The Patriots can't wait until the draft this spring to address the most important position on the roster. If they do they may feel backed into a corner, forced to get aggressive and move up for a quarterback or wait and see what falls their way. Seems stressful.
Bill Belichick would benefit from the flexibility he'd gain in adding a quarterback who can play well before draft weekend. But if he goes shopping for a veteran quarterback when the new league year begins in March, who'll be sitting there on the shelf staring back at him?
There will be free agents. But the more attractive options may be trade candidates. And one of the flashiest of that second group would be Matthew Stafford.
The Lions quarterback remains under contract with the Lions for the next two seasons -- he has a third year tacked on for salary-cap bookkeeping purposes -- but he's scheduled to make real money in that time with $33 million and $26 million cap hits in 2021 and 2022. Could the Lions really get rid of him?
Well, yeah. Multiple reports on Saturday night made it clear that Stafford and the Lions would not be moving forward together with their marriage of the last dozen years. The Lions will be open to accepting trade offers for their franchise quarterback in the coming days.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
If and when the Lions decided to trade Stafford in March, they would have to eat $19 million in dead money on their cap since that's what remains on his contract for prorated bonus dollars. But they'll would pick up $14 million in cap space to play with.
With the extra cap space they'd receive by dealing Stafford, and with the No. 7 overall pick in April, the Lions could start fresh with one of the top-four quarterbacks in this year's draft in an effort to make their roster younger and cheaper. If the cap falls to $175 million next season, the Lions are currently scheduled to have less than $5 million in cap space. Eating Stafford's dead money would leave a sour taste, but they'll pick up a little extra room and rip off the financial band-aid in the name of a long-term rebuild under new coach Dan Campbell.
Campbell didn't rule out drafting a quarterback in his introductory press conference, but he also had nothing but nice things to say about the 33-year-old quarterback already on the roster.
“Here’s what I’d say about Matthew, is man, he’s a stud,” Campbell said. “He is one of the toughest quarterbacks you’ll ever see. He’s extremely talented. I know he’s a team guy. And, listen, I know he wants to win. So I’ll leave it at that, that’s what I do know.”
WOULD PATS FIND IT FEASIBLE?
Now let's look at a potential Stafford deal from a Patriots perspective. Start with the money. If traded, the Patriots would take on Stafford's very manageable base salaries of $9.5 million and $12.5 million over the next two years. Stafford is also owed a $10 million roster bonus on the first day of the new league year in 2021 and 2022 as well as workout bonuses of $500,000 in each year.
If Stafford earned all that money in 2021, he'd likely be a middle-of-the-road quarterback both from a cash-spent and cap perspective. Matt Ryan made $20.5 million in cash last season, which put him 15th in the NFL, per Over The Cap. Alex Smith's cap number was $20.3 million last year, which was 15th in the league.
There would also have to be trade compensation headed back to the Lions, and there's an interesting comp out there from just a few years ago when a 33-year-old No. 1 overall pick was dealt. When the Chiefs traded away Alex Smith to Washington, they got a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller. At the time, Fuller was Washington's starting nickel corner and going into his third professional season. He had some value.
Smith was coming off of a 4,000-yard, 26-touchdown, five-pick season in 2018 with a yards-per-attempt figure of 8.0. Stafford had a remarkably similar stat line in 2020, with 4,000 yards, 26 touchdowns, 10 picks and a yards-per-attempt number of 7.7.
While Smith had just one year left on his deal and Stafford has two, their respective ages and ability levels make that Smith trade a fairly good place to start. Would the Patriots have to give up a third-round pick and a player? A second-rounder? That feels reasonable, though there are a number of quarterback-needy teams this offseason, which could jack up the cost to land Stafford.
If they figured out a way to pull it off, the Patriots would have a clear-cut starting-caliber player on their hands at a very reasonable rate. Plus, they'd have two years of control, which might be attractive in that it would not force them to hit fast-forward on their search for a rookie quarterback this offseason.
CAN HE PLAY?
While Stafford missed half of the 2019 season, he played all 16 games in 2020 and did not miss a game between 2011 and 2018. He's widely regarded as one of the toughest players at his position and he'd have a couple of quick allies in the Patriots locker room in fellow Georgia Bulldogs David Andrews (if Andrews re-signs as a free agent), Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel.
Stafford ranked 14th in expected points added per play in 2020, 12th in success rate, and he was fourth in the NFL with 8.9 air yards per attempt. He was eighth in yards per attempt (7.7) and 14th in quarterback rating (96.3).
For a team in need of an infusion of young talent, trading away a second-round pick for Stafford might not seem all that palatable. But he's been durable for the vast majority of his career, he remains productive even into his 30s, and any team acquiring him would have him for a couple of years on a cost-effective deal.
If the Patriots are looking to make a massive improvement at the most important position on their roster ahead of draft weekend, they could do much worse. They'll just have to be willing to pay up with a valuable pick when hitting on the valuable picks they have seems like a priority.