ST. LOUIS — Conditions appear favorable for St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford to have a breakout season.
The Rams upgraded protection with free agent left tackle Jake Long, picked up a premier tight end in Jared Cook and addressed a long-standing deficiency at wide receiver by drafting Tavon Austin with the eighth overall pick.
Plus, there’s no learning curve in the second season with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. That’s what has Bradford excited the most about his role in leading a team that’s gone a decade without a winning season into playoff contention.
The first day of training camp, they were deep into the playbook working on blitz pickups and other “exotic” wrinkles.
“I could be here for days talking about that,” Bradford said. “We have an opportunity to build on what we were able to do last year and not start from scratch.
“I think that’s our biggest challenge as a group, to not come out and be complacent, and do the same things, but to grow, and become better,.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher refuses to put too much on the shoulders of the first overall pick of the 2010 draft.
“I’ve said this all the time: The better the people that are surrounding him are, the better chance he has of taking another step,” Fisher said. “I think we’ve done everything we can to this point.”
Bradford is a former NFL offensive rookie of the year and is coming off his best season with a career-high 21 touchdown passes. He has yet to join the upper echelon at his position, and the two quarterbacks taken first overall the last two years have made a much bigger splash.
Cam Newton set a rookie record for yards passing in 2011 with the Panthers and Andrew Luck broke that mark while leading the Colts to the playoffs last year. Colt threw 10 fewer interceptions than Peyton Manning did as a rookie in 1998.
Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in 2009, led Detroit to a 10-6 record and the playoffs in 2011.
Bradford insists he’s not concerned about outside expectations, saying what he expects of himself is enough pressure as the Rams, 7-8-1 last year, try to take the next step and contend for the playoffs.
The piece the Rams haven’t replaced is running back Steven Jackson, who’ll be going for his ninth consecutive 1,000-yard season in Atlanta. Bradford “absolutely” accepts the mantle of leadership vacated by Jackson.
“I think I realized that the minute that I knew ‘Jack’ was gone,” Bradford said. “I think it’s the perfect time for me going into Year 4, going into Year 2 of this offense. I think it’s part of my evolution and part of my position that I need to step up and be the leader of this offense.”
Adding Long should give Bradford more time to execute plays. Rodger Saffold was the left tackle his first three seasons and moves to the right side, a revolving-door position in recent years.
Bradford said “there’s no doubt in my mind” that Long is a Pro Bowl caliber pickup and that Saffold would eventually thrive on the right side.
Austin will line up in the backfield, slot and out wide in a group of pass catchers able to stretch the defense. The anticipated net result is a lot more big plays.
“I think if you look at us over the past couple years, we’ve really struggled to create explosive plays,” Bradford said. “The best offenses in the league are great at doing that so hopefully the speed will help us.”
When no one’s open, Bradford believes he’s ready to execute the nuances of the offense. Instead of scrolling down the list of options, he wants to be ready to recognize instantly which is best to make the most of the play.
“I just feel so much more comfortable with where we’re at and where the ball needs to go,” Bradford said. “I’ve got one answer and it’s going to be this … and let’s just get this second down.”