Best landing spots for free agent QB Sam Bradford
Although he was unable to lead the Eagles to the playoffs, Sam Bradford had an excellent end to the season, finishing as PFF’s 11th-ranked QB. He had just a year left on his contract when he was traded to Philadelphia, meaning Bradford is set to hit free agency this offseason.
With Philly’s decision to go in another direction in regards to coaching, a return to the Eagles for Bradford is far from certain. It’s not just a matter of Bradford wanting to return—he has to be wanted by new head coach Doug Pederson. Below is a breakdown of Bradford’s skills, along with his potential schematic fit for a number of franchises.
Bradford finished 2015 with an overall grade of 81.5 (11th) and a pure passing grade of 80.9 (10th). Despite recording three negatively graded games in a row to open the year, he bounced back down the stretch, finishing with 346 completions on 532 attempts (65 percent), 3,725 yards, 19 TDs and 14 INTs. Bradford threw too many picks this year, but only seven of them can be attributed to poor play on his part. Although the raw numbers aren’t the best, Bradford has been somewhat successful despite the supporting cast around him, not because of it.
Bradford’s greatest strength is his accuracy. He only finished the season completing 65 percent of his passes, the 11th best mark in the league, but had an accuracy percentage of 78.1 percent, which was fourth. The main reason for the discrepancy is drops; Bradford suffered 42 drops in 2015 on a league-high 7.9 percent of his passes. It was the same story for the former Rams QB in 2013, where he had the seventh-highest accuracy percentage (74.7) but completed only 60.7 percent of his passes because his receivers once again let him down (8.0 percent drop rate). There are few better QBs at consistently moving the chains than Bradford, as illustrated by his completion percentage of 83.0 on short passes (10 yards or less).
Passing under pressure
Another one of Bradford’s greatest strengths is his ability as a passer when disrupted in the pocket. He was particularly excellent in 2015; Bradford finished the season as our most accurate passer under pressure, putting his passes on the money on 74.6 percent of plays, well ahead of his nearest competitor (Carson Palmer, 71.8 percent). Bradford also finished with more touchdown throw (eight) than interceptions (seven). Over the course of his career, he’s thrown 21 touchdowns compared to 17 picks with a muddy pocket. Bradford’s pocket presence, including his ability to evade the rush and keep his eyes downfield, improved as the season went along, as he became more confident in his knee. He was clearly tentative in his early-season outings, which resulted in some poor performances.
One of Bradford’s most obvious limitations is his refusal to test coverage deep. Conservatism has been a feature of his play since he entered the league in 2010. Frequently throughout his career, he’s come off his primary target early and taken the safe option with his checkdown. It was a regular issue for Bradford in 2013 on third downs; he would complete the pass, but leave his target with little chance of picking up the first down. This year, Bradford threw deep (20+ yards in the air) on just 10.2 percent of plays, which was 29th of 35 qualifying QBs. Since he was taken first overall in 2010, he’s gone deep on just 9.9 percent of passes, near the bottom of the league.
An obviously related limitation is Bradford’s inaccuracy on downfield throws. The decision to avoid throwing downfield might be a recognition of his limitations, but keeping safeties honest is a crucial element to running a successful offense in today’s NFL. Despite his impressive accuracy numbers overall (as mentioned above) Bradford was down as 15th in deep accuracy, throwing catchable passes on just 40.7 percent of plays. That’s right around his career average of 42.4 percent accuracy on downfield passes. He did have a solid TD/INT ratio in 2015, tossing five scores compared with two picks on deep balls, but those numbers are atypical relative to the rest of his career. In his five seasons Bradford has thrown 21 TDs compared with 15 picks on passes traveling 20+ yards in the air.
Bradford proved this year that he’s a good, but not elite, QB. Even serviceable signal callers are hard to find these days, however, elevating his value. His main deficiency, deep accuracy, is a serious issue. It’s unfair to single out one play, but Bradford’s miss of a wide open Zach Ertz downfield against Washington proved to be crucial in the Eagles missing the playoffs. It’s reasonable to wonder whether a QB who struggles to generate big plays can lead his team to a Super Bowl. For now, though, the Eagles should be content with just a serviceable QB at the helm, considering the lack of recent playoff wins. Whether Bradford stays in Philly is still up in the air, however, because there will undoubtedly be other suitors for him this offseason.
The Eagles gave up a second-round pick for Bradford a year ago, so Philly is unlikely to let him walk easily. Doug Pederson is likely to have a significant impact on the offense, considering his background. On paper, he and Bradford might work; Pederson ran a conservative offense during his time with Kansas City, which might suit Bradford’s conservative style. Moving the chains and avoiding turnovers were key points of emphasis for the Chiefs’ offense, which Pederson is likely to bring with him to Philadelphia.
The Eagles’ don’t have to commit to Bradford long-term, with the franchise tag a possibility. Or, they might look to tag and trade if Pederson wants to go in another direction.
San Francisco 49ers
Chip Kelly, the GM, was undermined almost immediately by the firing of Tom Gamble in Philadelphia. Moving to the Bay Area has reunited coach and personnel executive, however. The two identified Sam Bradford as their QB of choice, and made an aggressive move to get him in Philly. Nothing currently on the 49ers roster suggests they won’t do the same again. Colleague Mike Renner suggested a Colin Kaepernick resurgence is possible, but while he might get a chance to compete for the job, it still seems unlikely Kelly would be willing to risk his NFL career on a guy who hasn’t played well for two years. Kaepernick recorded a 48.6 overall grade (38th out of 39 QBs) and 46.1 passing grade in 2015. Blaine Gabbert (66.5 overall grade), meanwhile, looked much improved this year, but it would be a surprise if the 49ers were commit to him long-term. If Bradford hits free agency, San Francisco seems a likely destination.
Another team with an uncertain QB situation, the Browns would make sense for Bradford. No one quite knows what to expect from the analytics Paul DePodesta brings to Cleveland, but it’s perfectly possible Bradford will score well considering how he was let down by his supporting cast this year. He’ll almost certainly rank higher than Josh McCown (64.3), who finished as our 31st overall QB, a handful of spots above teammate Johnny Manziel (51.2) who finished 35th. With the second overall pick, however, the Browns are in a position to have their QB of choice, with the Titans unlikely to take a QB. Rumors suggest Hue Jackson’s No. 1 priority is finding a franchise QB, so he might target Bradford, should none of this crop of QBs appeal to him. Jackson and Bradford might not be the perfect match, however, considering the new head coach likes taking regular downfield shots.
New York Jets
A more speculative possibility, the Jets might consider Bradford an upgrade over Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is also set to hit the free agent market. After New York’s, and specifically Fitzpatrick’s, collapse (-5.3 game grade) in their season-defining game, the Jets might go in another direction. Fitzpatrick ended the year 33rd amongst QBs (59.6 grade, 56.7 passing) after a poor end to the season. Bradford might be a good fit in Chan Gailey’s efficiency-based offense, leading to an aggressive play by the Jets.
The QB carousel in Houston did not ultimately cost the Texans in 2015, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Brian Hoyer is a serviceable signal caller (70.6 overall grade), finishing 21st at the position this year, but is certainly not good enough to be considered irreplaceable. His limitations were highlighted in the Texans’ playoff loss to the Chiefs. Hoyer recorded the worst grade we’ve ever handed out to a QB in the playoffs, and turned the ball over five times. Making the Wild Card round also means the Texans are unlikely to see a QB they like on the board when they pick in the second half of the first round, meaning an upgrade can only likely be acquired via free agency or trade. Bill O Brien’s pro-style offense might not be the best fit for Bradford, however. Hoyer used play action on 25.4 percent of plays which was fifth-most in the NFL. The fit looks awkward, considering Bradford’s numbers when using play fakes aren’t the best; he threw as many picks as TDs (six) finishing with a 96.9 QB rating (17th).