August 19, 2010, 10:07 AM
By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

Does Sam Bradford make the Rams' passing game fantasy poison?

Can we stop all this nonsense about A.J. Feeley being the St. Louis Rams' Week 1 starting quarterback? It's not going to happen. Already, ESPN.com's Mike Sando reports that Sam Bradford is separating himself, and taking at least half the first-team snaps. With the Rams probably destined for another developmental season overall, it would be foolhardy for them not to let Bradford start from the get-go and take his lumps while building from the ground up. The kid would really have to spit the bit not to find himself under center Sept. 12 against the Arizona Cardinals.

But that doesn't mean he'll be very good.

It's true that the past couple seasons have helped rewrite expectations for rookie quarterbacks. In 2008, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan each led their teams to the playoffs as rookies, and Flacco reached the AFC title game. In '09, Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez started right away, and Sanchez made it to the conference championship. Those four players were drafted 18th (Flacco), third (Ryan), first (Stafford) and fifth (Sanchez) overall in their respective NFL drafts; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Josh Freeman was the only quarterback selected in either of the past two first rounds not to start Week 1, and he was under center by Week 7. Recent history tells us to expect that Bradford will play right away.

But how good were those rookie quarterbacks? Ryan finished as the 15th-best fantasy signal-caller in his first season, and Flacco was 18th-best. And last year, Sanchez finished 26th among fantasy quarterbacks and Stafford 27th (albeit in 10 games played). In other words, the best of the lot, Ryan, still wasn't a consistent fantasy starter. That's OK, though. Nobody outside of a dynasty league is invested in Bradford for this season. What we really care about is, will his rookie-ness drag down any and all receivers the Rams throw on the field?

Well, let's look at that same recent history. Here are the top two receivers for the aforementioned four quarterbacks in their first NFL seasons and their respective performances:

Player Team Rec. Yds. TD
Roddy White '08 ATL 88 1,382 7
Michael Jenkins '08 ATL 50 777 3
Derrick Mason '08 BAL 80 1,037 5
Mark Clayton '08 BAL 41 695 3
Calvin Johnson '09 DET 67 984 5
Bryant Johnson '09 DET 36 426 3
Jerricho Cotchery '09 NYJ 57 821 3
Braylon Edwards '09 NYJ* 45 680 4
(*Includes statistics with both Browns and Jets, but he was with Sanchez in New York for 12 of 16 games last season)

White, who was coming off a breakout 2007 that saw him finally deliver on his first-round promise, is the only guy in the past two seasons who parlayed his high-profile, start-right-away rookie quarterback to fantasy stardom. On one hand, that's encouraging, it proves it can be done. On the other hand, nobody on the Rams roster has White's raw talent or is coming off a proven season as White was.

That said, there are a few pretty good performances on that above list. Sure, Mason wasn't an explosive force in Flacco's rookie campaign, but that was a usable year, fantasy-wise. Calvin Johnson was a huge disappointment compared to expectations, but he still put up some numbers. Even Cotchery and Clayton had their moments. If Bradford keeps the job for 16 weeks and isn't a disaster of JaMarcus Russell proportions, I might go so far as to say he will produce a wideout who'll finish at least in the mid-30s and will probably produce one even better than that. I say this simply because of the above precedents. Three of the four rookie signal-callers gave someone a top-25 season. Sanchez got Cotchery into the top 35. That's the best news of all: this isn't an entirely lost cause.

Laurent Robinson

Laurent Robinson recorded a first down or touchdown on 11 of his 13 receptions in 2009 before his season-ending injury.
The most likely candidate for such an ascension is Laurent Robinson, a big (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) and fast (4.38 40-yard dash) player who won the Rams' starting split end job last year, but then broke his leg in Week 3. I've already listed Robinson as one of my 10 favorite value picks this year, because of his high ceiling. If I'm honest, though, the Rams are probably going to spread the ball to several people, making Bradford's receivers' lines look more like Stafford's and Sanchez's than like Ryan's or Flacco's. Donnie Avery is a smaller player than Robinson and probably isn't as fast, but he's still a sub-4.5 guy and led the team in both receiving yards and touchdowns in '09. Brandon Gibson played well after coming over from the Philadelphia Eagles partway through last season (though he's dealt with a bad hamstring all camp). Danny Amendola is occasionally going to be a PPR factor out of the slot. Mardy Gilyard is a fourth-round rookie who's battled a wrist problem but could get involved.

The overall message here is, if he stays healthy, Bradford doesn't doom any of these guys to absolutely no production. Robinson is my favorite one to draft, Avery should probably go in very deep leagues, and the rest are probably free-agent pickups at best. Of course, if the Rams' offensive line isn't better this year (we're looking at you, former No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith, who's already struggling at right tackle while this year's second-rounder Rodger Saffold takes over the left spot), all this may be moot, because Bradford could get crunched.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner.