KANSAS CITY -- This is what I don't understand about the Matthew Stafford contract:
The Lions rewarded the Georgia quarterback with a six-year, $72 million contract that could escalate to $78 million by maximizing incentives; $41.7 million of the contract is guaranteed. And I simply don't understand why, in this era when teams and the league complain constantly about the size of rookie contracts and guarantees, that the Lions paid Stafford 16 percent more in annual guarantees than last year's top pick, tackle Jake Long, and a whopping 30 percent more in guarantees than the 2007 top pick, quarterback JaMarcus Russell. (Russell's average annual guarantee was $5.37 million, Long's $6 million, and Stafford's $6.95 million.)
It's absurd, really. It's a contract sure to rekindle the debate -- and it should -- over the whole issue of paying rookies stupid sums they haven't earned. We all know the washout factor for first-round quarterbacks is close to 50-50, and the Lions just made Stafford the highest-paid player, with the most guaranteed money, of any player in their history. And the league shouldn't expect the players association to lend a helping hand in getting teams out of this mess. Union boss DeMaurice Smith told me earlier this month he has no sympathy for the owners; he doesn't draft the players nor sign their checks, so why should he bail the owners out of their own excesses?
"What's the merit in this deal for Detroit, other than getting the deal done before the draft?'' said one capologist late Friday night. "Where was Stafford going? This was one time the team had real leverage on the player and just didn't use it.''
Stafford's agents, Tom Condon and Ben Dogra, had to know if Detroit didn't take Stafford, he might not be taken in the top 10. He could experience an Aaron Rodgers-like crash in the first round. And yet Condon/Dogra drove this contract to where they wanted it. It's mystifying. I think, deep down, the Lions knew they were going to take Stafford once coach Jim Schwartz fell in love with him finally after his on-campus workout at Georgia three weeks ago. And I think they wanted to play hardball, but in the end they felt if Stafford was their guy and they were going to sign him sometime before training camp, the record of Condon/Dogra was that the agents wouldn't cave, and a holdout would produce nothing but bad headlines for three months for a franchise that has set the NFL record for them. The Lions, in the end, threw their hands in the air, got the deal done, and moved on with their quarterback of the future ... they hope.
The deal points out how hard it's going to be for teams to draw lines in the sand and make players stay behind the line. In the span of five years, the guarantees and contract level for the top pick have doubled, from Eli Manning's $20 million to Stafford's $41.7 million. Every year the owners scream about it, and then every year the teams just go to the ATM and throw bigger increases at player than they should. It's amazing. In the worst economy of our lives, with the auto industry crumbling, the Fords have just signed off on the most excessive and mystifying deal I remember. They'd better hope Stafford is more Matt Ryan than Alex Smith.
Now for my Draft Day Five Things I Think I Think:
1. I think Mark Sanchez -- and his accountant -- are the happiest men in the world after the Stafford deal. If Sanchez goes in the top four, whoever picks him can just Xerox the six-year, $72 million deal Matt Ryan got at number three last year. Teams won't be able to negotiate Sanchez down because Stafford just got between $12 million and $13 million a year.
2. I think it's a longshot, but the Rams got a call Friday from a team between 12 and 17 -- I don't know which one, but my guess is Washington -- hoping to fashion a deal taking advantage of the fact the Rams won't want to pay an offensive lineman $11 million a year. I wouldn't expect a deal to get done, but I think the book on the top of the draft is the Chiefs aren't trading out, or down very far, and if you want to ensure getting Sanchez, you'll have to trade above number four and Seattle.
3. I think the top six goes something like this: Jason Smith number two to St. Louis, Tyson Jackson or Aaron Curry number three to Kansas City, Curry or Michael Crabtree to Seattle at four, Curry or B.J. Raji to Cleveland at five, Andre Smith or Raji to the Bengals at six.
4. I think no one trades into the top five, again, and then I think the real key pick becomes number eight. If Sanchez is on the board, Jacksonville is going to have the chance to trade down with someone, and the Jags, needy of many things other than just Eugene Monroe, should deal down for the best three-pick package it can get.
5. I think Tony Gonzalez catches 93 balls for Atlanta this year. Matt Ryan's going to love his hands, route-running and consistency.