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NFL Draft

Matthew Stafford Now In Rich QB Market, What’s Left In The Tank?

  • The Draft Network
  • January 27, 2021
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One month ago, the quarterback market in 2021 looked concerningly dry. The best free agents expected to ride the carousel were Jacoby Brissett, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Andy Dalton. There were always trade rumors from discontented fanbases—see Jimmy Garoppolo and Sam Darnold—but these were barely blips on the radar.

Then Carson Wentz became available. Then Deshaun Watson became available(-ish). Maybe Aaron Rodgers too. And, more officially than anyone else, Matthew Stafford is on the market.

Stafford is definitely the best QB who is also definitely available—and that means he currently has the strongest market, as teams are already making calls and first-round picks are apparently in play as trade compensation. But just because Stafford is the best available doesn’t necessarily mean he’s worth all the hype.

Stafford never made the Detroit Lions a competitor. There are a lot of ways that a team can prevent itself from being a competitor, of course, and Stafford was never a detriment to Detroit’s postseason hopes. But during his 11-year career, the Lions never won the NFC North, losing the only three wild card berths they secured and winning double-digit games in only two seasons. According to ProFootballFcous’ grading, Stafford has only been a top-10 passer in three seasons of his career. This doesn’t match up with The Athletic's QB tiering done by Mike Sando, in which Stafford ranked as the ninth-best quarterback entering the 2020 season. The callout quote on Stafford’s blurb was exactly the issue we’re trying to solve here: “If you landed him in Pittsburgh or San Francisco, you’d see a winner.” Another comped him to Carson Palmer, who never won a lot with a floundering organization in Cincinnati before making deep playoff pushes with Arizona in a late-career surge. 

The film has always been better than the production with Stafford. His arm made him the first-overall pick, and in a league in which aggressive throws and changing arm angles are shifting into the forefront of the meta, he remains an enticing player on film. Put aside zealous Lions fans who regularly share Stafford highlights with the assertion that Big Football Media would go bananas if Patrick Mahomes made the same throw (they’re often right!); Stafford’s film has always shown unteachable talent. Mark Bullock of Bullock’s Film Room walked through some of Stafford’s 2020 film to that point: Stafford may not have the consistency of a top-five quarterback, but he has the talent of one and should hit a top-10 ranking accordingly.

The argument that Stafford can fill the remaining gap in a competing roster isn’t so much about his supporting cast. The Lions surrounding him with poor personnel and poor offensive designers has been used to wave away his lack of postseason success, but the Lions have put good receiving threats and solid offensive lines in front of him. At the team level—coaching staff and defensive performance—Stafford has been let down. But on offense alone, what Stafford has done with the Lions should be the expectation for what he brings to a new team.

The argument isn’t about Stafford suddenly playing better in a new environment; rather, it’s just about striking at the right time with the right guy.

It’s a narrative argument, so it can be tough to prove. But Stafford is known as a legendary competitor and has never had the opportunity to lead a truly competing team. Stafford and his wife, Kelly, have spent his entire career in Detroit and clearly feel a strong connection to the area, made ironclad by the fight Kelly Stafford endured against a brain tumor treated by Michigan hospitals and doctors. Stafford fought hard for the Lions, and Michigan fought hard for the Stafford family. There’s a connection there, and that’s a hard connection to relinquish.

But the Lions and Stafford family have agreed to a mutual separation, and in the scope of Matthew Stafford’s football career, it’s not hard to understand why. He has a few seasons left to compete; the Lions don’t figure to be competing anytime soon. It is insufficient to say “Matthew Stafford wants to leave the Lions to join a competitor, so he’ll be good enough to lead a competing team;” you need more evidence than that. But I would argue that we have it. We’ve seen enough good play, we still see tremendous talent as a thrower, and we know the urgency and intensity of Stafford’s competing window. It’s reasonable to believe that, if he lands on a competing team—the Indianapolis Colts or even the Washington Football Team—his best football will be ahead of him. That team must do work for Stafford to maximize him, however. If it doesn’t steal ideas from the Darrell Bevell offense that saw Stafford post career numbers in 2019—a vertical passing game approach with deep pocket drops off play-action—then it’s limiting its chances of catching the right wave on the high-variance Stafford ride. The Colts used Philip Rivers as an astute underneath passer last season; they can’t do that with Stafford’s arm. Washington has Terry McLaurin as their primary pass-catcher; it needs some jump-ball threats if Stafford’s gonna work there.

Will it be worth going all-in on Stafford in such a manner? With specific coaching staffs and personnel? In a market that includes Watson and perhaps Rodgers, there are better bets to make. But if Watson and Rodgers remain out of reach, and if the top of the talented 2021 quarterback class dries up within the top-10 selections, Stafford may be the best gamble left. He can’t turn a team into a competitor, but he can make a competitive team that much more dangerous. Super Bowls are won on the difference of inches and a few lucky bounces; and for as much risk as a team would incur by pushing its chips in on Stafford, it also puts itself in a position to roll those dice and see how they fall.

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