ST. LOUIS — It's become a rite of training camp for Sam Bradford.
Every summer, he deals with the oversized burden of living up to getting picked first overall in 2010. The St. Louis Rams quarterback is not surprised that once again, he's supposedly at a career crossroads.
Bradford can't remember when that wasn't perceived to be the case, and he tries to ignore low outside expectations that include a fantasy rating in the bottom half of NFL quarterbacks and other assorted doubts. He's as eager as anyone on the outside to be a difference-maker in a breakthrough season.
"Every year is a 'make it or break it' year according to someone," Bradford said, then quickly shifted to team emphasis. "I think everyone in our locker room feels really good about where we're at right now and where this football team is going.
"I think we have a great chance to be really good."
So far he's been impressive in camp, rewarded for dedication to the rehab program. Though he's wearing a brace, there have been no restrictions.
"If we have to back down, we'll back down," coach Jeff Fisher said.
Whatever he does, criticism flows freely. The team can only scoff at some of the opinions on social media.
The biggest reason Bradford is a lightning rod player is because he had the good fortune to be the last high-dollar No. 1 pick before the NFL went to a rookie salary cap. He has two years to go on a six-year deal worth $78 million that can be a bit of an albatross if the Rams aren't winning, or if he's injured.
"No one steps on the field to lose," Bradford said. "I think we want it just as bad as the city and the fans do."
Former Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson suggested on ESPN recently that Bradford has a reputation of being "soft." He also missed six games with a high ankle sprain in 2011.
Another opinion making the rounds this week is the notion Bradford is a high-paid game manager with limited improvisational skills.
"Geez, there's a million experts out there and they all know football so well, but they've never coached or played a day in their life," defensive end Chris Long said. "If I sit there and start talking about Cardinals baseball, well, I'm not a baseball player, I'm just a fan. It's kind of out of my lane."
Long was chosen second overall a year before Bradford went No. 1, so he can relate to attention that sometimes borders on obsessive.
"It's just dialogue and you've got to block it out, and I think he does a really good job of it," Long said. "He's a tough guy mentally and physically and he's just going to have a big year, I just feel that way."
Before his season-ending left knee injury in Week 7, Bradford appeared headed for his best year with 14 touchdown passes and just four interceptions.
The Rams were 3-4 with Bradford and it could be argued he'd have made enough impact to turn the tide in narrow home losses the next two weeks against Seattle and Tennessee. They went to a ground-oriented offense under journeyman backup Kellen Clemens and finished with seven wins for the second straight year under coach Jeff Fisher.
"Sam Bradford gets hurt, you change your entire game plan," general manager Les Snead said.
Well before the draft the Rams assured Bradford of their commitment and quashed rumors about Johnny Manziel. There's no issue who's No. 1 at camp. Journeyman Shaun Hill is the backup and there are two young quarterbacks in camp, sixth-round pick Garrett Gilbert and Austin Davis.
"He's come out healthier, stronger, faster, and everybody can see it," guard Rodger Saffold said. "At the end of the day he doesn't need to be tough because we're going to do what we've got to do."
Bradford's goals for training camp and the preseason are simple — get reacquainted with the game.
"There's no doubt that there is still a little rust that needs to come off," he said. "I just haven't been out there."