Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Why Did the Eagles Re-Sign Sam Bradford?

By Brad Oremland

The Philadelphia Eagles signed Sam Bradford to a generous contract extension last week. The deal reportedly pays Bradford $36 million over two years, and ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that will include $26 million guaranteed.

It's a stunningly rich contract for a player who has been in the NFL for six seasons without accomplishing anything noteworthy. He's never made a Pro Bowl. He's never passed for 4,000 yards or 30 TDs or a 100 passer rating — and he's never come close. He's never had a winning record as starting QB. He's never passed for 400 yards in a game. He's never thrown 4 TDs in a game. He's spent a third of his career sidelined by injuries.

Since Bradford entered the league in 2010, twenty quarterbacks have thrown at least 2,000 regular-season passes (Bradford has 2,292). Among those 20, Bradford ranks dead last in yards per attempt, yards per completion, and touchdown percentage, all by wide margins. He's also last in passer rating, net yards per attempt, and winning percentage. He's last in TD/INT differential, and TD/INT differential percentage. He's not the worst QB in one major stat; he's the worst in every major stat. QBs who play like Bradford normally don't continue to get so much playing time.

So why would any team sign a quarterback like that to an extension, much less an extension that makes him one of the highest-paid players in the NFL? Bradford is making essentially the same money as if he'd gotten a franchise tag, but his contract is for two seasons. And it's not like the Eagles are swimming in salary cap money. They only have a little over $17 million left under the cap — meaning they blew about half of their free agent budget on Bradford — and they're still trying to re-sign all-pro defensive lineman Fletcher Cox. At a time when the Eagles desperately need to make smart financial decisions, they've given a small fortune to an average QB who can't stay healthy.

Let's be clear: I think this was a foolish contract, one that the Eagles will regret almost immediately. But I'm not writing this piece just to detail all the different measures by which Sam Bradford sucks, or to criticize Philadelphia for making the deal. Contrary to what many people believe — including a large number of Philly fans — the Eagles front office is not run by idiots. How did their staff reach the conclusion that re-signing Bradford was a good idea, even at this price tag?

ESPN's Bill Barnwell asked this same question, and he noticed some significant factors:

1. Bradford looks like the best available option. Good quarterbacks don't hit free agency, and the Eagles don't have a high draft pick. Other than Bradford, the Eagles' options looked like Mark Sanchez or Chase Daniel. Sanchez is already on the roster, but Bradford outplayed him in 2015, and I think the Eagles are more comfortable with Sanchez as their backup. Daniel has shown flashes of promise, and he's worked with Eagle head coach Doug Pederson, but he's an unproven commodity, who has thrown 77 regular-season passes in seven seasons.

Is Bradford so much better than Sanchez or Daniel that it's worth paying him $36 million over two years? Probably not, but you can understand why the team would be more comfortable with Bradford than the other available options.

2. Bradford played better late in the season. Bradford's much-hyped move to Philadelphia tanked almost immediately, but he did improve his performance later in the season. Barnwell put it nicely: "I don't think relying solely upon Bradford's second-half numbers is the best way to project his future performance, but it's plausible that the Eagles leaned more heavily on those figures in estimating what Bradford will do in 2016 and beyond."

3. The Eagles believed that Bradford could have signed a similar contract with another team. This is the key point. There are always teams looking for quarterbacks, and teams willing to pay big for a QB with a pedigree. Last year, the Jets signed journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, with excellent results. The Texans made the playoffs with Brian Hoyer as their primary starter. Bradford is not a particularly good quarterback, but he would be an upgrade for several teams, and he doesn't throw a lot of interceptions, which could make him a good fit for a team with a good ground game and solid defense.

This is where I believe Barnwell missed a crucial point: the Eagles have a good ground game and solid defense. Running backs Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles both played well in 2015. Philadelphia also has the pieces for a very successful defense. Fletcher Cox and Malcolm Jenkins made the Pro Bowl, and Jordan Hicks was a lock for Defensive Rookie of the Year if he'd stayed healthy. Connor Barwin made the Pro Bowl in 2014, and Kiko Alonso had a brilliant rookie season two years ago. If he can stay healthy, he could be a star. All of those players are under 30. There were stretches of the 2015 season in which the defense played brilliantly, and there's room for improvement.

We just saw the Broncos win Super Bowl 50 with a great defense and a passing game that didn't contribute much. It's not crazy for the Eagles' coaches and management to believe they have some of the right pieces to copy that formula, and a low-risk, low-reward QB like Bradford is a good fit for that kind of team.

4. The Eagles still believe in Bradford's potential. If Bradford plays well in 2016, the Eagles get him back at a discount (?) in 2017. I'm not sure how much of a discount franchise-tag money really is — Bradford would have to be Tom Brady to get a sweeter deal after only one good season.

To sum up, Bradford's extension implies that Philadelphia's front office believes Bradford is a substantial upgrade over Mark Sanchez, and that this price was necessary to prevent him from signing with another team. They also believe that Bradford is a good fit for their team, and that he still has room for growth. Perhaps Bradford can follow in the steps of Alex Smith, another former number one overall draft pick, who fizzled for many years before turning into a good game manager, reaching the playoffs with strong defenses in San Francisco and Kansas City. And two years isn't a crippling contract like Jay Cutler's deal with the Bears. If Bradford gets hurt or plays badly, the Eagles suck it up for two years when they were probably rebuilding anyway, and move on.

Having acknowledged that there are reasons for the Eagles' decision, I don't think they're good reasons. Barnwell's summary makes sense to me: "The best-case scenario appears to be that the Eagles lock up an average quarterback at pretty close to market value for two years, and the worst-case scenario is that they're stuck paying a guy who is alternately injured and mediocre more than they need to in 2016 and 2017." I think the team talked itself into reaching the conclusion it wanted: the right man for the job is ... the one who already has the job! It's convenient.

If I were running the team — and there are plenty of Eagles fans happy I'm not — I probably would have pursued Daniel, then held a quarterback competition between him and Sanchez. Sanchez did not play well in 2015, but that's two starts, less than 100 passes. Here's what both players have done in their Philadelphia careers:

Bradford: 346-of-532, 3725 yards, 164 first downs, 19 TD, 14 INT, 28 sacks for 200 yards, 39 rush yards, no rush TDs, 10 fumbles

Sanchez: 257-of-400, 3034 yards, 146 first downs, 18 TD, 15 INT, 32 sacks for 205 yards, 109 rush yards, 1 rush TD, 8 fumbles

That produces the following efficiency stats:

Chart

Bradford made fewer mistakes — sacks and interceptions — but he didn't create much, with much lower rates of yardage, first downs, and touchdowns. Who's better? By the stats, it's very close. And that implies that signing Bradford to such a lucrative contract — when he's not obviously superior to his own backup — was a massive error in judgment. Sam Bradford has never accomplished anything in the NFL to suggest he's worthy of this payday, not even to noticeably outplay Mark Sanchez.

Hat tip to Adam Harstad of Footballguys.com, who pointed out several of the stats cited in this article.

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