The Lions are wise to get rid of 32-year-old Matthew Stafford ahead of what looks like an attempted teardown and rebuild. Whichever team acquires him via trade will also more than likely come out of this looking smart. In a case like this, where two teams can have such disparate needs, there can be a rare win-win situation. The Lions lost their chance to actually win with Stafford, having squandered years of talent and draft picks amid a flurry of coaches who ranged in skill from adequate to milquetoast all the way down to destructive imposter. So it goes in the NFL now, where, thankfully, it is no longer bad form for a quarterback and a team to mutually agree that their relationship is no more. Stafford, unlike some of the talented passers who came before him, doesn’t have to spend his entire career anchored to a sinking ship.
So let’s look forward. Last week we talked about potential landing spots for Deshaun Watson, and there will inevitably be some overlap here. There are a handful of clubs who view themselves as one Matt Stafford away from the Super Bowl. Those same clubs will undoubtedly be in on Stafford if they do not acquire Watson, or if Watson decides to make amends with his current franchise and pulls himself off the market (the latter of which would be great news for both Stafford and the Lions).
All NFL teams without a franchise quarterback interested in winning now, raise your hand!
1. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts need a quarterback after Philip Rivers's retirement. Frank Reich is a great quarterback-centric coach. The Colts aren't going to get a whiff at Deshaun Watson, as the Texans would never deal their franchise quarterback to a divisional opponent. Chris Ballard has shown in recent years that he is ready to convert from acquiring assets and building to spending assets and competing. I would view 2021 as an incredibly unique opportunity for the Colts to maximize this roster, seeing as the Jaguars will not be ready to win with Trevor Lawrence just yet and the Texans may be bottoming out entirely. Their No. 21 overall pick feels more than adequate*, or a package of their mid-round picks (pre-compensatory pick announcements they do not have additional ammunition and did not receive a compensatory pick for departed offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni). Stafford, who is departing the Lions due to his hesitation for enduring another rebuild, finds a comfortable situation with a great offensive line, running game and receiving corps, not to mention a defense that returns a lot of talent and its coordinator, Matt Eberflus. New offensive coordinator Marcus Brady, a former CFL standout at the position, is poised to be a rising star in coaching circles as well.
2. San Francisco 49ers
This feels somewhat like kismet for Kyle Shanahan, who can instantly elevate the roster with the addition of Stafford, a marked upgrade from Jimmy Garoppolo, who is still only 29 years old. The finances are not that complicated and the 49ers have additional compensatory draft picks thanks to the departure of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. They have a reasonably high first-round pick this year* and an additional fifth-round pick as well. From a cap perspective, this doesn’t feel that complicated. Stafford’s 2021 number is only slightly higher than the hollow, non-guaranteed number Garoppolo comes into 2021 carrying. Also, the mutual interest would likely be obvious. Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system has seeped its way into nearly half of the NFL teams now and there is a reason for this. His ability to make adequate quarterbacks good and good quarterbacks great is well known.
3. Washington Football Team
Martin Mayhew, the new general manager of the Washington Football Team, was also the general manager of the Lions during the brightest stretch of Matt Stafford’s career. Whether that relationship is still intact remains to be seen, but Washington has emerged as a promising roster with a great defense, good wide receivers and a head coach who can attract veteran talent (while limiting the nonsense). Washington has five picks in the top 115 for next year already and a handful of deals they can shed or rework to expand on their reasonable amount of cap space. I would count offensive coordinator Scott Turner as a draw, too.
4. New Orleans Saints
With the Lions having hired former Saints assistant head coach Dan Campbell, this situation all of a sudden becomes interesting. The Saints are going to struggle to come up with the draft capital in 2021 to make this move worth Detroit’s while (they could obviously dip into 2022 and beyond), but they have an incredibly talented roster and a head coach who represents the safest bet for Stafford if he’s looking to realize his potential. New Orleans would be one of the closest teams on this list to the Staffords’ collective home base(s) if the near future is a consideration. Also, Campbell may want some of his former players as foundational “locker room guys” in Detroit, which could help negate some of the trade capital issues on New Orleans’s end (as well as some potential cap issues). It will take a tremendous amount of cap navigation, but with Sean Payton ever the active recruiter, with footholds in both New Orleans and the Texas high school football factory that birthed Stafford, there is no counting out the Saints.
5. New England Patriots
Has the Cam Newton era, the rise of Buffalo and Miami and the success of Tom Brady outside of New England contributed to the Patriots falling down on any veteran quarterback’s wish list? The pros are always going to be the pros. Great offensive coordinator. Well-coached, cross-trained offensive line and, obviously, the best head coach in NFL history. New England will likely be returning some key defensive players from last year’s COVID opt-out list. The cons—a lack of receiving talent and a somewhat bizarre unwillingness to upgrade at the position in free agency—are also well known. The idea of replacing Brady with any other potential future Hall of Famer is probably a complicated one at best. The Patriots have the cap space and an unusually high first-round draft pick (for them) to add to the equation*. Matt Patricia’s retreat to New England will stand out as a fascinating subplot in all of this and could give us an indication of how well-liked Patricia really was in Detroit if Stafford is willing to keep away.
6. Denver Broncos
With a new general manager entering the fray in Denver and head coach Vic Fangio entering a pivotal third season as head coach, the Broncos may not be complacent and sit on their hands hoping that Drew Lock is the long-term answer—if you were a coach theoretically facing a win-or-else third season, would you stand pat with Lock?Complicating any Stafford-to-Broncos deal would be the fact that this division is ruled by the Chiefs and has a ton of defensive coaching talent (especially now with Brandon Staley in Los Angeles). Would Stafford view the Broncos as a linear move, frog hopping from one rebuilding team to another, or does he see the forest through the trees and properly weigh the Broncos’ ascending talent on the offensive line, at tight end and wide receiver?
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
I put the Steelers on both the Watson list and the Stafford list because the team is not in position to draft Ben Roethlisberger’s successor but may need to be flexible on that front as discussions around Roethlisberger’s future continue. As I noted in the Watson post, new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, one of the modern godfathers of dizzying backfield motion, should be an attractive draw for a quarterback as much as the solid offensive line and ascending star deep threats like Chase Claypool. From an organizational perspective, the Steelers also exhibit the kind of stability and efficiency that Stafford never had in Detroit.
8. Los Angeles Rams
Jared Goff’s deal is not a clean strip this offseason and the Rams are going to have to liquidate some serious cap space this offseason. In addition, they will not have a first-round pick until 2045 (thereabouts). That said, they could have some tradable assets attractive to Campbell. Sean McVay, obviously, is a draw for any quarterback. The end of Los Angeles’s season made it difficult to see a harmonious future, especially when McVay hit Goff with the dreaded coach legalese at the end of the season (he is our quarterback right now). If the Rams continue to shy away from a resource-replenishing rebuild in favor of maxing out their credit cards for a return push to the Super Bowl, Stafford is entirely sensible.
9. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers may want a quarterback even though Teddy Bridgewater played well last year. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady is an attractive running mate for any passer and the early returns on Matt Rhule have been positive. Could his hardcore recruiting mentality, along with the Panthers’ talented slate of receivers and backs, be enough to lure Stafford down south? It’s worth noting that Drew Brees is gone, Tom Brady is likely in the division for only another year and Matt Ryan is three years Stafford’s senior. There is a wide-open sweet spot in that division for a quarterback to come in right away and win.
10. New York Jets
If you were Robert Saleh, Deshaun Watson makes a great deal more sense than Matthew Stafford. Stafford is leaving a rebuild and would be taking a gigantic chance on an unproven Jets roster and their first-time head coach. There could be a mutual unease, though the Jets merit consideration on any of these lists due to their massive stock of draft capital and their trove of cap space, which could go a long way toward negating some of the current talent deficiencies on the roster.
*What would Stafford actually cost? Jay Cutler was moved for two first-round picks and a third-round pick. Carson Palmer was moved from Cincinnati to Oakland for a first-round pick and a conditional second that would become a first if Oakland had found playoff success (lol). The Chiefs got a third-round pick and a quality starter for Alex Smith. The Vikings traded a first and conditional fourth to the Eagles for Sam Bradford. The Smith trade is interesting for the market, knowing that Detroit plans on moving on for Stafford could the starting point in any negotiation actually be below a first-rounder, especially if some foundational players familiar with new head coach Dan Campbell were involved?