While Tom Brady has led his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to a Super Bowl appearance, his old one is still trying to figure out what to do at the most important position on the field. The New England Patriots need to find a quarterback after a 2020 season that saw starter Cam Newton struggle to consistently move the ball through the air.
Newton was not the only issue the Patriots had on offense — his supporting cast was a major problem as well — but the team still needs to upgrade the position, either by surrounding the veteran with better talent or by bringing somebody else on board to take over the starting role in 2021 and beyond. Both options appear to be on the table at the moment, but the latter in particular is interesting after a disappointing 2020 campaign.
The Patriots have the ammunition to invest a draft pick in a quarterback, even though they likely would have to trade up to get one of the top prospects. Alternatively, however, they could look at the veteran market either in free agency or through a trade. One name that recently entered the discussion there is Matthew Stafford, who is reportedly on his way out after 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions.
According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, the Lions “plan to begin discussing trade options in the coming weeks for their star quarterback” after he expressed a desire for a fresh start.
The situation is a fluid one, but the Patriots should be in the running for every upgrade they can get at quarterback given their uncertain outlook at the moment. With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper.
Stafford’s fit in New England
Despite quarterbacking some terrible teams during his time in Detroit, Stafford has been highly productive ever since the Lions invested the first overall selection in him during the 2009 draft. Playing in a 165 regular season games and three additional playoff contests, he has combined to complete 3,972 of 6,341 pass attempts for 46,017 yards as well as 286 touchdowns and 147 interceptions. Few quarterbacks in the league have produced at a similar volume as him over the last 12 seasons.
Based on numbers alone, Stafford would be an intriguing addition to the Patriots but there obviously are more factors to consider. So, how about his fit with the team? Let’s ask Pats Pulpit’s resident quarterback expert, Mark Schofield, who said the following about him on the latest episode of The Scho Show:
Is Stafford worth signing? In my mind, absolutely. For my money, he’s one of the elite talents at the position. He’s someone I wanted to see in New England for a long time and getting him into this offense even as it’s currently constructed makes it a better offense; certainly makes it a better passing offense than what we saw in 2020.
As for Stafford’s fit with the Patriots, Mark was pretty straight forward:
Stafford can run any offense under the sun. He’s been in more vertical systems, he’s been in more horizontal systems, he’s been in more of a Erhardt-Perkins system. The terminology, yeah, there will be a learning curve, but he can do it. I’m not worried about Stafford from a mental standpoint.
Stafford has played under three different head coaches and four different offensive coordinators during his time in Detroit, so he has seen quite a few philosophical changes during his time in the NFL. Moving to New England would just be the latest but as Mark notes nothing that the 32-year-old cannot overcome. He would fit well into a Patriots offense that always is trying to build around the strengths of the personnel available.
Sure, the 2021 offense would look different than the 2020 version and its focus on running the ball. Considering that we are living in the golden age of passing, and the ability to successfully move the ball through the air is paramount if a team wants to play productive offense, this change would be worth it.
In August 2017, Stafford signed a five-year, $135 million contract extension with the Lions that is still the basis on which he is playing. He did, however, restructure the deal in 2019 to create additional cap space by converting parts of his salary and roster bonuses into a signing bonus. Given that the team also tagged a void year to the end of the deal, Stafford’s current deal runs through the 2023 season.
That void year plus other aspects of his contract — see: signing bonuses — do not matter in case he gets traded or released, however. All that would matter from the Patriots’ perspective is Stafford’s remaining salaries and roster bonuses.
Those are all pretty reasonable for a player of his quality.
If New England brought him aboard, the team would take on Stafford’s base salaries of $9.5 million and $12.5 million in 2021 and 2020, respectively. Additionally, he would also be on the books with a $10 million roster bonus due on the first day of the new league year both in 2021 and 2022 as well as workout bonuses of $500,000 in each of the two years left on his contract.
Accordingly, Stafford’s salary cap hits the next two seasons would look as follows:
- 2021 (age 33): $20 million
- 2022 (age 34): $23 million
While those numbers are substantial, they still present good value for a potential top-10 starting quarterback in the league. On top of it, there also is the chance to lower those numbers by restructuring the two years remaining on his current pact as part of a contract extension. The Patriots, who are expected to be around $60 million under the salary cap this year depending on where it is ultimately set, would have the financial potency to make all of this work.
Stafford will turn 33 next month, but that does not mean the Lions won’t command some proper compensation to trade away the face of their franchise. He has shown no signs of slowing down, after all, and is playing a position that is not as dependent on physical skill as others. Furthermore, as noted above, Stafford is also under a rather reasonable contract for any team to take on.
Putting all of this into account, Detroit could very well decide not to move Stafford for anything below a first-round draft pick.
There is precedent, after all, when it comes to moving quarterbacks on contract extensions that have been picked first overall: Carson Palmer was traded from the Cincinnati Bengals to the then-Oakland Raiders for first- and second-round selections in 2011; Alex Smith was moved from the San Francisco 49ers to the Kansas City Chiefs for what later turned into two second-round picks in 2013 and 2014.
The situations were a bit different at the time, though. Palmer was on the verge of retiring after three disappointing seasons before finding new life after a trade; Smith had lost his starting position to Colin Kaepernick and had no future in San Francisco. Stafford, meanwhile, is still playing at a high level and is capable of taking over the QB1 role and producing proper results.
The Patriots might therefore have to part ways with the 15th overall selection in this year’s draft in order to get Stafford aboard.
They would still have plenty of picks available — New England is projected to get three compensatory selections to bring the number of total picks up to nine excluding No. 15 — but getting an established passer on a reasonable deal might still be worth it. After all, Stafford is expected to produce better immediate results than a rookie.
Furthermore, acquiring him via trade as opposed to an open-market bidding war in case he gets released would also not hurt the Patriots’ own compensatory formula for 2022.
Assessing the market
The question is not just if the team would be willing to part with that pick, possibly passing on the opportunity to select a quarterback of the future on a cost-efficient de fact five-year deal, but also who else is in the running for both Stafford’s services and a quarterback in the first round of the draft.
Starting with the latter category, there are a handful of teams that stand out who could all go after passers in Round One of the draft before New England is slated to be on the clock:
1-1: Jacksonville Jaguars
1-2: New York Jets
1-4: Atlanta Falcons
1-7: Detroit Lions
1-9: Denver Broncos
1-12 San Francisco 49ers
All those teams might fight for the top passers available, leaving New England in a less-than-ideal position to get a premier prospect at the quarterback position in this year’s draft without moving up the board. This could create a scenario in which the team might look to invest that pick in another capacity.
As for the teams competing for Stafford, the list also is a long and prominent one.
While the Jaguars, Jets, Falcons and, for obvious reasons, Lions would likely not be in on the Stafford sweepstakes, the Broncos and 49ers just might be. Add playoff-caliber teams like the Indianapolis Colts — who made a similar move last year when they signed Philip Rivers after his contract with the Los Angeles Chargers had expired — and maybe even Pittsburgh Steelers, and you get what projects to be a healthy market for Stafford’s services.
Would pick number 15 get the job done from the Patriots’ perspective, or would they need to add more to sweeten a potential deal? That is the question, and not the only one.
The open questions
Putting aside everything we have already talked about, there are other questions left to be answered:
- Would Stafford, for example, be willing to join the Patriots after unsuccessfully having worked with their long-time coordinator Matt Patricia (who has just returned to New England in an assistant role)?
- How does he view the team’s supporting cast, or at least its plans to bolster it, compared to what other clubs can offer?
- Do the Patriots see better value in going after other bridge-quarterbacks like Ryan Fitzpatrick, or maybe keeping Cam Newton around?
We will get some answers over the coming weeks and months, but one thing we already know: Matthew Stafford will be a highly sought-after passer considering how well he played even while part of some bad Lions teams. He is still a player capable of performing at an elite level, and one that would make a lot of teams better right after his arrival. The Patriots are one of them.
Would you trade a first-round pick for Matthew Stafford?
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