Bradford’s best option: staying one more year

Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford began the season as one of the nation’s top prospects for the 2010 NFL Draft, but he’s now facing some major decisions regarding his future. Bradford sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder in week one vs. BYU, forcing him to miss the next three games, then aggravated it in the first quarter Saturday against Texas. Rumors are now flying about Bradford possibly having season-ending surgery as well as the possibility he might leave early for the draft.

Bradford is currently ranked 28th on the National Football Post’s Super 30, listed as the nation’s fourth-best quarterback prospect, and has now fallen behind juniors Jake Locker (Washington), Jimmy Clausen (Notre Dame) and red-shirt sophomore Ryan Mallett (Arkansas). If Bradford declares for the 2010 draft, where would he rank?

The first question that needs to be answered is: Who would make up the underclassman quarterback class coming out early? If Bradford, Locker, Mallett and Clausen all enter next year’s draft, Bradford would have a tough time moving past those three to secure the top spot in the group. Locker and Mallett are far more physically gifted than Bradford, while Clausen, who possesses a similar physical skill set to Bradford, has displayed an ability to be productive in an offense that’s more conducive to transitioning to the NFL than Bradford plays in.

For the sake of argument, let’s say all three top-rated underclassmen (Locker, Clausen and Mallett) decide to stay at their respective schools for one more year and Bradford opts to come out. In that case, I could see Bradford instantly vaulting to the top of the quarterback class, ahead of Texas’ Colt McCoy, Florida’s Tim Tebow and Cincinnati’s Tony Pike. Bradford’s combination of accuracy and overall intangibles would clearly grade him higher than any of the top-rated senior QBs and likely put him in position to become the top-rated quarterback off the board as long as he proves he’s 100-percent healthy. However, chances are slim that all of the other three underclassmen will remain in school.

Now, the second question is: Would it be smarter for Bradford to simply go back for his senior season? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding yes. Last year, we saw USC junior Mark Sanchez strike while the iron was hot after seeing the less-than-stellar quarterback crop he’d be competing against in the draft. I’m virtually certain we’ll see at least one, and possibly two, of the top-rated juniors come out after this season (Locker or Clausen), giving a healthy Bradford a much clearer path to the top-rated quarterback spot in 2011.

And as our own Jack Bechta wrote Thursday, a lot can be said about the level of maturity gained by a quarterback who stays for his senior year. Bradford is an extremely accurate passer with good timing, rhythm and anticipation in the pass game. He’s a natural leader who his teammates seem to rally around and showcases impressive poise and maturity for a kid his age. If there are doubts about Bradford, they concern his slender frame, the offense he plays in and his ability to handle the pressures of an NFL pass rush.

If Bradford comes back, matures physically and continues to iron out some of the deficiencies in his game, I think it would do nothing but enhance his draft stock for 2011. It would also give him a chance to show scouts that his shoulder is fully recovered from the injury and likely surgery. Looking ahead to that year’s quarterback class (excluding Locker and Clausen), his biggest competition would likely be Christian Ponder of Florida State, Adam Weber of Minnesota and Jevan Snead of Mississippi. As for possible underclassmen who could declare for the 2011 draft, they would include Mallett and maybe Blaine Gabbert of Missouri.

I know we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves looking at potential 2011 quarterback prospects who could challenge Bradford two drafts from now, but the point is, I see no downside from a quarterbacking standpoint if he returns for his senior year. Sure, there might be concerns about him getting maximum money if the current system of rookie deals changes in the NFL, but if he’s concerned first and foremost with being the best quarterback he can be, staying for his senior season looks like his best option.

Follow me on Twitter: WesBunting

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