Life Without Matt Stafford: Perspective On Finding A Franchise Quarterback

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With Stafford‘s Contract Extension Coming, A look At The Value And Scarcity Of A Franchise QB.

At some point in the near future, we are likely to see Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford become the highest paid under center in the NFL. This is the way the quarterback market works, and I don’t think Stafford’s contract is going to be the exception. There are going to be many fans that take issue with his upcoming contract. Not every Lions fan is sold on him as “the guy” to lead the Detroit Lions. Regardless of how you feel about Stafford, I think it is important to take a step back and think about what it would mean for the Lions to let Stafford walk away. A franchise quarterback is not easy to come by, and they do not come cheap.

In order to determine the difficulty it takes to land a franchise quarterback, we first have to define what a franchise quarterback is. This is no easy task, because every player is different, and every situation is different. The label implies an investment of a team. It implies a long-term relationship. A really good quarterback may be playing on a run-heavy team and never be the focal point of the offense. While that speaks more to the situation than the player, the team is not building itself around him. Players like this are more easily replaceable. To me, a franchise quarterback is a guy that is a focal point of the offense. He is also a guy who the team has committed itself to. With that in mind, I set benchmarks for quarterbacks across the league.

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A quarterback had to have started at least eight games in each of four years for his team. This indicates that a team has committed to their quarterback as a long term option. This also weeds out some of the players that had short-lived success as a starting quarterback. We saw this with Colin Kaepernick and RGIII. Statistically, I set the thresholds at 4,000 yards and 30 TDs. Quarterbacks can meet these marks at any point with their team. They do not need to meet both marks in the same season. While statistics alone do not account for a quarterback’s success, they do help identify the guys that are relied upon from a production standpoint. Quarterbacks are more valuable to teams that pass a lot. With these requirements, we have 12 quarterbacks that fit the mold of a franchise quarterback.

Name Team Year Drafted Pick Years w/ Team Pass Yards Pass TDs
Andrew Luck IND 2012 1 4 4374 40
Russell Wilson SEA 2012 75 5 4219 34
Andy Dalton CIN 2011 35 6 4293 33
Cam Newton CAR 2011 1 6 4051 35
Matt Stafford DET 2009 1 7 5038 41
Matt Ryan ATL 2008 3 9 4944 38
Aaron Rodgers GB 2005 24 9 4643 45
Philip Rivers LAC 2004 4 11 4710 34
Eli Manning NYG 2004 1 12 4933 35
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 2004 11 13 4952 32
Drew Brees NO 2001 4 11 5476 46
Tom Brady NE 2000 199 15 5235 50

There are some notable players that do not make this list that many people would consider to be premier quarterbacks. Winston, Prescott, Carr, Mariota come to mind. Whether they missed the list for their current lack of experience, or their lack of statistical success thus far, this list will change as players retire or as players continue to play at a high level.

Between 2004 and 2013 (the latest possible year a player on this list could be drafted), 10 quarterbacks have met the longevity requirements as well as the statistical thresholds in order to make this list. While we are not getting exactly one franchise quarterback per year, that is about the rate we can expect without any knowledge of an upcoming draft class. Some years have more talent than others. There are also years that not one quarterback finds success. Every year a handful of teams search for their quarterback, and every year some of those teams fail to find one. If the Lions were suddenly without Stafford as their franchise quarterback, we would become a part of this annual quarterback lottery. It’s possible this happens in a rare year filled with QB talent. If not, we could be waiting years for the next franchise quarterback to enter the NFL.

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Most NFL teams give their young quarterbacks at least a few years before they give up on them. Even with Goff’s struggles last year, the Rams will not be taking a first-round quarterback this year. We gave Joey Harrington four years before moving on. If the Lions joined the hunt for a new franchise quarterback, we would be looking at a few years before we had an understanding of what we had. The patience required for such a move is something that I’m sure would not excite Detroit Lions fans. As fans, we all want to see the team win now. None of us want to watch our quarterback struggle for three years before trying again. If the Lions moved on and missed on another rookie quarterback, we could be looking at another decade of struggles.

While there are a few quarterbacks that have had NFL success as middle or late round draft picks, these are certainly rare cases.  Of the 12 players on this list, nine of them are first round draft picks, and seven of them went in the top five. Dak Prescott, Tom Brady, and Russell Wilson are exceptions. Players like that are surprises to their teams. They were not originally drafted to jump into a starting role. Realistically, a Detroit Lions team without Stafford would be looking to take a quarterback in the first round. There are two scenarios where the Lions get a top five draft pick.

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The first, and more painful of the two is that we immediately fall back to among the five worst teams in the NFL, something that I’m sure Lions fans would not be excited for. Beyond the losses, we’d be looking at a coaching overhaul. There is even a chance the Lions would clean out the front office again. We once again lose our appeal to prospective free agents. In the end, we would likely lose many of the players we had considered building blocks.

The second scenario involves the Detroit Lions trading up to the top of the draft. Trading up for a quarterback is never cheap. We watched the Rams give up six quality picks to trade up for Jared Goff last year. Similarly, the Eagles gave up five picks to move up and select Carson Wentz. If the Lions moved on from Stafford and successfully avoided joining the cellar-dwellers at the bottom of the NFL, this is the type of deal we would be looking at to move up for a top QB. Every new deal for a top pick raises the standard for what those picks cost to acquire. The Lions would be hashing out serious draft capital to make a deal like this.

To put things in perspective, if we had made the deal the Eagles made last year, we would have missed out on Taylor Decker, Graham Glasgow, Miles Killebrew, our first round pick this year, and our second round pick next year. All three of those players were contributors this year, and both of those upcoming draft picks will have the potential to be important pieces moving forward. Lions fans have only seen one draft from Bob Quinn, but that one draft indicates that those draft picks are vital. The Lions are not a perfect team and have plenty of holes to fill. Losing the picks to help fill those holes would be detrimental.

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Beyond the struggles of acquiring a top draft pick, the rate of draft picks that successfully made this list is very low. Between 2004 and 2013, NFL teams have selected 28 quarterbacks in the first round of the NFL draft. Only eight of those players have made this list. Of those eight players, teams selected six of them in the first five picks of the NFL draft. While not all of the players who missed this list are considered unsuccessful quarterbacks, they have not yet shown themselves to be the consistent focal points of their team. The way the Lions are built right now, we need a quarterback that can be the focal point. Our offense revolves around the passing game. If we downgraded at quarterback, we would become a more run-oriented team. With our current struggles in the run game, I don’t think this excites anyone.

With such low success rates of highly-drafted quarterbacks, the Lions would very likely be looking at at least one failed quarterback before successfully finding the new leader of the offense. Given that we would likely give a rookie every chance to succeed before moving on, we might be looking at three to four years before we decided to take another shot at a new rookie quarterback.

More likely, unless picking in the top five, we are looking at another failed quarterback. That adds three to four more years to the already long rebuilding process. Suddenly the road back to success is looking like a long one.

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After all of this, let’s say the Lions find their quarterback. Maybe they found him right away, or maybe it took a few years. Maybe they had to spend a ton of draft picks to get him, or maybe not. He might be an immediate superstar. He might take a couple of years to develop. After all of this, his rookie contract comes to an end. Suddenly the Lions are faced with signing him to a league-leading deal. What do we do now? The market is always going up for a franchise quarterback. The cap increases, but so does the value of the quarterback position. Our new QB would likely want more than what we are looking to sign Stafford for now. Do we consider starting over again? Unlikely. We likely find ourselves in the same position we are now.

Is Stafford going to be the next highest-paid quarterback in the NFL? Very likely. Regardless of what you think of Matthew Stafford, there isn’t much to like about the prospect of starting over. From a draft capital standpoint, trading up to take a top quarterback is a nightmare. The Lions would be setting themselves back at more positions than quarterback. As a fan, I don’t want to see the Lions back at the bottom of the league, in a position to take that top quarterback without trading up.

Lions fans all want to see the team win. That is what has made Stafford so polarizing. He has all the talent in the world, but the Lions haven’t won anything. The disappointment is understandable. Everyone has a right to feel however they like about Matthew Stafford as the quarterback of the Detroit Lions, but it is important to look at what we are really talking about when we talk about letting him walk. Are we ready to watch the Detroit Lions start over again?

Thanks for checking out the article everyone. Go Lions! You can follow me on Twitter @Lanny1925 and be sure to join the community on the Detroit Lions subreddit.

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About the Author

Sean Lanigan
I love fantasy football, fantasy baseball, music, books, video games, and all things nerd. I'm a big football fan and a bigger Detroit Lions fan. I was born in Michigan but have spent the vast majority of my life living in Viking and Packer country. If you are a Lions fan in Minnesota, hit me up, and let's watch some football.