Career to date, Sam Bradford hasn’t lived up to the expectations of a quarterback selected number one overall in the NFL Draft. When NFL fans think of the number one pick, expectations skew to Peyton Manning, not David Carr.
Throughout his career, the narrative is that Sam Bradford has often been a victim of external circumstances which have impacted his play. CCNorseman does a great job unpacking many of these “excuses” in his piece for Daily Norseman.
Heading into 2017, things could finally be different for Sam Bradford. He’s been touted as post-hype breakout candidate by Gregg Rosenthal, been called underrated by Warren Sharp, and projected to become a top-ten, NFL quarterback by Bucky Brooks. The factors most often cited when projecting Bradford’s breakout are his weapons in the passing game, the improved offensive line, the improved running game, the favorable schedule for the Vikings offense in 2017, and the consistency of the coaching staff. I’ll also look for other late-career, quarterback breakouts to find similarities with Bradford’s current situation.
Before we get too far into this, I should define “breakout season.” Breakout season in the context of this piece will be defined as significantly above average in Yards per Attempt (YPA) and/or significantly above average in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANYA). Significantly will be defined as 110+ using Pro Football Reference’s Indexed Stats. Click here for more details. To summarize, indexed stats work as follows:
This is what that would mean for Sam last season:
Passing Game Weapons
Last season Sam Bradford played with the best receiving corps of his career and also had the best year of his career. To test whether this was a coincidence, I created receiving corps quality scores for every NFL team and unsurprisingly found a strong positive correlation between receiving corp quality and quarterback yards per attempt. I also found notably positive correlations between receiving corps quality score and passer rating, passing touchdowns, and deep ball completion percentage.
In 2016, passing to the Vikings wide receivers was incredibly effective. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen were both top-20 per PFF and were the reason passes to Minnesota wide receivers had the 4th highest success rate in the NFL. Thielen was arguably the most efficient WR in the NFL last year while Diggs set the pace as the unquestioned target leader in the Vikings offense.
Because the Vikings receivers are so good, it’s unlikely that we’ll gain much efficiency from that group in 2017. The tight end and running back positions are another story altogether. In 2016, Minnesota’s tight ends ranked 28th in pass success rate and 26th in yards per attempt and the running backs ranked 26th in pass success rate and 27th in yards per attempt. If Sam Bradford is going to see a jump in the passing efficiency, it will have to come from Dalvin
or from Bucky
Offensive Line Improvement
The relationship between offensive line play and quarterback performance is somewhat counter-intuitive. A review of PFF offensive line Pass Blocking Efficiency and quarterback stats showed a weak connection between OL quality and QB play. Basically, if you aren’t the 2016 Seahawks or playing TJ Clemmings at tackle, the impact of offensive line on quarterback efficiency is relatively low.
In most cases, offensive line changes would have minimal impact on the overall passing effectiveness, but, in 2017, TJ Clemmings
should will be replaced by something closer to a league average performer. If this happens, we should seen an uptick in deep ball attempts and red zone passing attempts per PlayerProfiler.com.
Less of this
Should lead to more of this
Next up, we’ll take a look at whether an improved running game will help Sam Bradford to have a more efficient season passing the football. Throughout the Adrian Peterson era, we often heard how playing with Adrian Peterson would make life easier for his quarterback because of how often Vikings opponents would put eight men in the box. The Vikings passing attack when led by quarterbacks not named Brett Farve during our time with AP should’ve been enough to debunk this line of thinking but I decided to run some numbers anyways.
First, I looked at teams with 1st team all-pro running backs to see if there was any positive correlation between having a great running back and their team’s passing efficiency.
Next, I looked at the rate and cumulative rushing and passing stats for all 32 teams over the past decade to see if I could find a positive relationship between rushing attempts, yards, or yards per attempts and any of the passing stats.
Lastly, I went to Rotoviz and used their screener tool to create a cluster graph to look for a connection between team rushing yards and team adjusted yards per attempts.
This is what I found.
Once again, my search for a signal linking team rushing performance and passing efficiency came up short. Sam Bradford might have a breakout season in 2017 but it will have
nothing little to do with Vikings rushing attack.
In 2017, the football scheduling gods have smiled upon the Minnesota Vikings offense and Sam Bradford. Per Sharp Football Stats, Minnesota’s offense will face the worst defenses for passing efficiency next season and will face the 5th worst slate of defenses for combined passing defensive blend (pass efficiency, yards per pass against, explosive passing, and pass rush).
Sam Bradford’s first two season in the St Louis were not good but his performance over the last four season has been pretty stable.
In the past four season, Bradford has done a decent job taking advantage of poor pass defenses and Minnesota is slated to face 12 defenses ranked in the bottom half of the league for defensive passing efficiency.
Consistency is typically billed as a positive in the NFL. More time to learn the offense, more time for a quarterback work with and learn the timing of his receivers, and more time for the offensive coordinator to install all the nuances of his scheme are reasons often cited. The 2013 season with the Rams is the only other time Bradford has had the same offensive coordinator from one season to the next, and, as Christopher Gates points out in this piece, Bradford played well that year.
In 2013, he got off to a pretty good start. He increased his completion percentage to 60.7%, and had 14 touchdown passes in his first seven games to just four interceptions, all while averaging 241 yards per game, which would project out to 3,856 over a full season. However, in the seventh game of the season, he suffered one of the numerous knee injuries he’s had over the years and was done for the season.
Going into 2017, what should we expect from a Pat Shurmur led offense?
A quick look at passing offense stats from Shurmur’s previous stints as a play caller is less than confidence inspiring. Outside of Philadelphia where Chip Kelly called the plays, the most efficient passing offense Pat Shurmur has led was the 2016 Minnesota Vikings who ranked 21st in Net Yards per Attempt. Shurmur’s primary quarterbacks’ aDOT ranks since 2009 in his non-Philly years are 40th, 36th, 36th, 32nd, and 36th. In order from Bradford to breakout in 2017, Shurmur will need to open things up in what has been a hyperconservative passing scheme to date.
Sam Bradford just completed his sixth season and has yet to truly breakout. The final step in this process was to take a look at the quarterbacks drafted over the last 20 seasons to see how many were later bloomers. I started with a list of 77 quarterbacks who attempted 155 or more passes in a season from their rookie year through year six without achieving an Indexed ANYA of 110 or greater.
From this list, I was able to find four late bloomers who fit our criteria: Josh McCown, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jake Plummer, and Alex Smith.
Josh McCown in 2013 and Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2014 should give hope to those hoping for a late breakout from Sam Bradford. In both of situations, the quarterbacks stepped into offenses loaded with talent and were able to put together career highs in efficiency.
Operating behind an improved offensive line with the best supporting cast of his career and a soft schedule of pass defenses, Sam Bradford is in line to have yet another career year; unfortunately, the conservative nature of Pat Shurmur’s scheme will most likely cap Sam’s output. While I don’t think Sam will truly breakout in 2017, I expect him to build upon last season to have another very solid year.
What say you Viking fans? Based on the evidence, I’ve provided are you predicting a Sam Bradford Breakout?