The Detroit Lions will not be trading Matthew Stafford during the 2019 offseason. They could, but they will not.
Peter King wrote during the season that the Detroit Lions should trade Matthew Stafford to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Your mileage with that concept may vary. I could come down with a very hard stance about how bad that idea is for the Lions. I thought instead that I would take a look at what that rebuild might entail as an academic exercise.
The first thing we need to get out of the way is that if that were going to happen, it is not with the eye pointed at making the Lions better next year. Go call 97.1 if you are ignorant enough to espouse that belief. One of their hosts will stop drooling long enough to cheer you on, I’m sure. There is no timeline where jettisoning Stafford lets the Lions improve their roster in 2019. The salary cap ramifications for such a move are just too restricting.
Whether Matt Patricia truly believes that Stafford is the Lions quarterback forever or not, he will be the Lions quarterback in 2019. Here is why:
The Detroit Lions 2019 Salary Cap
If the Lions trade Stafford at the start of the 2019 league year, they suffer an immediate salary cap charge of $49 million. The Lions have an estimated $41 million in available salary cap space going into the 2019 offseason. That is with Stafford on the team. The Lions lose $19.5 million of that if they trade Stafford. The amortized portion of his signing bonus immediately hits the cap. If the Lions trade their quarterback, this is a complete and total rebuild for a team with very little room to maneuver.
There are plenty of other players the Lions could jettison if that were the case. Over The Cap recently revealed that the Lions ranked number fifteen in the NFL in maximum net cap space for the 2019 offseason. The Lions would have no need to hold on to veterans. Glover Quinn, T.J. Lang, Theo Riddick, Nevin Lawson, and Tavon Wilson are all gone immediately if the Lions were beginning a full rebuild. Getting rid of those players would free up almost as much space as trading Stafford cost the team.
But this adds even more holes to a Lions roster that was terminally shallow in 2018. The Lions would almost assuredly overspend on free agents trying to fill holes in the short term so that Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia would not get fired.
The 2020 Payoff for Moving on
The Jaguars are desperate to fix their quarterback problem. They’ve signed enough free agents over the last few seasons that their window to contend will close hard at some point soon. Because of that fact, there is a high likelihood that they would be willing to hand over a lot of draft resources to get a franchise quarterback.
Matthew Stafford would likely pull in the same kind of haul that Carson Palmer and Jay Cutler did. Multiple first-round picks would come the Lions way, and a few other assets. They would have two top ten picks in the upcoming draft, and likely another the following season with another in the later parts of the draft from a vastly improved Jaguars team. The 2019 season would be a complete disaster with the team turning to someone like Tyrod Taylor or Teddy Bridgewater as a placeholder at the pivot. The Jaguars, however, would likely have a great regular season if not more with Stafford at the helm.
The Lions, however, would have the opportunity to put a solid roster together in 2020 and maintain it beyond. Without Stafford’s contract, the Lions would have about $104 million in salary cap space available for the 2020 offseason as things lie right now. Even if they spent to the cap in 2019 after maximizing their available cap space, they would likely still have around $77 million to play with in 2020.
They would not have much of a team left to draw interest from free agent players though. They would have to rely on the “draft and develop” methodology. The Lions would have enough salary cap space to keep every player that warranted keeping in perpetuity, however. The reality of the Lions situation is that for many free agents, Detroit is a tough sell compared to many other NFL cities. Having a lot of salary cap space does not mean that free agents will suddenly see the team as more appealing, particularly if the Lions are awful in 2019.
Finding a Quarterback is Hard
The Lions have the core of a good offensive line currently on rookie contracts and budding superstars at running back and wide receiver. There is plenty of pass rush talent in this draft, unlike last season. Then there is still the issue of finding a quarterback to replace Stafford. The reason the Jaguars would likely give up so much for him is that they know how hard it is to find one.
For every Stafford, there is a Byron Leftwich, a Blaine Gabbert, and a Blake Bortles. The Cincinnati Bengals had relative ease in replacing Palmer with Andy Dalton, but the Denver Broncos had to wait half a decade to find the ghost of Peyton Manning in free agency. That is not going to happen again.
I definitely come out on the side of building a team around Stafford. There are plenty of opportunities for the Lions to improve their roster in 2019. Burning the house down is great if the next one you build is better. There is no guarantee that it would be. There is a guarantee though that because of a lack of salary cap space, the 2019 Lions would be among the worst rosters the franchise has ever fielded. That, as we all know, is saying a lot.