The question posed in the title of this article is ambiguous, loaded and subjective, but mostly because there are a ton of variables. How good was Sam Bradford? And is that good enough? How good is good enough? What’s his trade cost actually worth? What about his contract? Has his value changed over the course of the season, and if so, what does that mean? There’s a lot to unpack here, and that’s true of just about every quarterback in the league. Part of the reason I even write 2,200 word articles like this, or do things like the Infinite Monkeys Podcast, is to demonstrate the immense complexity of evaluation. It’s especially complex when it comes to quarterbacks because there’s so much information available. If you’re the kind of guy who just goes to ESPN.com’s quarterback page and sees which QBs are listed where, throw that trash out. That’s like tasting lake water and saying you know which fish are in the lake- there’s so much more to learn. I’d much rather have a long piece that evaluates responsibly than a 3-sentence BleacherReport stub that cites volume stats and some crap someone’s agent said in 2014. So buckle up, because we’re going to explore every nook and cranny of this question.
To answer this looming question, we have to investigate the questions it’s comprised of: “How good is Bradford?”, the answer to which we’ll call (x). “What is (x) worth to a team?” and “Is (x) more than (y), where (y) is Bradford’s total cost (both in salary and draft capital)?” It’s important to frame the question this way, because it stops us from getting caught up in other, frankly worthless debates. Most of the Sam Bradford debate ends at the first question. If he’s good, he’s worth it, and if he’s bad, he’s not. But we can’t stop there- we have to measure Bradford’s quality against what the Vikings paid for him. After all, the cost of both money and draft picks exists in opportunity cost, or who we could have gotten with all that stuff.
This isn’t a discussion of whether or not Sam Bradford “can take us to a Super Bowl”. That’s an ethereal, undefined concept that can’t really be measured any more than “Is Sam Bradford good”. Further, the standard for how good a quarterback has to be for a Super Bowl championship is nebulous- how good is the worst “Super Bowl-worthy” QB? If you listen to the podcast linked above, you’ll get more on why that’s a silly question. We’re also not trying to compare Bradford to the hypothetical that Teddy Bridgewater has become. We don’t live in a world where Teddy Bridgewater can realistically be relied upon as the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, and until we know more about his injury and rehab, it’s pointless to think about what could have been. In September, Rick Spielman found himself with no quarterback, staring down the barrel of an NFL season. He made a deal, and we’re trying to define that. This is simply the question of which has more value: Sam Bradford, or the players we could have gotten with the stuff we paid to have Sam Bradford?
Question 1: How Good Is Sam Bradford?
Immediately, we enter some relatively muddy water. To define how good Bradford is, you need a good measuring stick and good context. Both of these things present huge problems. The QB measuring stick has been heavily debated, so we’ll look at a bunch of them. If one sticks out, we’ll be able to figure out what that means, but if they all agree, we can probably assume it’s close to the truth.
We need to be very careful here – passer rating appears to stray from the crowd by quite a bit, and normally when that happens we just dismiss it as an outlier or attack its methodology. Passer rating has utility, but measures QB play differently than QBR or ANY/A. There are things passer rating uses that aren’t a part of the formulas for QBR or ANY/A, namely completion percentage. In the big picture, Bradford reads as an average-ish quarterback. The things he excels at are largely rooted in consistency, but when weighting success (either by game situation, down-and-distance, etc), his results drop off. However, by “drop off” I mean he drops to slightly below average. A lot of your opinion on Bradford depends on your opinions of QB evaluation in general – how much is completion percentage worth? 3rd down passes are more important, but how much more important? Should short 1st and 2nd down passes be weighted down to oblivion, or are they still worth something? The differences between these stats should capture the spectrum on which Bradford can be placed. His completion percentage may be of limited value, but it’s worth something, and throwing only 5 interceptions on the year is elite, air yards be damned. These factors are what turn him from a below average QB by Y/A or QBR standards into a slightly above average QB in the eyes of many. It shouldn’t be too irresponsible to put him somewhere around 14th or 15th in the league (these four ranks average out to 14, so this seems fair).
However, using his 2016 stats may not be fair. 2016 was a career year for Bradford, and unless Spielman knew something we all didn’t, he can’t have expected Sammy Sleeves to crush personal records. Bradford’s 2015 season got off to a slow start, probably because he was in a new system and coming off his 2nd ACL injury. The 2nd half improved quite a bit:
|Sam Bradford 2015||Rate||Y/A||ANY/A|
|First Seven Games||78.1 (26th)||6.51 (26th)||4.88 (29th)|
|Last Seven Games||98.5 (6th)||7.59 (11th)||6.86 (10th)|
Next to these numbers is where each Half-Ford would have ranked in 2016 if they were full-fledged seasons. Statistically, Bradford turned from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Ben Roethlisberger over the course of 2015. Such an extreme improvement would be irresponsible to ignore. But it’s also irresponsible to overvalue it. How much did Bradford’s 1st half indicate against his 2nd half? Should we have thrown it out entirely because of mitigating circumstances? Probably not. When you trade for 2nd half Sam, you’re taking a risk that you get 1st half Sam more often than 2nd half Sam. By Bradford’s 2016 numbers, we got more of 2nd half Sam, which is lucky. Though Sam performed well on deep passes, (here are GIFs if you don’t buy it), he didn’t attempt them often enough to earn a good Y/A. Whether you blame this on Bradford, the offensive line or Turner/Shurmur will drastically affect your evaluation. Despite that luck, there was still considerable risk involved in the trade. To apply risk to value, you have to look at the good case and the bad case, then the chances of both. If we oversimplify this and say we had a 50/50 chance of getting Case Keenum or Big Ben, we can treat “Pre-Hindsight Bradford” as the 20th-ish best QB in the league. That’s close to the 2016 Carson Palmer had, and about as low as I’ve seen his detractors reasonably put him.
For now, we’ll move forward with Bradford at 14th in the league, and also check how he fares if he were 20th best. If you have a different ranking, that’s fine- you can still follow along, just substitute your own ranking whenever I mention mine.
Question 2: How Much Is A QB of Bradford’s Quality Worth?
One of the most surprising things I’ve noticed when talking about the value of quarterbacks is how inflated their worth is compared to other positions. According to OverTheCap, 19 of the top 20 NFL contracts belong to quarterbacks. To put that in perspective, below average QBs are still worth more than AJ Green, JJ Watt or any other number of superstars at other positions. So we have to inflate our “14th or 15th best QB” status to account for this. A year of Colin Kaepernick is more expensive than a year of Julio Jones.
The 14th, 15th and 16th priciest QBs of 2016 were Alex Smith, Drew Brees and Jay Cutler, all making around $17M per year. Those three don’t necessarily rank in that range in terms of talent, but we’re establishing a baseline here. We want to determine what the 14th or 15th best QB is worth, not the priciest QB, and not a backup QB. So we’ll roll with $17M.
But obtaining a QB usually doesn’t cost exclusively money. Almost every QB who played significant snaps was drafted, with the exception of a Case Keenum or Tom Savage who probably isn’t very relevant to our evaluation. We can get a gauge on the worth of a quarterback in terms of draft capital by looking at what, in general, teams are willing to spend on their QB. Of the 31 aforementioned quarterbacks, 20 of them were 1st round picks, including Bradford. Five were 2nd-3rd round picks, and six were picked in the 4th round or later. So it’s safe to say that it’s unfair to expect anything close to top-half production without spending a 1st rounder somewhere. Some teams are lucky enough to land free agent successes, like Drew Brees or pre-age-cliff Carson Palmer, or nail a Day 3 pick like Dak Prescott or Kirk Cousins, but the Vikings were never realistically in that position, so it’s not really relevant to the titled question.
Anecdotally, QBs are constantly valued with immense draft capital. Both the Eagles and Rams gave up huge costs to go get their potential franchise QBs, and 70% of 1st overall picks since 2000 have been QBs. Teams value QBs in their own league, and that’s not to be compared to WRs, defenders or otherwise.
As for “Risky Bradford”, measuring by the same standards, he’s worth closer to $12M and a late 1st or early 2nd rounder. A Colin Kaepernick price for Colin Kaepernick-level skill.
Question 3: How Much Is Sam Bradford’s Cost Worth?
Bradford’s contract would be easy to frame on either side of this argument. In 2016, the Vikings paid a paltry $7M of his contract, with the Eagles eating $5.5M this year and next. You could sell his contract as a $12.5M deal that turns into a ridiculous $23.5 next season, but that would be disingenuous. When talking about salary, we only care about our own cap numbers, and Sam’s cap hit would be $7M this year and $18M the next. That makes him a phenomenal deal this year, and misleadingly so- his cap hit next year more than doubles. We’ll average it out to a $12.5M/year value and roll with that.
So is the cost or the benefit greater? As noncommittal as it sounds, that depends on your evaluation of Bradford. If you went with me on the 14th-ish path, that puts him at a $17M value for $12.5M – a profit, but the draft capital is where the issues come in. Since Bradford’s value was a mid-1st rounder, it cancels out the mid-1st rounder we gave to Philadelphia, putting us at a net loss of the 4th rounder. So, is a 4th round draft pick more or less valuable than $4.5M of profited cap space (Or a C.J. Anderson)? That’s yet another question with a very subjective answer that you’ll have to fill in yourself- but it’s certainly close.
Evaluating “Risky Bradford” gives us a $12M value at $12.5 million- pretty much a push. But a late 1st or early 2nd round draft value pales in comparison to the draft capittal we gave up. If you consider the risk Spielman was taking, we took a pretty bad deal. Just because Bradford outperformed all of his expectations up to that point doesn’t make the gamble more responsible. Further, all of this analysis left out his injury risk, which added even more risk and dragged Bradford’s value down further. Conversely, if you were told that Bradford was certain to live up to the 2nd half of 2015 (in which he flirted with the top 10), the trade seems like a steal.
Throughout this piece, we’ve asked a bunch of questions that are largely left up to you, the reader. For simplicity, here they are in a bulleted list. Your answers to the Bradford question hinges on your answers to these questions.
- How do you value completions, touchdowns, interceptions and yards relative to each other?
- How much stock do you put into clutch-situation weighting?
- Was Sam Bradford more likely to resemble the 1st half of 2015, or the 2nd?
- Is $4.5M of cap space worth more or less than a 4th round draft pick?
Personally, my answers to these questions lead me to believe it was an irresponsibly risky deal, taken in desperation, that ended up working out better than it should have, and moving forward, I see the Bradford’s presence on the team as adequate. It’s also worth noting that the world where the trade wasn’t made compels us to spend that, if not more, on a potentially lower quality quarterback in free agency, the draft or just a different trade. The point of this piece isn’t to convince you of that conclusion, but rather to provide a rational, logical and quantifiable model so you can have an informed answer for yourself.
What was your answer?
Thanks for reading!