The 2021 NFL offseason starts now, at least in the hearts and minds of Broncos Country. With the hated division-rival Kansas City Chiefs set to play in their second consecutive Super Bowl led by the inhuman Patrick Mahomes against the Tampa Bay Tom Bradys, a worse outcome could hardly have been imagined to cap off what has been a frustrating calendar year.
For the Denver Broncos, while the Super Bowl won’t kick off until February 7, the offseason is already in full swing.
The Broncos wasted no time in kicking things off with bang. Coming off of a fifth-straight year missing the postseason, the call for continuity was quickly squashed as Broncos legend John Elway stepped down as general manager and George Paton was hired to succeed him.
While Paton has preached that drafting and developing will be the lifeblood of the organization under his watch, he has also stated that with him in charge, the team would be involved in every potential deal.
One potential 'deal' the Broncos are being linked to is the acquisition of quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford, who will turn 33 in a week's time, is the former No. 1 overall pick out of Georgia in 2009. While the Detroit Lions have not had much team success during his tenure, he has annually been one of the better statistical quarterbacks, keeping a consistently outmanned Lions team in games where they were outmatched.
Of course, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers were the largest roadblock keeping Stafford and the Lions from contending, but also the Lions never seemed to be able to develop that good defense while the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings were able to which allowed them to compete with Rodgers in the NFC North.
It’s become a running joke how the Lions were never able to build a capable running game during Stafford’s tenure in the Motor City.
It can easily be argued the reasons things didn’t completely fall apart in Detroit over the past few years is because of the talent and play of Stafford. Despite his best efforts, the Lions just can’t seem to get out of the way of their own inept reputation. The Lions have reportedly agreed to let Stafford seek a trade and will presumably begin fielding offers. Stafford will be gone.
If Vegas' odds are improving for Stafford to wind up in Denver, people should pay attention. Vegas wasn’t built by losing money. Denver is likely interested in Stafford and they very well may trade for him before the offseason is over and now, according to SportsBetting.com, the Broncos are the odds-on favorite to land him.
A Contract Denver can Live With
Even despite Drew Lock finishing the 2020 campaign on a statistical upward trend, there appears to be growing momentum for the Broncos landing Stafford this offseason. Sporting an extremely palatable contract with a $20 million cap hit in 2021 and a $23 million dollar cap hit in 2022, Stafford will be just the seventeenth highest-paid quarterback next season on a short-term deal.
Also while 33 is not 'young', it’s much younger than the quarterbacks that played this past Sunday in the NFC Championship — Aaron Rodgers at 37 and Tom Brady at 43 (43?! How is that even possible?) can easily serve as the argument for Stafford having 3-to-5 great seasons left, and could play beyond that. For context, Stafford is the same age as Russell Wilson. Is Wilson too old?
Stafford will not completely close the gap between the Broncos and the Chiefs alone. It will take an equal helping of great decisions and luck for Denver to contend with Mahomes for the next decade-plus, but the first step is rostering a quarterback capable of giving you a chance.
Lock Isn't There Yet
Could Lock be that guy? Maybe one day, but he wasn’t in 2020. Furthermore, Lock is at the bottom of enough statistical categories this season that Paton would be remiss to not explore avenues to improve the position.
This is further true when analyzing the roster. The only way this Broncos offense can get substantially better given the amount of talent and resources already invested on that side of the ball is if the quarterback plays better.
Sure, getting Courtland Sutton back will be big, figuring out the right tackle position is going to matter, and everyone growing a year older and better is important, but in the end, the biggest difference this offense can make this offseason is improved play at the quarterback position — Lock or not.
With Lock, the Broncos go into 2021 with the fourth-best quarterback in the AFC West, but with Stafford, the team would be in the conversation for the second-best. Las Vegas' Derek Carr has had some up-and-down seasons and definitely belongs, but he isn’t obviously better than Stafford and while L.A.'s Justin Herbert had an incredible rookie season, he had some outlier statistics (such as his accuracy under pressure) that tend to fluctuate wildly season-to-season. Herbert has the goods and is likely a franchise quarterback, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see some statistical regression in 2021.
A Base Familiarity
The Stafford-to-Denver connection also gains merit given the Broncos' current regime is littered with staffers that used to work in the NFC North. With Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell’s history with the Bears and Pat Shurmur and Paton’s past with the Vikings, Denver has many higher-ups that would have a pretty good idea of what the Broncos would be getting in trading for Stafford. It's said that the NFL is a 'who you know' league, and connections like this can influence decisions.
Speaking of Fangio, while Paton will be the man who makes the final decision, it would make sense that the Broncos head coach would be very much interested in Stafford. After two more down than up seasons, Fangio is on the hot seat entering the 2021 season.
While it can be argued Fangio may want all the draft capital and cap space possible to find guys he wants for the defense for a make-or-break season, I think it’s even more likely he would prefer to bring in a known quantity and value at the quarterback position so he can worry less about that side of the ball and focus more on what he knows best; coaching defense.
Sidebar: Stafford Wouldn't Necessarily Doom Lock
While many who believe in Lock will believe obtaining Stafford likely means the end for Drew in Denver, that is not necessarily the case. Given the requisite arm talent and athleticism Lock possesses, he could still develop into a good NFL quarterback.
Lock is also incredibly cheap on his rookie contract, costing about $2 million per season against the cap the next two years. As long as he has the maturity to not be a locker room issue following a hypothetical addition of Stafford, I honestly would argue it makes more sense to keep Lock.
Lock has shown he can start in this league and the Broncos likely won’t find an equitable return on him this offseason via trade. He has more value as the backup with youth, tools, and developmental upside than flipping him just to flip him.
Talent Just Waiting to be Capitalized On
One final aspect that likely cannot be overstated in trading for Stafford is his potential effect on the entire Broncos offense. While not likely to the extent of going from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning, the development of Demariyus Thomas, Eric Decker, and Julius Thomas under the watchful eye and grueling demands of the five-time NFL MVP was a giant difference-maker for the respective careers of those three players (and earnings).
With the 2021 Broncos have so much youth at the pass-catcher positions in Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Noah Fant, and Albert Okwuegbunam, obtaining a veteran to help grow this cache of young receiving options could have long-term effects on the overall health of the team. Much like Tampa Bay's offense this season, Denver's offense has the pieces in place to have a veteran come in and explode the following season.
Cost to Acquire can be Absorbed
In the end, the Broncos are in the driver's seat on whether or not they want to pursue Stafford. Holding the No. 9 overall pick in April's draft, a high second-, a high third-rounder, and a few tradable receivers, it would be hard for the Indianapolis Colts or San Francisco 49ers to beat Denver in a bid.
The question then comes down to how valuable the Lions believe Stafford is and how much Paton and the Broncos are willing to give up. Is it a first-rounder and multiple Day 2 picks like some have suggested or is it two seconds like Peter King floated? In due time we will find out.
There is no such thing as a perfect roster in the NFL. There will always be holes and positions that are not as strong as they could be. That is the nature of the NFL.
Teams will still try to craft as talented and complete of a depth chart as possible but inevitably some signings will flob, picks will bust, and players will get dinged. The easiest way to compete with that attrition is having an unquestioned franchise quarterback under center.
Stafford is obtainable, won’t cost that much on the cap, and would give the Broncos a 5-to-8 year window potentially to compete with a quarterback good enough to win a lot of games. If the cost to acquire is palatable, Stafford-to-Denver makes a heck of a lot of sense and no one should be shocked if it does indeed come to fruition.
Stafford would come in on day one and raise the Broncos’ floor, open up a window to contend for the playoffs again, and give Denver a shot for the next half-decade with the quarterback position finally having some stability and a proven talent under center.
Stafford would give Fangio a better shot to keep his job, likely leading the Broncos to a better outcome in 2021 than any other likely alternative. Stafford would also give Paton flexibility and time to find an heir at the quarterback position over the next two years of Stafford’s contract (if not beyond).
Adding Stafford may feel like a 'win now' move on the surface, but in reality, it could be Paton fulfilling Elway's philosophy ever since Manning rode off into the sunset and set up the Broncos to 'win now and from now on.'