Injuries in the NFL are an ugly and often costly event. In some cases teams overlook injuries when the body of work is so strong that a team believes an injury will have no material impact on a players’ performance level. Such was the case with Peyton Manning when he signed with Denver in 2012. But in most cases players do not have that kind of body of work to fall back on. Such is the case of Sam Bradford.
Bradford tore his ACL during the loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday and is lost for the season. The injury comes at a critical junction of his career as Bradford was headed into the first portion of his contract where he can become expendable for salary cap purposes. Bradford, the final number one pick of the 2006 CBA, was given a financial windfall due to his draft status. His contract was worth $78 million over 6 seasons and $51 million was guaranteed. The following years’ number one pick would only receive a contract worth about $22 million.
Bradford has had a pretty rocky start to his NFL career. He played well as a rookie in 2010 and looked poised to be a quality starter in the NFL. By the end of 2011 there were questions about if Bradford could succeed at this level and the Rams actually faced a decision to potentially trade away Bradford and select Robert Griffin III as his replacement in 2012. The Rams chose to stick with Bradford, who showed improvements under a new coaching staff but failed to ever create the feeling that he was definitely the guy for the job. Bradford seemed to be more Mark Sanchez than Eli Manning with the prevailing notion being that he needed more parts on offense to be properly evaluated.
After 7 games in 2013 the same questions remain about whether or not Bradford could succeed with a better team or if he would just continue to be a caretaker of an offense. Bradford’s salary cap figure in 2014 is $17,610,000, an unreasonable figure for a team with a number of high priced contracts. He would earn just upwards of $14 million in cash if he made the team. A good season and he was likely in line for a short term 3 year extension that would fall somewhere between the Sanchez and Matt Stafford extensions given for salary cap relief purposes, meaning more guaranteed money in return for cap flexibility for the Rams.
Bradford now faces a difficult road ahead. The ACL injury marks his second injury in the NFL in just four years that will cause him to miss significant time. There was also the college injury that sidelined him for nearly a full season. From this point forward I think he has to carry the injury prone label that have hurt many other players in the NFL. His dead money charge is down to a more manageable $7.19 million if released, a number that could be split across two seasons if the Rams were to wait until after June 1 to unload him.
What makes it more difficult for Bradford is that he has little to fall back on. The Rams were not a good team before his injury. Pro Football Focus had rated him as the 30th QB in the NFL, which was actually worse than their grade on him the year before. This was after bringing in a left tackle and tight end to help him. In addition the Rams not only are on pace to finish the year with a losing record, but they also own the first round draft pick of the Washington Redskins, who currently have two wins on the season. The ammunition will be there to draft a QB.
Whenever I think of injuries to a QB I am always reminded of Chad Pennington of the New York Jets many years ago. Pennington was a former first round draft selection who rode the bench for two years before taking over the job and leading the Jets to an improbable division title and playoff run in 2002. Pennington would get injured in 2003, but between the draft status and 2002 efforts the Jets rewarded him with a lucrative $64 million dollar extension in 2004 with an $18 million dollar signing bonus.
Pennington would go on to injure his shoulder in both 2004 and 2005 with the Jets having paid him $22 million dollars for a total of 16 regular season games. They were prepared to move on in 2006 rather than to throw more money at what looked like an average QB that could not play an entire season. His cap charge and dead money was an equal $12 million and the Jets would save $9 million in cash by parting ways.
Pennington had no recourse but to take a $6 million dollar paycut in 2006 to have a chance to remain with the Jets. At that point he knew his career was damaged badly by the injuries and general mediocre play and that his best chance to resurrect his career was with the Jets. The Jets would give him opportunities to earn the $6 million back through playtime incentives and to earn other lost salaries in future years back through playtime escalators. The Jets still traded for Patrick Ramsey and drafted Kellen Clemens in the 2nd round knowing that Pennington would not be handed the starting job. To Pennington’s credit he played 16 games in 2006 to earn his money back. He would subsequently suffer a small ankle injury in 2007 with the Jets and then major injuries in 2009 and 2010 as a member of the Miami Dolphins.
Though Bradford’s latest injury is different than Pennington’s there has to be concerns with a player who has given the team 33 games in 3 years with a record of 11-21. In that timeframe the Rams have paid Bradford nearly $48 million dollars. The Rams have to take a pessimistic view of his future just as the Jets did with Pennington and not sink more money after a bad investment.
Bradford’s only real quality at this point is his draft status. If he was a second round pick this would not even be a discussion. But teams will feel there is something there that deserves a second chance, a chance almost every first rounder with a pulse receives. But like Pennington he’ll need to take a significant paycut from the $14 million he would have earned in 2014 prior to the injury and like Pennington his best chance to keep a job may come by staying with his team provided they are not in a position to draft a QB in round 1.
Pennington was asked to covert two thirds of his salary back in 2006 to an incentive. Pennington had been to the playoffs twice in his career when that occurred with a 21-16 record as a starter. But he also did not have the same physical tools as Bradford and had an injury that impaired his passing more than it should hamper Bradford’s. Another more recent point of reference would be that of Mike Vick, another often injured QB. Vick had over 50% of his salary cut from his contract in 2013. Vick received $3.5 million guaranteed while Pennington received $2.45 million guaranteed. Vick is older than Bradford but also a more electric player with much more history behind him.
Using those numbers as a guide Bradford is probably looking at a salary shift from $14 million to somewhere in the ballpark of $5.5 million. If they guaranteed $3 million of that figure they could get his cap hit down from $17 million to a manageable $7.595 million, which is essentially the cost of releasing him and replacing him with a minimum salaried player. I would imagine if the sides agreed to that he would get the 2015 year in the contract to void, similar to the Vick contract. The Rams have done this type of contract with other players including T Jason Smith, a bust drafted with the second overall pick in 2009, so it would seem to fit with their cap philosophies.