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Eagle Eye: Why Sam Bradford Will Thrive

Posted Mar 17, 2015

Anytime there is a change of the guard at the quarterback position, it’s going to be met with a ton of attention. A wide-ranging spectrum of emotions will flow from the team, fans and media, whether it be excitement, anxiety or even scrutiny. "Franchise quarterbacks" do not grow on trees. They are rarely available to be had in the prime of their careers.

In the case of Sam Bradford, whose career with the St. Louis Rams was largely affected by injuries and the fact that he played under four different offensive coordinators in five seasons (Pat Shurmur, Josh McDaniels, Brian Schottenheimer and newly hired Frank Cignetti), the Eagles are getting a quarterback with what Chip Kelly called a “tremendous skill set” and the pedigree to be a team’s signal caller moving forward.

Is there a risk? Sure. But this is a move that can take this offense to the next level - a high-upside quarterback with a talent base that this coaching staff will look to take advantage of in 2015. What lead to the decision to trade for Bradford? What does the staff see in the former No. 1 overall pick? Let’s go to the tape and see how Bradford looks in four of the most important factors in NFL quarterback play: decision-making, accuracy, pocket mobility and arm strength. Do these four factors make up everything in a successful NFL signal caller? Far from it. But these at least give you a glimpse of what Bradford brings to the table as the Eagles’ new starting quarterback.

Let’s start first on the mental side of the game, his decision-making.

Decision-Making

There are a ton of facets that must be accounted for when you analyze about a quarterback’s decision-making (more than I can even bring up in this space), but ultimately it starts with how quickly he can process information on the field. Does he go through progressions in a play and can he eliminate reads quickly? What do I mean by that? When the quarterback drops back, can he quickly discern that a read in the progression has been taken away by the defense and he should check to the next available read? The ones that do that quickest are often able to limit turnovers and get the ball where it needs to be consistently. Overall, I think one of Bradford’s best traits is his mental-processing capabilities and how he can handle the cerebral aspects of the quarterback position. Let’s take a look at an example of this from his 2013 game against Atlanta, on one of my favorite plays that I watched when I studied him.

It’s third-and-10 late in the game and the Rams need a score if they hope to have a chance at coming back to tie the game up. This is a full-field read for Bradford, who drops back, looks to his left at his first read, a high-low “Smash” concept getting taken away by three defenders.

Before he even reaches the second step in his drop, he’s already eliminated that and moved to the next read, a post route from the tight end over the middle. Bradford eliminates that from the progression by the top of his drop when he sees that getting taken away by two linebackers. He progresses to the far right side of the field, where he has another high-low concept. This time, he decides to pull the trigger, as he steps up and delivers the ball to the outside shoulder of the receiver, away from the underneath defender, where only his man can get it for a touchdown. A great play from Bradford, and a great example of processing information quickly under the gun to put your team in the end zone.

Obviously when you look at decision-making, you have to factor in how well a quarterback takes care of the football. Does he unnecessarily force balls into coverage when other options with free yards are available? Does he know where to go with the ball against a particular coverage? Showing an understanding of route concepts is another area where I thought Bradford stood out on tape, consistently taking what the opposing defense gave him.

This is a play from Week 1 in 2013. The Rams are running a high-low concept commonly referred to as “Levels,” where you have a pair of in-breaking routes at different levels of the defense across the middle of the field. In theory, the shallow crossing route closest to the line of scrimmage will occupy the underneath defender, opening up a window for the dig route over the top. Bradford quickly recognizes that would not be the case on this play, as he sees the safety jump on the dig route and instantly checks down to the running back out of the backfield. This is a great example of taking what the defense gives you, as Bradford picks up some clean yards on first down.

When one tries to evaluate a quarterback’s mental-processing ability, one trait you can look for is how he manipulates second-level defenders. Does he move linebackers or defensive backs with pump fakes? Can he hold a safety in the middle of the field with his eyes or look defenders off of his intended option? Going through the tape, I found multiple examples of this trait with Bradford, one in particular on a touchdown pass from that same game against the Arizona Cardinals in the 2013 season opener.

It’s second-and-8 down in the red zone, and the Rams are running similar one-read concepts to both sides of the field. At the snap of the ball, Bradford stares at the single-high safety, holding him in the middle of the field and preventing him from cheating to one side or the other. At the top of his drop, Bradford gets his eyes to the right and shows off his quick release, delivering a ball in-stride to tight end Jared Cook, who dives in for the touchdown to tie the game before halftime. This was great execution by Bradford in the two-minute drill, leading his team on a much-needed touchdown drive.

One buzzword you hear often with quarterback play in the NFL is “anticipation.” What exactly does that mean? To put it plainly, you want to see a quarterback pull the trigger to release the football before a receiver gets into his break at the top of his route. This is so important at the NFL level because the defenders are faster and the windows are tighter, so the throwing lanes are only available for split seconds at a time. The ability to throw with anticipation proves that a quarterback has an understanding of the passing concept, has a good feel for the way his receivers run routes and has the trust in his eyes with regard to what he sees from opposing defenses. Bradford consistently throws with great anticipation, as he almost never holds the ball longer than he should when he drops back to throw.

Here’s a third-down play in that same Cardinals game. The Rams bring receiver Tavon Austin in motion and plan to have him run an out route at the sticks for the first down. This isn’t a tight window throw, but look at how early Bradford gets the ball out of his hands. He puts the ball right on Austin past the marker for the first down. There were a ton of examples of tight-window throws, but I picked this one because of just how early Bradford gets the ball out. Austin has three steps before his break when Bradford takes his hand off the ball! Great anticipation here from the quarterback.

One of the last traits that I will include under the “decision-making” umbrella for the purpose of this article is the ability to burn the blitz. When a quarterback senses pressure, he should know who the “hot read” is immediately, so he can get the ball out of his hands to prevent a negative play and hopefully get a playmaker in space to make the defense pay for sending extra rushers. On this play against Atlanta, Bradford does just that.

The Falcons are sending in the corner from the boundary side of the field and the receiver, knowing he’s the hot read, does a nice job running a quick stop route. Bradford immediately recognizes the pressure and gets the ball to the hot receiver. With the safety too far away from the ball to make the play, the Rams get a first down against the blitz.

Decision-making has been a strength of Bradford’s going back to at least his college days. In an interview with ESPN.com back in 2013, current Indiana head coach and former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson talked about the second start of Bradford’s career with the Sooners. In the week leading up to the game, the offense practiced a play seven to eight times, a play-action pass that on every rep resulted in a touchdown in the back of the end zone to receiver Malcolm Kelly. When the play was called in the game, however, Kelly was covered up by safeties over the top. Instead of forcing it, Bradford checked down to the fullback who walked in for an easy touchdown.

“I put Sam in a position to fail, but he’s so bright and so smart, he made the right play,” Wilson said.

This is just one example of how Bradford’s decision-making on the fly put the offense into the end zone. In college, Wilson transformed Oklahoma’s traditional run-oriented offense into a fast break attack, with Bradford as the catalytic point guard spreading the ball around to a plethora of targets. In an interview with Dave Spadaro last week, Shurmur talked about Bradford’s ability as a quick thinker and good decision-maker, saying he “understands the importance of executing quickly,” something that is so important in an up-tempo, shotgun offense like the one that the Eagles employ.

Accuracy

At the NFL level, accuracy is obviously of the utmost importance. If you’re an erratic thrower and can’t put the ball in the hands of your playmakers, you’re going to struggle consistently moving the football. Ultimately, accuracy comes down to a quarterback consistently delivering catchable passes in-stride to receivers in order to generate opportunities to gain yards after the catch. This is another area where Bradford has excelled at in the past, and was one of the reasons why he was the top pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.

Accuracy is especially important down in the red zone, as Bradford proves on this play. It’s fourth down against Dallas. The Rams sit on the 4-yard line in need of a touchdown. The Cowboys have seven men guarding the goal line at the snap of the ball, and Bradford makes a tight window throw on a slant over the middle for the touchdown. Look at the ball placement as he finds a way to squeeze the throw where only his man can get it, resulting in six points. With the issues the Eagles have had over the last few seasons inside the 20-yard line, having someone like Bradford in the lineup will be a huge plus because of this specific trait.

On this next play against the Carolina Panthers, the Rams sit in the “fringe area” just outside the red zone. On this post-corner concept, Bradford hits the crossing route in-stride, allowing his receiver to maximize his yards after the catch and get closer to the end zone.

Displaying touch to all areas of the field is an important factor in being an accurate quarterback. Touch is prevalent on throws like fades down in the red zone, or on shorter screen passes in the middle of the field, but not all touch throws are created equal, and this pass from Bradford against the Jacksonville Jaguars was one of the more impressive throws I saw on tape as I studied him.

It’s third-and-7, and Bradford is leading his team on a two-minute drill down the field. Jacksonville is in “quarters” coverage, with four defenders deep and three underneath. The underneath defenders all, as they should, sit at the first-down marker, so they can tackle anything in front of them to prevent the offense from moving the chains. A St. Louis receiver sits down 7 yards beyond the sticks, and look at the touch Bradford shows on this 14-yard pass, sticking the ball over the underneath defender but with enough velocity that no safety over the top is able to quickly break on the ball. The receiver has enough time to turn and get more yards after the catch, putting them in position to put points on the board.

Pocket Mobility

When people think about the mobility of a quarterback, they typically imagine a scrambler with the ability to break the pocket and create his own yardage with his feet. That absolutely plays a part, but pocket mobility starts with a quarterback’s feet and then his feel with bodies around him. The defining question is, “Can he extend plays with subtle movements inside the framework of the pocket to create passing lanes?” This is an area where a lot of quarterbacks struggle upon entering the league. How does Bradford perform under pressure? Let’s take a look at a couple of plays.

Here’s a third-down play against the San Francisco 49ers back in 2013. 49ers defensive end Justin Smith is going to get pressure off the edge, and Bradford steps up into the pocket and delivers a pass for a 20-yard gain and a first down on third-and-9. This was a great job by Bradford of stepping up into the teeth of the pocket to avoid pressure on the outside and stand tall in the pocket to execute the play called in the huddle.

(Note: You’ll notice I’ve picked a lot of third-down plays, mainly because it’s obviously an important down. With the pressure at its highest, it’s great to see quarterbacks execute in all of these key traits when it matters most.)

Sometimes, however, a quarterback won’t be able to step up in the pocket. Perhaps there’s interior pressure from a defensive tackle, or a defensive end wins on an inside counter move and is coming right at the quarterback’s face. This is “fight or flight” time. A lot of young passers will bail out of the backside of the pocket (a major no-no if you want to stay healthy over the long haul), take a big hit and a sack, or make a bad decision. Others, like Bradford does on this play, understand that a hit is coming, but “stare down the gun barrel” and put the ball on the money.

This is a play from 2012 against the Minnesota Vikings. Defensive end Jared Allen (one of the most feared pass rushers in the league that year) is bearing down on Bradford with bad intentions. Look at Bradford sling the ball down the seam, showing great anticipation and accuracy, making a tight window throw for a 26-yard gain and a first down as he takes a hit. This is a great example of the competitive toughness that Bradford showed early and often as a youngster in this league.

In talking with NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell, he has expressed some concern in regard to Bradford’s ability to make plays like this, especially after two ACL surgeries, but he has shown the ability to do it in the past. In a new situation, he could have the recipe to reach that form again.

Another part of pocket mobility comes into play when the quarterback is actually forced from the pocket. Can he make athletic throws on the run from a variety of launch points and threaten defenses on the perimeter with his arm and his legs? Being able to stress defenses in this way gives your offense a lot of versatility, and in a scheme like the Eagles’, it can be deadly.

It’s third-and-6 late in the first half against Arizona, and as he leads his team downfield in a two-minute drill, Bradford drops back and looks left. Feeling pressure from his right, he sidesteps the rush and rolls that way, and makes an impressive throw on the run on a comeback route past the sticks for a 12-yard gain and a first down. This was great recognition by Bradford to feel the blitz and impressive athleticism on display to make a tough, accurate throw on the run for a first down.

Now, while scrambling is not the most important trait for a quarterback to have, it’s great to know that he can do it, right?

It’s first-and-10 against the Falcons. Bradford drops back, sees an opening and is off, taking advantage of a bad angle from the safety as he makes a man miss for a 23-yard gain and a first down.

Arm Strength

Arm strength doesn’t necessarily refer to how far downfield a quarterback can throw the ball, but does he have the functional ability to make all the throws that he’ll be faced with in any given NFL game? Can he throw a vertical route 45 yards with little air underneath it? Can he make opposite hash throws on deep comebacks with good velocity from 18-20 yards out? Can he hit a deep in-cut at 16-to-18 yards with the velocity to beat the safety to the catch point? Not every offense asks quarterbacks to make these throws series after series, but at some point a passer will be faced with situations where they have to make these types of throws, so there is a baseline each quarterback has to reach if they’re going to be an effective starter in the league.

When you look at some of the different “power” throws I listed above, that first example is put on display on this 2012 play against the Miami Dolphins. Off play-action, Bradford hits a receiver on a deep over route on a rope down the field, with very little air underneath it, resulting in a 65-yard gain and an explosive play for the offense.

This second play is another “arm strength” throw, a deep comeback, and it’s more impressive when you consider the fact that his face mask is getting crowbarred at the release as well. This is quite simply a pure arm throw on the money downfield. Arm strength is not a question for Sam Bradford.

Scheme Fit

Another factor that came into play in acquiring Bradford was his potential fit in the Eagles’ scheme. The key traits that make him such an attractive quarterback prospect moving forward have been listed, but from an X’s and O’s standpoint, there are a lot of reasons why Bradford makes sense in Philadelphia.

He ran a largely up-tempo offense during his college career at Oklahoma and was very comfortable in that setting. Even after he got to the NFL, he’s had a ton of success working out of the shotgun in heavy-receiver packages, something he’ll get plenty of reps with under Chip Kelly. As you know, he played under Shurmur as a rookie when he was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2010, so there’s familiarity there as well. He has also has had a lot of success running plays that are very similar to ones you’ll find in the Eagles’ offense as well. Let me show you what I mean.

This is a play that, if you’ve been following along the past couple of seasons, you’ve seen a bunch of times in this space. This is the Eagles’ shallow cross package, with two shallow crosses over the middle, another route over the ball, and a wheel route out of the backfield. This has been a consistent beater of man coverage for the past two seasons. On this play against Indianapolis (which I broke down more in depth here), Nick Foles hits Jeremy Maclin for a touchdown down in the red zone.

Now here’s a shot of Bradford running the play almost to a T in 2013 against the Cardinals. It’s literally the same play. Look at how quickly Bradford gets rid of the ball at the top of his drop, hits his receiver in-stride and allows him to pick up quality yards after the catch for a 15-yard gain and a first down.

When you’re looking at shallow crossing routes, the Eagles love to use them in a West Coast passing play commonly referred to as the “Drive” concept. There are lots of ways to run it, and pretty much everyone does at the college and pro level. But whether it’s Jordan Matthews from the slot, Riley Cooper from the outside or Zach Ertz from the tight end spot, one of the Eagles’ big pass catchers can often be seen running away from defenders underneath in different versions of this concept. On this play from last season, Ertz reels in the pass for a 23-yard gain and a first down.

Here’s Bradford, again in an almost identical play design (albeit from a slightly different formation), hit the drive route on the money against the Falcons for a 15-yard gain and a first down. As I continue to show you these plays (and go back to look at the previous ones), notice how he consistently gets the ball out of his hands on time and with good ball placement, constantly putting his receivers in position to make a play.

The Eagles are a big play-action team, but they’re also a big “naked” team. A “naked” play refers to a quarterback rolling away from the flow of the rest of the offense, with no blockers protecting him, leaving him out in the open to take a hit. It’s all about getting the defense stuck in transition, creating throwing lanes and getting players in space. On this play in Week 17, you see the naked bootleg from Mark Sanchez as he rolls right and hits Matthews for a 44-yard touchdown.

Bradford has had success as a move-thrower as well, as he hits his tight end on an over route on this naked play against the Jaguars for a 16-yard gain and a first down.

The vertical passing game is a big part of what the Eagles do offensively as well. Whether it was DeSean Jackson in 2013 or Maclin in 2014 (look out for Josh Huff in 2015), they constantly were able to beat defenses with the long ball because of all of the things they were able to do in the short game to keep defender’s eyes in the backfield. One of their favorite deep plays, and one of the more popular passing concepts in the NFL now, is the four vertical concept, with four receivers streaking down the field, a tough task for the defense, especially if they’re in a single-high safety look like the Jaguars were on this play. Maclin was about as wide open as it gets, and even though the ball comes out late it results in a clutch 68-yard touchdown.

Here’s the same concept from the Rams, exactly a year earlier in the first week of the 2013 season. Bradford sees the crack in the defensive secondary early, hits his tight end Jared Cook between the numbers for what should be a long touchdown (Cook has the ball stripped just short of the goal line). Bradford also had a lot of success on this play as a collegian with the Sooners, and it’s a concept most quarterbacks like to run because of the stress it puts on opposing secondaries.

“Four verts” isn’t the only way the Eagles like to attack downfield, as they’re also prone to sending three vertical routes (one down each sideline and one down the seam) in a number of different pass combinations. This one falls incomplete, but it almost mirrors the concept you see from the Rams here …

...where Bradford drops in a beautiful bucket throw on the money for a touchdown.

Now a lot of these plays are very prevalent around the NFL and obviously aren’t just seen in the Eagles’ playbook, but that isn’t the main point here. The point is that Bradford has a superior skill set compared to any signal caller here in Philadelphia since Donovan McNabb. Bradford has shown a ton of comfort in an up-tempo, no-huddle offense like the one employed by the Eagles, and has had experience throwing route concepts that the Eagles have run over the last couple of years.

The injury question is a big one, and it is what makes this move a “leap of faith” as Bradford said, but the projection that comes with trying to place him into this system is not hard to fathom in my eyes after studying him on tape. If he’s healthy, he should be a great fit in this offense as the starting quarterback in Philadelphia for years to come.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.

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