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2021 NFL Preview: After Rams trade, we'll finally find out how good Matthew Stafford is

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Football is a team sport. Quarterbacks are not solely responsible for wins and losses. Assigning a quarterback a personal record is foolish. 

And yet, Matthew Stafford's career doesn't really align with what the Los Angeles Rams paid for him. The Rams are hoping that's due to the Detroit Lions being the Detroit Lions. 

Stafford started 165 games for the Lions. Detroit was 16 games under .500 in his starts. Stafford started three playoff games in 12 seasons. The Lions lost all three. Maybe no other quarterback could lift the Lions, who have won one playoff game since 1957. But Stafford showed he couldn't. 

To read the excited reaction the day the Rams made the biggest trade of the offseason (pending whatever happens to Deshaun Watson), Stafford would have been a Hall of Famer anywhere else. The Rams were instant Super Bowl contenders after the trade. Stafford was an MVP candidate in a better environment. Nobody could have known there were so many secret Stafford fans in the world. 

The Rams paid heavily for what a lot of people believe is a huge upgrade from Jared Goff. The Rams traded two future first-round draft picks, a 2021 third-round pick and Goff to Detroit. 

Here's what Stafford's resume says: One Pro Bowl in 12 seasons, never led the NFL in anything other than completions (once) and attempts (twice), and an 89.9 career passer rating. Goff has a 91.5 career passer rating. Derek Carr is 92.1. Teddy Bridgewater is 89.5. That's not elite company. Stafford also turned 33 this year. 

Watching games matters, and that's how we know Stafford is better than the stats say. Stafford has had some stretches of very good play. He is a coach's dream, a player who can make every throw with his prodigious arm. He's tough and gets good reviews as a leader. It's not hard to figure out why Rams GM Les Snead and coach Sean McVay made a big move to land Stafford, who wanted out of Detroit before another rebuild started. 

It's not just Stafford whose legacy is on the line. This is a major move for Snead and McVay, who have done a fine job changing the Rams' trajectory. They felt they reached the end of the line with Goff, who they should not have extended for $134 million (they should have traded him for picks and started over, but NFL teams aren't that brave). By the end of last season, it seemed that the Rams made the decision to voluntarily start unknown John Wolford over Goff, until Wolford got hurt himself. 

The Rams believe Stafford is a major upgrade, based on what they paid to get him. With that, there will be heightened expectations. And the Rams have already won a lot. If the Rams don't at least get back to a Super Bowl with Stafford, who they believe is better than his one Pro Bowl and sub-90 passer rating indicate, it won't look good. 

The Rams might not need Stafford to be an MVP candidate. They have good receivers in Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, and a potential Pro Bowl tight end in Tyler Higbee. The defense has two of the best players in the NFL, defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The defense finished No. 1 in the NFL last season, though coordinator Brandon Staley moved on to coach the Chargers and defensive success is less likely to repeat than success on offense. A season-ending Achilles injury to running back Cam Akers in July is a blow, but it seems like one the Rams can absorb. This would have been a playoff contender with Goff at quarterback, and maybe more with Stafford. 

Even though Stafford won't be the only reason the Rams succeed or fail, it might feel that way. Quarterbacks don't find themselves in mega-trades too often. McVay has been hyped as one of the best offensive coaches in the NFL, a wunderkind who transformed the NFL. Those who fell over themselves to praise Stafford and the trade right after it happened envision the strong-armed quarterback finding an entirely new level with the best offensive coach he's played for, and simply being free of the Lions' chronic losing. 

We'll find out. 

Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, left, talks to quarterback Matthew Stafford. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, left, talks to quarterback Matthew Stafford. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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It's hard to grade the Matthew Stafford trade. There's little doubt he's an upgrade over Jared Goff. Is it a big enough upgrade that it's worth two first-round draft picks and a third? Stafford needs to be a top 8-10 NFL quarterback for that price to be worth it, and it's fair to wonder if Stafford can be that player. 

The Rams, who like trading first-round picks and giving out big contracts, lost significant talent in the offseason: safety John Johnson, outside linebacker Samson Ebukam, cornerback Troy Hill, defensive end Morgan Fox and tight end Gerald Everett. All of those players got at least $4 million per season from their new teams. Los Angeles also traded defensive lineman Michael Brockers to the Lions in a deal separate from the Stafford trade. The biggest addition the Rams made was receiver DeSean Jackson, who signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal. Jackson will turn 35 this season, has played only eight games the past two seasons due to injuries and hasn't played a full 16 games since 2013. The Rams had just one top-100 pick due to trades and used it on undersized receiver Tutu Atwell, who weighed 149 pounds before the draft. The quarterback upgrade is significant, but the Rams paid a lot for it and the rest of their offseason wasn't good. 

Grade: B-

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How is Matthew Stafford fitting in? His coach, Sean McVay, told SI's Albert Breer, "this dude’s a bad MF-er."

“Whatever people say about him, as good as it can be, he’s even better than advertised," McVay told SI. "It makes sense to him. The guy’s ability to see the game, his ability to draw on his experiences, the feel that he has, it’s pretty special and unique. And man, his feel for people, his authentic way of connecting with his teammates, his coaches, this guy, it’s great being around him.”

Stafford has been praised by teammates already. He's just trying to find how to fit in, having switched teams for the first time in his NFL career. 

"It takes some time to figure out what makes guys tick, and I just enjoy competing, getting out there with these guys," Stafford said, according to the team's site. "But the biggest thing is just be myself, let those things happen, and understand that there's been a high standard of success here and really quarterback play, as well, so I've got to come in here in do my part."

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The Rams' win total at BetMGM is a lofty 10.5. It's hard for me to take the over whenever it gets that high, and I'll lean under on the Rams. A lot more can go wrong in a season-long future bet than can go right. Given that the NFC West has some tough competition, maybe the best value bet is to fade the Matthew Stafford optimism and take the Rams to not make the playoffs at +150. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "A narrow passing tree can be your best friend in fantasy, and the Rams should have one in 2021. Robert Woods (ADP: 49.1) and Cooper Kupp (ADP: 56.8) are both affordable in early Yahoo drafts, and there isn’t much chasing them in this offense.

"Third receiver Van Jefferson has an ADP outside 200, and the Rams have already lost their bell-cow running back, Cam Akers. Tight end Tyler Higbee has his own sleeper case, but his upside isn’t as high as Woods or Kupp. Add in some Matthew Stafford, mix well.

"The Rams box score should be tidy, and fruitful, in 2021. Sometimes boring veterans prove to be profitable fantasy assets, and this offense is providing two perfect candidates."

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Every year, Pro Football Focus ranks all NFL players. For five straight years, Aaron Donald ranked No. 1. He led the NFL with 98 quarterback pressures last season, according to PFF, and is also the top-graded run defender among interior linemen over the past three seasons. And Donald is doing it all while being double-teamed at a far, far higher rate than any other defensive lineman, as shown by this chart from ESPN's Seth Walder: 

Donald is the best defensive player in the game today, he is probably the best player period and it's not crazy to start wondering if he's the best ever defensive player. He has been that dominant. 

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How much does the Cam Akers injury hurt the Rams? 

Akers was fantastic late in his rookie season. He emerged as a true No. 1 back as the Rams rode him down the stretch. He played 96 percent of the offensive snaps in a divisional round game against the Packers. Akers entered 2021 with the chance to become one of the best backs in the game. Then Akers tore his Achilles right before training camp. 

The Rams will go back to Darrell Henderson as their top running back, and likely look into adding a veteran since Malcolm Brown is off to Miami. Henderson has had stretches of good play but has had more than 15 carries in a game only once (he did rush for 114 yards that game) and is looking more like a part of a committee rather than a lead back. 

Running backs are easier to find than practically any other position, but that doesn't mean the offense won't miss Akers. Akers had a few huge games late in the season that showed he can carry an offense. Without him, more stress goes to Matthew Stafford and the passing game. 

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It's not like all of the post-trade optimism was totally unfounded. Matthew Stafford could win an MVP and the Rams could win the Super Bowl. If Jared Goff was just a below-average quarterback propped up by Sean McVay's system, Stafford could thrive. There's a realistic scenario in which the Rams are a top-five offense and a top-five defense. The Rams paid big for Stafford. There was a reason for that. 

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The Rams' devil-may-care attitude toward first-round picks is fascinating, and it is also risky. What if Stafford is basically the same quarterback he was in Detroit? There's nothing wrong with Stafford's career, but that wouldn't be a massive upgrade worth all the picks the Rams gave up. Los Angeles plays in a tough division and could easily finish third. Maybe fourth if the Arizona Cardinals take a big step. By the end of the year, we could wonder why the Rams paid so much for Stafford when there was a long track record of him being a good-not-great quarterback. 

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I think the Matthew Stafford trade works out, to a degree. I don't believe he'll be a top-five QB this season, but he will be better than Jared Goff. The defense will regress a bit without Brandon Staley, but it will still be a solid unit. I like another team in the NFC West a little more, but the Rams can settle nicely into a wild-card spot and win a playoff game, like last season. And we won't have a definitive answer on whether the Stafford trade was the right move. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team
18. Arizona Cardinals
17. Minnesota Vikings
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. New Orleans Saints
14. New England Patriots
13. Miami Dolphins
12. Los Angeles Chargers
11. Cleveland Browns
10. Tennessee Titans
9. Seattle Seahawks
8. Green Bay Packers

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