Bradford Poised to Shoulder Load
NORMAN, Okla. - Former University of Oklahoma star quarterback Sam Bradford sat inside the Washington Redskins training room-turned-waiting room.
The presumptive No. 1 pick of the NFL draft was killing time inside the club's Ashburn, Va., headquarters before an interview last week with coach Mike Shanahan and his assistants.
The 2008 Heisman Trophy winner, who missed most of his junior season because of shoulder surgery, was dressed in slacks and a shirt but might as well have been invisible.
"One of the Redskins players walks in the trainer's room, looks at me and goes, 'What are you selling today?' " Bradford says with a smile over lunch at Louie's, a Sooners hangout.
"He thought I was a medical supplies sales rep. He looks at the trainers and says, 'What's he trying to sell us?' "
It turns out Bradford, 6-4, 236 pounds, is selling the potential for hope to the St. Louis Rams, winners of six games since 2007.
The owners of the first overall pick in the three-day draft that begins next Thursday night are in desperate need of a productive, pinpoint passer (88 touchdowns, 16 interceptions at Oklahoma) to spark their 28th-ranked passing offense and energize their fans.
Bradford might be Mr. Irrelevant at Redskins Park now that quarterback Donovan McNabb has arrived in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. The deal probably means Washington, which picks fourth, isn't interested in Bradford.
CBS analyst and former NFL quarterback Phil Simms views Bradford as a franchise-caliber quarterback in the vein of three signal-callers who led their teams to the playoffs as rookies: Matt Ryan, the 2008 third pick by the Atlanta Falcons; Joe Flacco (2008, 18th) of the Baltimore Ravens; and Mark Sanchez (2009, fifth) of the New York Jets.
"Bradford has everything it takes to be successful in the NFL," Simms says. "He makes it look easy. He's about as safe a pick as you can have. He is absolutely worthy of the first pick."
Injury spoils return to OU
Coming off his 50-touchdown, Heisman Trophy-winning season and a Bowl Championship Series title-game loss to Florida, Bradford declined the chance to be the No. 1 pick in last April's draft for one last shot at winning that championship.
After getting hurt in the opener, abandoning his teammates nagged at Bradford as much as his separated shoulder. So he risked an estimated $42 million-$45 million - money guaranteed a No. 1 pick as a signing bonus - to return.
"I've had NFL teams ask, 'Why did you come back?' " Bradford says. "I dreamed of playing for Oklahoma my whole life, and I wasn't going to let an injury take that away. I couldn't have lived with myself if I did."
His season ended Oct. 17 when he was slammed to the Cotton Bowl turf by a blitzing Texas cornerback. Bradford aggravated his separated throwing shoulder six weeks after incurring a Grade 3 sprained AC joint in Oklahoma's opener against Brigham Young. The aggravation required AC joint reconstructive surgery performed by James Andrews that month.
"To have my career at Oklahoma end like that was the hardest thing I've ever had to go through," Bradford says.
Andrews vouched for Bradford's repaired throwing shoulder to Rams doctors, convincing general manager Billy Devaney that a third-party medical opinion was no longer necessary.
Andrews compares Bradford's work ethic and focus to that of Super Bowl XLIV MVP Drew Brees, whose shoulder he repaired in 2006.
Nothing is certain when drafting a first-round quarterback. But evaluators insist how quarterbacks get up when slammed down is as important as how many wins they have.
"Sam was down at the Andrews Institute in Pensacola, Fla., rehabbing his shoulder 12 hours a day since Christmas," Andrews says. "His devotion to rehab reminded me a lot of Brees. He's a man of few words but great focus. He's developed a young athlete's upper body into a man's."
Bradford was nicknamed "Humble Pie" for his diligent work ethic in adding 18 pounds of muscle to his upper body at Athletes Performance Institute in Pensacola. "Drew Brees said, 'You have to work your ass off in rehab,' " Bradford says. "I said, 'That's cool. I don't have anything else to do.' Hearing it from Drew was reassuring. My arm is stronger, especially on deep balls."
Sooners sports information director Ken Mossman barely recognized the buffed Bradford before his lights-out personal pro day March 29. Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys personnel guru and current NFL.com senior analyst, called Bradford's 62-for-63 passing clinic the most impressive since Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman's workout 21 years ago.
"There were a lot of questions," Bradford says. "When it comes down to just one time, one day throwing, there's more pressure.
"It was such a relief."
Afterward, Sooners defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, Bradford's friend since their Oklahoma City Little League days, hugged the buddy he calls "King Sam."
"I'd definitely be happy for Sam if he's the first overall pick, especially after all he's been through this past year," says McCoy, also in the mix for top pick. "A great leader, great teammate."
By releasing Marc Bulger, the starting quarterback since 2002, one week after Bradford's pro day, Devaney and Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo indicated they are leaning toward selecting Bradford, who answered the biggest question about his surgically repaired shoulder.
"He threw the hell out of the football," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock says. "As long as he passes all the medicals, I don't think there's any doubt who the first pick is."
But Mayock also offers a couple points of caution.
"There are two things he'll have to get a lot better at. One is pocket awareness, typical of any kid coming out of a college spread offense," Mayock says. "And second, he's just going to have to deal a little bit better with getting beat up - especially if he starts with a team that was 1-15 last year."
In Norman, staying normal
Bradford proved himself a sharp decision-maker before the 22-year-old headed for an April 8 GQ magazine shoot at the Norman house he owns and shares with two OU buddies.
"The GQ people were setting up the lighting earlier and they saw we have a hot tub in our backyard," Bradford says. "The photographer said, 'Hey, man, we can get some girls over here and we can shoot that.' "
Bradford, recalling the incident in which Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart caught heat for being photographed with four bikini-clad women in a hot tub, responded, "Yeah, don't think that's going to happen."
Bradford's father, Kent, a Sooners guard during the 1970s, laughed about his son's GQ response. It's hardly surprising for an honor student with a 3.89 grade-point average who completed a four-year finance program in 3 years.
"He's a very unassuming kid," Kent says. "Sam became a big name. But he stayed normal."
But don't let that fool you. People at Oklahoma say Bradford is a fierce competitor.
"He has an intense fire that burns within," Sooners quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel says. "You see that in his eyes after we score or hit a big play."
Bradford wrote Heupel a thank-you letter after last season.
"My freshman year, I was about ready to just pack it in," Bradford says. "I thanked Josh, because he had confidence in me and worked with me every day after practice. Him taking the time to do that really gave me the confidence I needed."
Bradford will throw for the Rams on Friday in Norman. He says the club has begun potential contract talks with his representatives, Tom Condon and Ben Dogra, as well as with McCoy and Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh.
"Yeah, I'd be happy to be a Ram," Bradford says. "I'll be excited whoever takes me."
Heupel thinks that no matter where Bradford ends up, he'll be able to handle the situation.
"In terms of pressure and media scrutiny, Oklahoma is the NFL team of this market," Heupel says. "Sam's shown he can handle being the face of a franchise.
"He's the most competitive kid I've ever been around - the real deal."