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Which Matthew Stafford Landing Spot Makes the Most Sense?

The veteran quarterback and the Lions have mutually agreed to part ways. Now it’s a matter of finding the right fit—for all sides.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s difficult to imagine Matthew Stafford not wearing a Honolulu blue jersey and a silver helmet, but after 12 seasons, Stafford and the Detroit Lions have mutually agreed to part ways. Stafford, the no. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, is available via trade, adding an interesting name to an already intriguing QB market that is set to change the NFL’s competitive landscape.

A decade ago, Stafford gave Detroit hope that it could reverse its past half-century of bad luck, and while he didn’t capture an MVP or a Super Bowl—or even a single playoff win—he did give the Lions stability at quarterback for the first time in more than a generation. Stafford helped will the Lions to four winning seasons and three playoff appearances.

However, the Lions are coming off a 5-11 season that was highlighted by the firing of Matt Patricia in Week 12, and for the umpteenth time since drafting Stafford, the franchise is once again hitting reset. After three consecutive losing seasons and with a new regime on the way, Stafford reportedly approached the team about a trade. New head coach Dan Campbell and new general manager Brad Holmes were aware of Stafford’s intentions prior to accepting job offers from Detroit.

“Matthew Stafford is a stud,” Campbell told reporters during his blustering introductory presser. “One of the toughest quarterbacks you’ll ever see. Extremely talented, and I know he’s a team guy and I know he wants to win. I’ll leave it at that.”

Campbell’s assessment of Stafford is apt. Who could forget his rookie-season heroics, when he separated his non-throwing shoulder against the Browns and returned to throw a game-winning touchdown, which made him the youngest QB to ever throw five touchdowns in a single game? Stafford’s second season was halted three games in because of right shoulder surgery, and he returned to win 2011 AP Comeback Player of the Year. In 2016, he set the record for most fourth-quarter comebacks in a single season (eight) and dragged Detroit to its most recent playoff appearance. Stafford threw for 4,084 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions last season. He still has something to offer a team, and the Lions are expected to command at least one first-round pick in exchange for Stafford. In 2020, he finished 15th in expected points added per play (0.171) and fourth in air yards per attempt (8.9), but in the right system, Stafford’s potential can be fully realized.

The question now is where that system will be. Stafford, 32, has two years left on his contract, and whichever team acquires him will have to pay him $20 million in 2021 and $23 million in 2022. When the Lions trade him, they will lose $19 million in dead money. Here are some of the candidates who could take Stafford off their hands.

Indianapolis Colts

2021 QBs under contract: Jacob Eason
Assets: 2021 first-round pick (no. 21); $68.6 million projected cap space

Last week, the Colts lost Philip Rivers to retirement and are set to lose backup Jacoby Brissett to free agency. The 2021 draft class features four first-round-caliber quarterbacks, but none may be on the board by the time Indianapolis makes a selection at no. 21. According to Spotrac, the Colts are projected to have the second-most cap space in the league this offseason, and they should use it to find a signal-caller to direct their playoff-quality squad back to the postseason.

Indianapolis has intriguing receiving options, even if it loses star wideout T.Y. Hilton to free agency. Michael Pittman Jr. is coming off an impressive rookie season; veteran Zach Pascal has proved to be a solid receiver; and Parris Campbell, who suffered an MCL injury in Week 2 and didn’t appear again this past season, rounds out an intriguing unit that could work with Stafford. The Colts defense also finished seventh in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA ratings and is returning a majority of its starters, so Indianapolis’s dependable defense could make the Colts an enticing option for Stafford.

San Francisco 49ers

2021 QBs under contract: Jimmy Garoppolo, Josh Johnson
Assets: 2021 first-round (no. 12); $12.8 million projected cap space

Jimmy Garoppolo is the 49ers’ returning starter on paper, but San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan was noncommittal about the veteran QB when asked about his future in late December. “You can’t say anything with certainty,” Shanahan told reporters. “You don’t sit here and make promises on anything. When you build a football team, it’s your job to put the best team together, year in and year out.”

Since being acquired from the Patriots in 2017, Garoppolo has struggled to stay healthy, playing 10 games or more only once in the past three seasons. In 2020, he appeared in only six games, and the Niners went 3-3 in those contests. Meanwhile, Stafford—who struggled with durability early on in his career, and in 2019 appeared in just eight games—has started all 16 games in nine of his 12 NFL seasons. Availability is not the only thing that Stafford offers Shanahan’s offense: His arm talent and aggressiveness surpasses that of Garoppolo. Stafford could take San Francisco’s passing game, which boasts stars in tight end George Kittle and receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, to a new level. All of that, however, is contingent on whether or not Shanahan is comfortable jettisoning Garoppolo. Garoppolo will cost $26.2 million against the Niners’ cap, but the Niners would save $24.8 million of that if they cut him.

Washington Football Team

2021 QBs under contract: Alex Smith
Assets: 2021 first-round pick (no. 19); $32 million in projected cap space

Alex Smith has a phenomenal story. But the 36-year-old wasn’t impressive or very effective as Washington’s starter this season, nor was he able to stay consistently healthy throughout the year. The Football Team’s QB situation in 2020 was a mess as Smith, Dwayne Haskins (who was released), Kyle Allen (who was injured), and Taylor Heinicke each saw time behind center. Despite the carousel, Washington advanced to the playoffs, and even looked kind of competitive at times.

Imagine how legitimate that same team could be with Stafford. The Football Team boasted a dominant defense that finished third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings; Detroit finished dead last. Washington also features interesting offensive playmakers in tight end Logan Thomas, tailback Antonio Gibson, and receiver Terry McLaurin. If that’s not enticing enough, the Football Team just hired Martin Mayhew as its new GM—the same GM who drafted Stafford. Washington is lined up to have enough cap space to bring Stafford in, too.

Denver Broncos

2021 QBs under contract: Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien
Assets: 2021 first-round pick (no. 9); $16.8 million projected cap space

The Broncos must determine whether or not to continue to stick with Drew Lock as he enters his third season. The stunning breakout of the Bills’ Josh Allen may give fans encouragement to be patient for one more season, but the question is whether new Broncos GM George Paton feels that way. Lock completed 57.3 percent of his passes (35th among qualified starters) and had the NFL’s second-highest interception rate (3.4 percent). He finished 24th among passers in EPA (44.8) and 29th in QBR (48.9) this season. There’s a chance that Paton, who was with the Vikings from 2007 to 2020, is interested in Stafford after watching the veteran battle Minnesota for years. Perhaps if Paton is unimpressed by Lock, he considers moving for Stafford.

Denver holds the no. 9 pick in the draft, and could be positioned to select another young signal-caller to lead the offense. The Broncos, despite a 5-11 season, have a window of opportunity to compete right away. The team’s defense finished 13th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, and Denver has a couple of high-profile playmakers set to return from injury in 2021: star pass rusher Von Miller and wideout Courtland Sutton. The offense also features burgeoning talents in Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, making the Broncos’ vertical passing game a potential great fit for Stafford.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2021 QBs under contract: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins
Assets: 2021 first-round pick (no. 24); minus-$28.3 million projected cap space

The Steelers are in cap hell and Ben Roethlisberger will determine whether they get out this offseason. Roethlisberger is not the same big-armed passer he used to be—he averaged a measly 6.9 intended air yards per attempt this season, according to Pro Football Reference. That’s down from 7.8 in 2018 and 9.3 in 2019. His unraveling against the Browns in the wild-card round was proof that he’s Pittsburgh’s biggest issue going into the offseason.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin left the door open earlier this month when addressing Big Ben’s future with the franchise, telling reporters, “I don’t have a clear assessment of the overall depth of the cap ramifications, but I think it’s reasonable to assume there’s a chance [Roethlisberger will] be back, certainly.” In the event he isn’t, Stafford would be a viable option. But only if Roethlisberger decides to move on.

New Orleans Saints

2021 QBs under contract: Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian
Assets: 2021 first-round pick (no. 28); minus-$105.1 million projected cap space

The Saints are somehow miles and miles deeper into cap hell than the Steelers and the rest of the NFL. Drew Brees is likely retiring and Jameis Winston is entering free agency. New Orleans might have gone 3-1 with Taysom Hill starting behind center, but it would make sense for the Saints to seek a more proven future starter. And with the squad built to contend now, it would make sense to consider landing a veteran QB.

But, yeah, that cap situation simply might be too ugly for this to become a legitimate conversation. I’m not even sure how the Saints managed to get more than $100 million over the cap—or how they get back under it. Though if the cap wizards in New Orleans can make it happen, Stafford playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome would be a fun sight to see.