Home > Draft, NFL > Contrarian Wisdom: Why we may have already seen the best of Bradford, Ryan

Contrarian Wisdom: Why we may have already seen the best of Bradford, Ryan

San Francisco 49ers Ray McDonald (91) strikes St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford in the head in the first quarter at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on December 26, 2010. San Francisco was penalized for roughing the passer and assesed a fifteen yard penalty. UPI/Bill Greenblatt Photo via Newscom

With a pretty vivid recent image of Aaron Rodgers hoisting up the Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl 45, a snapshot which proves him to be one of the members of the elite class of NFL passers (a group of six: Manning, Brady, Brees, Rivers, Rodgers, and perhaps Roethlisberger), the exercise in projection amongst most fans was to try to figure out which quarterbacks were on the cusp of achieving the same level of household notoriety.

The consensus answers to such a brainteaser split mostly into two categories: St. Louis’ Sam Bradford, and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.  Either you think Bradford is elite, and Ryan is not, or you think Ryan is elite and Bradford is not, or you think that Ryan is primed to become elite, and then Bradford will surely follow.

I believe I have an island to myself for the remaining category: neither Sam Bradford or Matt Ryan will ever be a top five NFL quarterback…even after Brady, Manning, and Brees are in the twilight of their careers.  I do not think Ryan or Bradford will ever join the ranks of Rivers, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger.

What about Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman?  Could he succeed Tom Brady as one of the NFL’s elite passers?  I say: perhaps, temporarily.  The sky is the limit for Josh Freeman in Tampa, but I think he is more likely to follow the Daunte Culpepper career path than to follow one similar to Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, or Eli Manning.  I think Freeman will be defined by regular season wins, division titles, and single season passing marks (especially for Tampa).  I think he will reside, consistently, below the level of 4,000 passing yards — an elite level of performance over a season — but will have a couple of seasons where he leads the league in total touchdowns (passing + rushing).  Those seasons will be concentrated early in his career.  When it comes time to replace the Mannings and Bradys as the face of professional football, I’m not sure Freeman will take the next step.

Who, then, will find the land of the elite if not Bradford or Ryan? Let us address a couple key names.

Matthew Stafford

If Stafford suddenly (and unexpectedly) starts a multi-season run of a clean bill of health, he’s about to run into a three or four year period of potentially unlimited success for the Detroit Lions.  Stafford, based on recent history, is not a good bet to accomplish this.  But in the absence of an obvious candidate, one should first look at the landscape around the recent highly drafted quarterbacks.  If Josh Freeman is the one who has the record setting offense already around him, then Stafford is the one who is about to enter the realm of consistent success.  And because the Lions are building themselves a passing juggernaut, Stafford’s numbers could sparkle over the next half decade or so.

Colt McCoy

He’s almost in the same boat as Stafford, except his potential for injury is hypothetical as of right now, and if he ever misses as many games as Matt Stafford did in two seasons, he’s out of a job.

McCoy makes the rare throws and quick decisions of an NFL elite quarterback.  It’s difficult to say with any accuracy what will happen to him as Browns quarterback.  You may remember the plight of Chad Pennington in New York as a puzzle that was never solved as surely as it should have been given Pennington’s ability as one of the league’s best quarterbacks.  He was injured all the time and the Jets ran out of patience.  The Browns have basically nothing invested in Colt McCoy beyond this upcoming season.  He has to win from the get go.  There’s a very good chance of that happening.  If McCoy is done in, he will likely be done in by his body, in the form of injury.

Andrew Luck

He’s a 4th year college senior, but when Andrew Luck takes the NFL, I don’t think it will be very long until he’s talked about as one of the NFL’s elite.  He appears to be the odds on favorite as the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, and could be the best quarterback prospect since Philip Rivers or Peyton Manning.

It would matter who gets the first overall pick and takes Luck.  Not every team is ready to win equally.  And Luck going to a contention-ready winner would put him in this conversation a lot sooner than going to the Arizona Cardinals.  But he’s still a good bet to turn around a moribund franchise, even if he doesn’t end up achieving his ultimate potential.  As a draft prospect, Luck is special.

Jason Campbell

This is an incredible longshot, perhaps not even worth mentioning, since Campbell is only signed with the Raiders through the 2011 season.  But I would consider three things here.  First, that the Raiders have been doing this reclamation thing forever: getting top-level productivity out of talent that was unable to produce elsewhere.  The Raiders won’t stick with Campbell if he doesn’t produce in 2011, but he’s re-united with Al Saunders (one of his many coordinators in Washington), and it’s easy to forget just how good of a prospect Campbell was coming out of Auburn.  Getting drafted by the Redskins was a curse, and getting traded to the Raiders wasn’t exactly a career saver, but for the 29 year old Campbell, this is a rare opportunity to win with an up-and-coming team.  Jason Campbell as an elite performer though?  In Oakland?  It’s certainly a farfetched idea.

Wouldn’t make more sense to bet on higher ceiling players in Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford?  I think that those players are having issue getting the football down the field with great success, and in Oakland’s vertical offense, the Raiders are a year away from having an offense that is more versatile than the plodding Falcons, or the understaffed Rams.  That’s why, against all odds, I think Jason Campbell is bound to do better in 2011 than the regression will allow on either Sam Bradford or Matt Ryan.

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