The Theory of Everything—an overarching hypothetical framework that explains all physical phenomena in our universe—is, for now, only a theory. Modern science has uncovered plenty about general relativity and quantum mechanics, but one, singular interconnecting force that links together everything in the universe remains only an idea. Impossible? Many, including the late Stephen Hawking, believe so. In the world of the NFL, however, the idea of everything being connected isn’t so implausible. Everything a team does has an impact on the league’s 31 other squads. Which brings us to the first domino of what’s set to be a league-altering offseason: Matthew Stafford’s trade from the Lions to the Rams.
Stafford’s jettisoning this offseason was predictable after the team and quarterback mutually agreed to part ways. Where Detroit sent him wasn’t. But the transaction will have ramifications for an NFL offseason that is on track for an extraordinary amount of quarterback movement. With that in mind, these are the five questions still lingering after the trade:
What does this mean for Deshaun Watson’s trade value?
If this wasn’t the first question that popped into your brain when the Stafford news broke, it was probably the second. Detroit’s haul was ostensibly a king’s ransom. The Rams traded away two future first-round picks, their third-round pick this year, and quarterback Jared Goff in exchange for only Stafford, a consistently above-average QB who turns 33 this month.
The Rams didn’t get fleeced, either—this was the market rate. Detroit reportedly had more than half a dozen suitors offering at least one first-round pick, and the Lions considered Los Angeles’s package to be the best. Per Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, the Panthers offered this year’s no. 8 pick (!!!) and a later-round selection; Washington offered this year’s no. 19 pick and a third-round choice; the Colts offered a package of picks and players, but not this year’s no. 21 pick; and the Broncos offered “a pick swap” equivalent to “a late-first-round pick.”
Stafford netting two firsts and Goff is a larger return than just about anyone expected, but not by much. If any team hoped to land Watson for a modest haul, that hope is long gone. Never before has a 25-year-old, top-five QB been traded. Never! And based on Texans GM Nick Caserio’s public stance of having “zero interest” in trading Watson, Houston presumably won’t part with him for anything less than a monstrous offer. (Which could be a surprise, considering that the Texans, under their previous regime, spent two offseasons getting swindled in trades.)
Watson’s market should have already commanded a minimum of three or four first-round picks, which would still be a bargain. This is why the Jets, Dolphins, and Jaguars are currently the Texans’ three most attractive trade partners, as my colleague Riley McAtee recently noted. Watson’s no-trade clause means he can veto any deal, so he’s not limited to those three teams. But any other team interested in acquiring Watson will have to pony up a lot to get him. All Stafford’s deal has done is warm up your “THEY TRADED HOW MUCH???” reactions.
What does this mean for the teams that lost the Stafford sweepstakes?
There were “seven or eight teams” bidding for Stafford, according to The Athletic’s Chris Burke. The Rams won. The teams whom Sports Illustrated reported to have varying interest were the Colts, Football Team, Panthers, 49ers, Patriots, Jets, Bears, and Broncos. A few of those teams need Stafford because they don’t have a returning starter; the others viewed him as an upgrade over their existing options. All of them will now have to look elsewhere this offseason.
Let’s start with the three on track to lose their 2020 starters to free agency or retirement: the Patriots, Football Team, and Colts. New England owns the highest pick of the three (no. 15) and is not expected to bring Cam Newton back after a one-year stint. But the Patriots’ draft pick is too low for the team to feel confident that it’ll be able to nab one of the top-three, non–Trevor Lawrence QB prospects. We’ll address the Niners momentarily, but would it really be crazy for New England and Bill Belichick, with their gobs of cap room, to buy low on Jimmy Garoppolo, whom San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan wasn’t committal toward at the end of the season? That could make sense. The Patriots will probably pursue a veteran after losing the Stafford race before it began. At this point in Belichick’s career, why would he want to develop a rookie over an immediate starting-caliber player?
Washington has the no. 19 pick and dangled it in front of Detroit in pursuit of Stafford. The Colts have the no. 21 pick and didn’t. Both teams are in similar positions, with excellent defenses and intriguing rosters—but major holes under center. Do their Stafford efforts reveal anything about how aggressive either will be in pursuing a QB option? Indianapolis was considered an initial odds-on favorite to land the longtime Lion after it was reported he wanted to leave Detroit, yet the Colts didn’t go all in to nab Stafford, who was one of the top three or four veteran QB options on the market. A Frank Reich–Carson Wentz reunion is still on the table. But it’s puzzling that Indianapolis wasn’t more aggressive.
The Football Team took its swing and missed, but just like the Patriots, it is in no-man’s-land when it comes to the draft’s best QB prospects. Plus, 36-year-old Alex Smith is their only QB under contract. Washington has an impressive core that could help the team compete sooner than later, but without a steady presence behind center, there’s a cap on what it can accomplish in 2021.
The pursuit of Stafford by the Broncos, Panthers, and Niners makes it clear that none of these teams believe they have their franchise signal-caller. Carolina offered the eighth pick to get Stafford instead of waiting to attempt to grab a QB in the draft or sticking with Teddy Bridgewater for another year. Denver likes its young core, but Drew Lock’s time there could be nearing its end after just his second season, which saw him lead the league in interceptions despite playing in only 13 games. And as previously mentioned, Shanahan isn’t committed to Garoppolo, who’s been injured too often to make a consistent difference, much less elevate the offense when healthy. Each of these teams has a QB that could be dealt to acquire assets in order to either move higher in the draft or deal for another starter, if a trade partner is willing to make a swap.
The Bears, meanwhile, “checked in” with Detroit, so they weren’t a serious candidate to get Stafford. That shouldn’t be too surprising, given the divisional rivalry between these two squads. But Chicago should be looking to move on from its harrowing QB situation; just like Washington and Indy, the Bears’ pick (no. 20) is too low in the first round to be used on a star QB prospect. Meanwhile, the Jets didn’t get far in Stafford talks either, nor should they have. New York realistically could pursue Watson or settle for either Ohio State’s Justin Fields or BYU’s Zach Wilson with the draft’s second pick.
What does this mean for the NFC West?
The NFC West might have been fool’s gold in some respects last season. Despite looking like the NFL’s toughest division for much of the year, only two teams from it made the playoffs and both were washed away by the divisional round. But the Rams have ensured they will once again be in the discussion for the crown. With Goff, L.A. had both the lowest floor and ceiling among the NFC West’s starting QBs. Now, Stafford offers a much higher-potential QB option and makes the Rams an NFC contender.
No team in the NFC West is in a deep rebuild or turning to a new head coach, something that can’t be said for any other NFL division. It’s an arms race, not only to make the playoffs, but to stand out as a potential Super Bowl–caliber team. The Rams, who defiantly keep trading away first-round picks, have extended their window for at least one more season by adding Stafford.
What does this mean for the other available QBs on the market?
ESPN’s Adam Schefter recently tweeted he’d bet the over on 18 teams changing QBs this offseason. Stafford is the first major domino to fall, but there are more on the horizon. The other top names available—Watson and the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott—are currently either locked in or could be given the franchise tag (again). That means everyone is competing for the leftovers, and the game of musical chairs could take some time to resolve.
Newton, Jacoby Brissett, Mitchell Trubisky, Nick Mullens, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameis Winston, Tyrod Taylor, Kyle Allen, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Mike Glennon, and Brandon Allen are all free agents this offseason. The 49ers, Broncos, and Panthers are not locked in to Garoppolo, Lock, or Bridgewater. It’s not clear yet whether the Eagles are sticking with Wentz. The Steelers are probably going to rework Ben Roethlisberger’s contract to keep him, but could also decide it’s time for an upgrade. Jets coach Robert Saleh has publicly given a vote of confidence to Sam Darnold, but there’s no guarantee that New York will continue with him. The only sure thing entering the offseason is that your favorite team won’t be acquiring Aaron Rodgers, because the Packers know it would be idiotic to let him go. There are a plethora of QB options, but there isn’t much clarity as to where most of them will go yet. It would not be shocking if most of the offseason’s quarterback moves occurred around the same time, because as teams begin to realize their options are limited, there’s pressure to make an acquisition to avoid completely missing out on the best available options. In comparison to the deals that will soon be made for some of the passers listed above, Stafford’s trade and Watson’s potential move are equivalent to Halley’s Comet; the other moves are a run-of-the-mill meteor shower—still astounding, but to a much lesser degree.
What does this mean for this year’s draft?
With Goff heading to Detroit, the Lions appear unlikely to use the no. 7 pick on a quarterback. If one of the top-four QB prospects—Lawrence, Fields, Wilson, and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance—falls beyond them, would that open the door for the Panthers (no. 8 pick), Broncos (no. 9), Giants (no. 11), or 49ers (no. 12)? Detroit could also add to its haul of draft picks by trading down from no. 7, especially if a team below them covets a quarterback that slips.
Additionally, without a typical offseason to evaluate other QBs such as Alabama’s Mac Jones (initially listed as Danny Kelly’s no. 32 prospect) and Florida’s Kyle Trask, teams may have a tougher time making sense of the QB prospects who aren’t already at the top of draft boards. Will teams determine it’s worth investing in a young signal-caller early when there are veteran options—even middling ones—who could be immediately plugged in? And will teams selecting top QBs determine they should thrust them into the game immediately or allow them time to develop? Stafford’s move to the Rams certainly plays a role in how the teams that missed out will approach the process.