better about trapping quarterbacks into throwing at defenders who “aren’t supposed to be there,” Bradford consistently ignores the coverage holes left behind by blitzes and will instead throw against the original structure of the play.

When there are no blitzes and no incoming pressure, Bradford should be fine, but he often doesn’t throw with the timing of the play. At first, I thought this was a Chip Kelly feature, where footwork and route breaks didn’t necessarily have to line up, but this was an issue in 2013 under a more traditional offense as well.

Bradford Late to Act

Here, he begins his throwing motion well after the break and it almost leads to an interception. He doesn’t seem to anticipate when receivers break open and instead often has to confirm that they are open. This gives the defense time and it limits both yards-after-catch opportunity and the ability of receivers to catch the ball unmolested.

 

Other Stuff

Generally speaking, Bradford isn’t spooked by much and makes smart scrambling decisions. He has some capability to move, and though it’s not as much as Bridgewater, it’s certainly more than Hill.

An important note, however, is Bradford’s injury history. Bradford missed 13 games in college because of two separate injuries to the same shoulder. He missed four more NFL games because of it. He missed nine games in 2013 because of an ACL injury and missed all of 2014 because of the same ACL. He has also suffered an ankle injury as well as a concussion.

All told, he has played in only 65 percent of the games his team has played in the regular season.

People have said that “this is the best supporting cast Bradford has ever had to work with,” which is somewhat true. It’s certainly true of the skill players, as this tight end, receiving and running back group eclipses the same groups from his other teams. But this will be the worst offensive line he’s had to work with. Though he’s done a decent job preventing pressure from turning into sacks, he’s still going to get hit a lot more than he ever has.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Bradford had to miss several games because of this.

With all that in mind, Bradford strikes me as a clearly below-average starter (if starter is defined as “top 32”), but an above-exceptional backup. Bradford is one of the 25 people on the planet that can play quarterback as a starter for more than a few years, but in that group of 25, he’s near the bottom.

A few cleanup items: It may make sense from a value perspective to downgrade Bradford’s early performances with the Vikings (or eliminate some games entirely) as he learns the playbook. I don’t do that here for three reasons—first, because it’s easier. Second, because Bradford is familiar with the terminology of a Norv Turner playbook after his three years with Brian Schottenheimer. Third, because the Vikings likely intend to start him as soon as possible.

Still it makes sense to point out that quarterbacks in new situations don’t often do well—except in another high-profile case with Norv Turner 23 years ago and Bernie Kosar—Josh Freeman and Carson Palmer come to mind. The Vikings may be getting a poor man’s Bradford instead of Bradford himself for the first few games they play him unless they sit him.

Not a likely scenario
Not a likely scenario

Though I don’t expect him to start against Tennessee—Coller talked to Joe Berger about Carson Palmer’s struggles and makes a great point in this video he makes for 1500 ESPN about why that would be a poor idea—I expect him to start soon.

Still, if he misses two games because he’s learning the playbook and perhaps two more games because of his injury likelihood, was it really worth trading a first-round pick?


Shaun Hill

Shaun Hill is a capable backup, but nobody sees him as the future of the franchise. (Photo credit: Kyle Hansen)
Shaun Hill is a capable backup, but nobody sees him as the future of the franchise. (Photo credit: Kyle Hansen)

So…

That looks pretty bad.

But let’s apply the same rules and only look at Hill over the past several years like we did for Bradford. I’m not confident that the Shaun Hill at age 28 is remotely comparable to the Shaun Hill at age 36.

First, we may as well look at Hill’s 2014 and compare it to Bradford’s 2015 (ranks according to how Hill’s 2014 statistics would look in 2015).

Metric Bradford Value Bradford Rank Hill Value Hill Rank Qualifying QBs
PFF 85.3 12 67.7 30 38
Implied YPA 7.41 13 7.22 22 36
QBR 41.8 31 41.4 32 33
DVOA -8.20% 24 -14.10% 29 37
ANYA 5.85 26 5.61 30 37
NYA 6.29 18 6.24 22 37
Rating 86.4 26 83.9 30 37
AYA 6.53 28 6.56 28 37
YPA 7.00 25 7.24 18 37

From those numbers alone, there aren’t stellar arguments for spending a first-round pick, aside from the PFF difference. The implied yards per attempt favors Bradford as well, but a marginal difference in QBR and small to no differences in the other metrics (and a negative difference in pure yards per attempt) speak ill of spending a Dont’a Hightower-quality player for a year.

But again, the last several years should give us a better understanding of these players. For Bradford, we went back to 2012 and for Hill we would go to his last three years, but with only 20 extra attempts, that means we’ll instead just compare his 2014 to the same group of players as Bradford: the 2012-2015 crowd.

Metric Bradford Value Bradford Rank Hill Value Hill Rank Qualifying QBs
PFF 84.7 18 67.7 32 42
Implied YPA 6.92 30 7.22 23 42
QBR 45.7 33 41.4 38 42
DVOA -1.92% 23 -14.10% 34 42
ANYA 5.81 25 5.61 28 42
NYA 6.03 28 6.24 23 42
Rating 85.7 24 83.9 27 42
AYA 6.54 27 6.56 27 42
YPA 6.78 34 7.24 17 42

Because Hill threw two touchdowns and completed 10 passes in 13 attempts for the Lions in 2012, his statistics jump up significantly if you include his garbage time for Detroit. Those were not included because they, like the 2015 passes with the Vikings, likely obfuscate reality more than help.

The average difference in ranks between the two sets is less than one, in part because of Hill’s massive advantages in yards per attempt and implied yards per attempt. With that is a small advantage in net yards per attempt. The gap in Pro Football Focus grade narrows significantly, but the QBR gap widens by as much.

If you correct for the number of qualifying QBs and weight each of the measures by how much information they’ve historically given, Bradford comes out to ranking 21st of 42 quarterbacks in the one-year measure and Hill comes out to 29th in that group.

In the four-year look (which for Hill remains one year of real data, with three years for Bradford), Bradford’s rank comes out to 26th overall while Hill comes out to 31st overall.

What could those differences functionally mean? That Hill is better about placing accurate targets further downfield, but that Bradford did a better job with impact plays—either adding touchdowns or avoiding turnovers.

The film doesn’t bear out the first part of that statement to me, but I think it may speak to Bradford’s predilection against targeting receivers that even seem like marginal risks even when they are more open.

Given how Hill performed in training camp—which seemed very poor to me, though he improved later in camp and in the preseason—I would downgrade him further. To me, Hill is a generic backup quarterback and no longer one of the top backups in the league. That would make him more like the 37th or 40th-best quarterback in the league, which is a steep dropoff from 21st or 25th.

I can see why the Vikings were alarmed with Hill and why they felt the need to make the move they did. From a value perspective, a starting quality quarterback—which Bradford is—is definitely worth a first-round pick and then some.

But that’s in a vacuum. For the Vikings, who are a young team who have the ability to sustain success for a long, long time, it doesn’t seem worth it to me. The likelihood that Teddy Bridgewater comes back seems high and the prospect of him returning to a team that has lost several players—like Chad Greenway, Terence Newman, Captain Munnerlyn, Matt Kalil, Andre Smith and Joe Berger—without replacing them with the highest-quality talent the Vikings can muster seems irresponsible.

Many of those players, like Newman and Munnerlyn, have replacements on the roster—but those replacements will need backups as well. Other players, like Kalil and Smith, may not strike you as quality players in themselves, but they need to be replaced with capable starters or the Vikings will just be spinning in circles.

They are not in “win-now” mode even though they can win, now. They are in “win forever” mode because they have the opportunity to keep adding young talent to a young, talented roster. Their window shouldn’t close soon and Sam Bradford, though a starting-quality quarterback, is still around the twentieth-best. That doesn’t scream “winning” to me.

A great quarterback creates wins. A good quarterback finds ways to win. A solid quarterback won’t lose, and a below-average quarterback can manage won games, but will lose some of them for you.

Over Shaun Hill, who will definitely lose games, the Vikings likely added some wins. I don’t think they added enough to justify the move.

Bridgewater of course may not come back, but by the time that information is available, Sam Bradford would be a free agent or available at a discounted price, when it’s not crunch-time. The Eagles would move on from him in order to start Carson Wentz, because it’s clear they are confident in him.

There is something to be said about the psychological effect on a team making moves to show the roster they care, but the team already made that move when it rostered a backup quarterback. They should bolster that in light of Bridgewater’s injury, but signing someone like Mark Sanchez—who is definitely worse than Bradford but better than Hill—would also be an action that addresses the situation while Taylor Heinicke returns from injury.

I don’t think that the team needs that psychological boost, either. Zimmer can make the team run through a wall for him, and there’s a risk that a failed season under Bradford could have the opposite effect—the perception of a closing window with veterans leaving soon after.

The team could send the signal that they are confident in who they have and want to win forever by constantly adding talent. I don’t think the psychological effect of projecting calmness onto the roster is mistaken, either. It reinforces the idea that this is a team sport and that no excuses will be made.

Beyond that, Heinicke is a player that shows a lot of potential and could play as a developmental backup. The Vikings were confident enough in Heinicke that they expected him to win the backup quarterback job and they could signal confidence in a winning season.

It’s not forfeiting or throwing away a season to tell the team that they have the quality to make a playoff run now, while at the same time grabbing insurance in the form of a free-agent backup quarterback and promising Heinicke the ability to compete for the job.


EDIT: There are some other arguments people have made that are worth a response. The first is “how can you justify Sanchez when the offense needs a ball-control element?” Which is a fair question. My response:

Another argument deals with Sam Bradford’s constantly changing offensive coordinator situation, akin to Alex Smith. He will once again chance offensive coordinators, so if it disadvantaged him then, it disadvantages him now—even more than it did before because he has less time to learn the offense.

In the comments, someone asked about the wins added by an offensive tackle. My response:

Take that with the wins generated by turning pressure from a bad tackle (say giving up pressure on 7 percent of plays) to a good tackle (less than one percent of plays) and that adds 2.3 points of passer rating every year, and eliminates 7 sacks (or about 49 yards, plus the yards gained from being able to throw the pass, which is on average another 49 yards).

So you add 100 yards of net passing yardage just from avoiding sacks *as well as* the improvement in quarterback play from eliminating pressure and you can turn a league average quarterback in ANYA into a tenth-ranked quarterback in ANYA.

From changing from the worst offensive tackle to the best.


I don’t think the Vikings made the right move; they essentially traded away (on average) five years of Eric Winston at his peak for two years of Sam Bradford. But they did grab a starting-quality quarterback who will take time to make an impact. Take that for what you will.

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