Editor's note: This story was originally published on Aug. 22, six days before Stafford agreed to a deal that is expected to make him the highest-paid player in NFL history. We're repurposing this story in light of the deal.
The next veteran quarterback in line to get a new contract is Matthew Stafford. The Detroit Lions signal-caller is entering the final season of the three-year, $53 million extension he agreed to in 2013, and scuttlebutt suggests that Stafford is looking to join Derek Carr in the $25 million-per-year club. Talks aren't going especially well, with Detroit general manager Bob Quinn suggesting earlier this month that the two sides aren't close to reaching a deal.
It's certainly strange to imagine a 2018 season in which the Lions have somebody besides their longtime starter suiting up under center. Should it be? Is $25 million the point at which the Lions should be more uncomfortable with the unknown than they are with Stafford in the years to come? Those are questions worth asking and considering.
What Stafford is
Stafford has turned out differently from the player the Lions might have expected to get when they took him with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, in ways both good and bad. At the time, the Georgia product was a reasonably high-risk choice. Stafford had plenty of upside, but he was the prototypical passer whom teams take shots at and fail on at the top of the draft.
Even before he entered the NFL, scouts put Stafford's arm strength up there with any other quarterback in the NFL. His ability to make all the throws was hardly in question. His ability to make all those throws consistently? Another story altogether. Stafford completed just 57.2 percent of his throws at Georgia, which raised reasonable concerns about whether he would ever be an accurate enough quarterback at the NFL level to justify his draft status. He was a high-risk, high-reward option.
Instead, Stafford has been ... boring? Scouts who might have imagined Stafford airing the ball out and chucking it downfield like some sort of Al Davis fantasy couldn't have imagined that Stafford would end up playing in one of the league's shortest passing schemes halfway through his career. The Lions have a Ferrari and take it out every day to drive a half-mile to the grocery store.
Since Jim Bob Cooter took over as offensive coordinator halfway through the 2015 season, Stafford's average pass has traveled just 6.9 yards in the air, which is 32nd in the league among qualifying quarterbacks. (Coincidentally, he ranks just ahead of Joe Flacco, the only quarterback in the league who can really give Stafford competition in terms of pure arm strength.) Even at his most Stabler-esque, Stafford has kept things close to the vest. He averaged 8.4 air yards per pass between 2012 and 2013, but even that was only good for 18th over a two-year span.
Quarterbacks can be effective throwing shorter passes, of course, and Stafford has reduced his release while dropping his arm angle all the way down to sidearm at times, a habit that was a source of frustration earlier in his NFL tenure but which has been more successful over the past couple of seasons. It's fair to wonder if that is a reaction to the beginning of his career, when Stafford missed chunks of time during each of his first two seasons with injuries, notably a shoulder injury that cost him three games in 2010. While Stafford has played through pain at times, including a broken finger that sapped his effectiveness toward the end of 2016, he hasn't missed a start in six years.
All of the changes have resulted in a quarterback who has managed to remain useful without ever sniffing the league's elite. Stafford has never once gotten a Pro Bowl nod as one of the three best quarterbacks in his conference, having made it to the game only as the injury replacement for Peyton Manning in 2014. (Stafford did turn down a second appearance as an alternate last season.) He has never received an All-Pro or MVP vote. He racked up huge counting numbers in 2011 and 2012 by leading the league in attempts, but that's the only black ink on his traditional résumé.
Twenty-five quarterbacks have thrown 2,000 passes or more since Stafford entered the league in 2009. Here's where he ranks in terms of several key rate statistics among those 25 passers using Pro-Football-Reference.com's index statistics, for which 100 represents the league average:
The 58.6 Total QBR Stafford has posted over that time frame ranks 16th, right below Carson Palmer and Flacco and just above Andy Dalton and Jay Cutler. That's a fair third tier of quarterbacks to place Stafford into, given how he has performed over the majority of his pro career. You might make a case that he has been better since Cooter was promoted to offensive coordinator, but even then, Stafford has only jumped to 12th in QBR, while his eighth-ranked passer rating has been just below Sam Bradford's.
And yet, it's hard to argue that Stafford hasn't been effective. His defenses have mostly been middling or worse. Detroit has posted two top-10 finishes in DVOA -- ninth in 2011 and third in 2014 -- and Stafford held up his end of the bargain and led the Lions to the postseason both times. Last season, the Lions finished with the league's worst defensive DVOA and Stafford took them to the postseason for a third time in six years, which is more impressive when you remember they failed to make the playoffs once during the nine seasons before Stafford was drafted.
The Lions would not have made the playoffs without their quarterback last season. Stafford set an NFL record (since 1960) by leading the Lions to eight fourth-quarter comebacks. One of them was necessary as a result of Stafford's own pick-six, but the vast majority of them were meaningful. A few were miraculous. The Lions' defense blew leads with 23 seconds to go against the Vikings, 37 seconds to go against the Colts, and 65 seconds left against Washington, and in each case, Stafford pieced together a drive to either win the game in regulation or push it to overtime. The defense also blew a fourth-quarter lead against the Titans in Week 2.
For all those comebacks and those three playoff trips, though, the Lions really don't have much to show for Stafford's eight seasons. It's lazy and reductive to define a quarterback's success by winning a playoff game, but the Lions have only come close to doing so once during Stafford's tenure, when they led the Cowboys late in the fourth quarter during the 2014 wild-card round. They weren't really close against the Saints in 2011 or versus the Seahawks last season.
The Lions have come short of winning the division multiple times, most notably when they blew a 7-5 record and a comfortable advantage against a Packers team without Aaron Rodgers in 2013 to end Jim Schwartz's tenure as coach. There has never been a point in Stafford's tenure in which the Lions would have been considered to be one of the best teams in football -- or even close.
What Stafford could be
Flacco keeps popping up here as a comparison, and he stands as both an argument to invest in Stafford and a cautionary tale in what might go wrong.
Flacco's regular-season performance has been roughly similar to Stafford's, and the Baltimore Ravens QB has had better defenses to help him win games in the postseason, but during the 2012 season he also pieced together one of the best four-game stretches in playoff history, throwing for 1,140 yards with 11 touchdowns and zero picks. Stafford has pieced together four-game runs like that -- he threw for 1,056 yards with 12 touchdowns and just one pick between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2015 -- but they haven't come in the playoffs.
The problem with paying Stafford, though, is reflected by what has happened to the Ravens since that brilliant Flacco postseason. The former Delaware quarterback bet on himself by turning down extension offers and peaked at the best possible time, leaving Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome between a rock and a hard place.
The Ravens were forced to give Flacco an onerous six-year, $120.6 million deal that was really a three-year deal with $62 million guaranteed and the promise of a new deal after the third season, given that the structure of the original deal left the Ravens with an untenable $28.6 million cap hit due in 2016. Sure enough, despite middling numbers and success from 2013 through 2015, Baltimore handed Flacco a three-year, $66.4 million extension before the 2016 season. His $24.6 million cap hit this year is the largest of any player in the league.
John Harbaugh's team probably would like to move on from Flacco at this point, but it's not financially feasible for Baltimore to move on until after the 2018 season, at which point the Ravens would still owe $8 million in dead money for the 2019 and 2020 campaigns. By then, Flacco will have earned $128.4 million for six years, the first four of which have been entirely mediocre.
It would have been crazy for the Ravens to have let their starting quarterback leave after the Super Bowl; at the time, the last time a Super Bowl-winning team had replaced its quarterback the year after its victory was when Baltimore won the Super Bowl in 2000 and subsequently replaced Trent Dilfer with Elvis Grbac. Grbac played poorly and was released after one season before retiring.
Flacco's backup in Super Bowl XLVII had thrown just 30 NFL passes in two seasons and was seen as a project at the time, but things turned out all right for Tyrod Taylor. While the Bills inexplicably seem interested in replacing Taylor with rookie fifth-rounder Nathan Peterman, the Virginia Tech product has comfortably outplayed Flacco since joining Buffalo in 2015 at a fraction of the cost. Even if you think Flacco is better than Taylor, it's not about comparing those two; it's Flacco versus Taylor and the $100-plus million the Ravens could have applied to the rest of their roster by moving on from the Super Bowl MVP.
Flacco might have been a relative bargain during his rookie deal, but that hasn't really been the case with Stafford. As a first overall pick under the old collective bargaining agreement, Stafford's six-year, $72 million contract was massive when it was signed before the 2009 season. For context, consider that even if he gets franchised during his sixth season in the league, it's unlikely 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff will make $72 million during his first six seasons in the NFL, despite the fact that the cap rose by more than 26 percent between 2009 and 2016.
The lowly Lions were able to turn around their roster with three top-two picks in Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Calvin Johnson, each of whom had enormous contracts from Day 1 under the old CBA. Perhaps out of sheer cash constraints, the Lions foolishly gave Stafford a contract with no signing bonus and a relatively small base salary of $3.1 million in 2009 before handing him $26 million in bonuses starting with the uncapped 2010 season, $17.4 million of which would prorate over the years to come.
As a result, after the uncapped 2010 season, each year of Stafford's deal called for him to receive more than 10 percent of the NFL cap. The Lions repeatedly restructured Stafford's six-year rookie deal to create cap space, forcing them to hand Stafford a player-friendly three-year, $53 million extension with two years still left to go on Stafford's original rookie deal.
The cap hits under this second deal have each been in excess of 11 percent of the growing cap, and last year, Stafford's $22.5 million charge was the fifth largest in the league. His $22 million hit in 2017 is sixth. And as a 29-year-old quarterback who could hit unrestricted free agency next offseason, he has all kinds of leverage.
Detroit would owe Stafford $26.4 million if it chose to franchise him next year, a move which could cost them top pass-rusher Ezekiel Ansah, who also is due to hit free agency. The Lions would owe $31.7 million for 2018 and an unimaginable $45.6 million in 2019, meaning that Stafford would be in line to top $100 million over the next three seasons if he refused to sign a long-term deal with Detroit. He wouldn't get $103.7 million for three years on the free market, but it's entirely possible that Stafford could top $80 million and maybe even approach $90 million over three years if teams were able to get at him in unrestricted free agency without Kirk Cousins around.
Should the Lions let Stafford go?
The answer is less about Stafford than their alternatives. Detroit hasn't prepared for a post-Stafford future -- its backup quarterbacks are a pair of sixth-round picks in Jake Rudock and rookie Brad Kaaya, who would leave the Lions all but doomed if Stafford does suffer an injury. Rudock didn't throw a pass as a rookie in 2016. Taylor wasn't especially experienced in Baltimore, but he'd at least thrown a game's worth of passes.
Because the Lions don't have a remotely feasible replacement for Stafford, they would likely incur an enormous cost in finding a viable quarterback with some upside, either in the short or long term, to replace the former first overall pick. Coach Jim Caldwell said in May the team had no interest in Colin Kaepernick. Detroit could hope to find a quarterback with a pick in next year's draft, but to get one of the top prospects, it's more plausible they'll have to trade up and deal away multiple picks, costing them millions of dollars in draft capital.
The only saving grace would be that next year's free-agent class could be fascinating. In addition to Cousins, the quarterbacks available could include Drew Brees, Sam Bradford, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jay Cutler and Teddy Bridgewater. That might depress Stafford's negotiating leverage while offering an out if the Lions did decide to go with an alternate option. Outside of Brees, who would be 39, are any of those passers really a better long-term option than Stafford?
This isn't the right time for the Lions to throw up their hands and move on. While the truly great quarterbacks in the league are underpaid, there will come a point where an organization will look at the bird it has in its hand and decide that it isn't quite as exciting as what might be lurking in the bush.