What's next for the Rams with Sam Bradford done for 2014?
We are not all that far removed from Sam Bradford being considered one of the NFL's brightest future stars. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2008, was the No. 1 overall pick two years later and then captured rookie of the year honors.
Those glory days feel like eons ago. Bradford's career prospects are now cloudy at best after a second major knee injury in less than a year -- per multiple reports, Bradford retore his left ACL in Saturday night's preseason game against Cleveland.
When (if?) Bradford takes the field in 2015, he will be more than a year and a half removed from his last regular season action. His contract, the last huge deal handed out to a No. 1 overall pick before a new CBA kicked in and lowered those price tags, could make him expendable for the Rams next year. Bradford is due upwards of $13 million before being eligible for free agency in '16.
Obviously, Bradford and the Rams had far different plans for the coming season.
Despite rumors that Bradford's initial $76 million deal with $50 million guaranteed could push the Rams to consider other options this year, the franchise stuck by him. Some of that decision had to be based on Bradford's pre-injury performance in 2013, when he put himself on pace for career numbers in Brian Schottenheimer's offense.
The Rams finished last season 7-9 in the brutal NFC West, despite playing without Bradford for nine-plus weeks. Bolstered by a promising offseason that included the addition of rookies Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald, St. Louis had dreams of playoff contention, with a young group of talented players surrounding Bradford on offense as well. This may not be a death knell on their 2014 season, but it feels like one at least for the moment.
Where will St. Louis turn from here? A few of the options include:
• Shaun Hill: Brought in on a one-year, $1.75 million contract this offseason, Hill could wind up being one of the league's biggest free agency steals. Already an upper-echelon backup, Hill will be pushed up the depth chart -- at least temporarily -- by news of Bradford's injury. His last start came in 2010 for the Detroit Lions. Hill actually played in 13 games and made 10 starts that year, with Matthew Stafford injured, and posted a 3-7 record. He did, however, complete 61.8 percent of his passes and holds a 61.9 percent completion rate for his career, both above Bradford's top mark of 60.7, set last season.
Though he did not throw a pass during the 2013 campaign, Hill is plenty capable of keeping the Rams competitive, even if he does not represent a long-term solution. St. Louis did hold it together rather well under Kellen Clemens last year. Hill might be even better.
• Mark Sanchez: The name that is sure to come up most often in trade speculation over the next couple days. Why? Mainly because Sanchez has a background with Schottenheimer -- the two were paired together on the Jets from 2009-11, to date the most productive run of Sanchez's disappointing career. Sanchez has been sharp for the Eagles this preseason, completing 25 of 31 passes against mostly defensive reserves. He is in line to back up Nick Foles, but Philadelphia also has Matt Barkley on its roster.
• Ryan Mallett: The Patriots continue to hunt for a taker on Mallett, who has just this season left on his contract. The 6-foot-6, 26-year-old has been Tom Brady's backup for the past three years, which may be the only reason he's still considered a potentially viable option around the league.
He saw just one series of action in the Patriots' third preseason game, jumping unexpectedly into the lineup for Brady in the first quarter and completing 2 of 3 passes. Brady re-entered on the next series, then rookie Jimmy Garoppolo saw work later.
• Christian Ponder: Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater have been engaged in an impressive battle for Minnesota's starting gig, so Ponder could find himself out of work very shortly. Because of his experience as a 35-game starter, the Rams could take a look, if only to provide more reliable depth behind Hill.
• Tim Tebow: Already hearing this one because, well, why waste a shot to talk about Tebow, eh? The Rams also reportedly considered chasing Tebow last season when Bradford was hurt the first time. There's no chance that St. Louis would bring him in as a starter right now, considering he has not even been in a camp. Perhaps if Austin Davis and Garrett Gilbert prove unworthy of backup duties behind Hill, there might be more merit here.
• Josh Freeman: Wild card here. Freeman, 26, signed with the Giants in April only to be cut in May and has since been unable to latch on elsewhere. Following four up-and-down years in Tampa Bay, Freeman was hurried into the Vikings' lineup last season to disastrous results. Any shot on Freeman would be a massive reconstruction project. But he has shown flashes in the past like a 25-TD, six-INT 2010 season.
The other possibilities out there -- Washington's Kirk Cousins, for example -- would have to be considered rather extreme longshots because of what they might cost the Rams. Cousins also holds the additional variable of playing for Washington, which may still be stinging a bit from its last trade with St. Louis. There will be other roster castoffs too, a list potentially including Luke McCown, Kellen Moore, Trent Edwards and others.
Do any of those options really constitute an upgrade over Hill? Probably not, even if Hill has regressed some due to age since the last time he saw meaningful action. Of course, Josh McCown jumped into the Bears' lineup last season as a 34-year-old journeyman, posted impressive stats and landed himself a contract in Tampa Bay.
Barring any unforeseen developments, such as a proven No. 1 quarterback becoming available for some reason, the Rams' post-Bradford choices for 2014 fall into two categories: gambles or maxed-out performers. Any improvement on Hill almost certainly would come at a cost, one the Rams may not be willing to pay as they continue to stockpile talent through the draft.
The Rams' friendliest route for now may be to see what they can piece together behind Hill, while keeping an eye on the 2015 draft. Bradford may return by then, but the days of St. Louis counting on him as its go-to QB probably ended on Saturday night.