How to fix the Lions: Keep Matthew Stafford and draft Tua Tagovailoa

The Detroit Lions aren’t engaged in trade talks to deal quarterback Matthew Stafford because doing so right now would be financially crippling and a reversal of a contract restructuring done just months ago.

Late last season, the Lions and Stafford converted a $6 million roster bonus into a signing bonus. It was a salary-cap sleight of hand that means Stafford’s cap hit this season is $21.3 million if he plays in Detroit and $32 million if he is traded or cut.

What front office, let alone a front office with a win-now mandate to keep its job, is going to deal a good starting QB and handcuff itself financially just months after creating the handcuffs?

None. Not even at a franchise that has won just a single playoff game since 1957.

That didn’t stop WDIV-TV in Detroit on Wednesday from reporting Stafford was on the trading block, citing sources close to both the Lions and Stafford.

Nor did it stop Stafford’s wife, Kelly, from going on Instagram and noting above a story that suggested the Los Angeles Chargers could be a possible destination that, “Well, if Detroit is done with us … I could stay in Cali.”

“100% False!!” Lions general manager Bob Quinn responded via text message to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.

And so it appears that this was much ado about nothing. The Lions’ denial might not mean much, but $32 million in dead money does.

None of this necessarily means Stafford shouldn’t be dealt — it’s just he shouldn’t be dealt this offseason.

If the Lions wanted to set a bold path forward, they would follow the lead of the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and draft their quarterback of the future now while still retaining their starting quarterback of the present.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford throws against the New York Giants during an NFL football game in Detroit, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Matthew Stafford isn't going anywhere, but the Lions need to develop his successor. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

In K.C., that meant trading up in the 2017 NFL draft to take Patrick Mahomes 10th overall and then having him sit and learn from established starter Alex Smith for a season. (Mahomes played in just one game, a Week 17 win when the Chiefs had already clinched a playoff spot).

Even though the Chiefs were in the middle of a prolonged run as a playoff team and title contender (they had won 23 games combined in 2015-16 behind Smith), the franchise was forward thinking.

The most valuable thing in the NFL is not a great quarterback, but a great quarterback on a rookie salary that allows a team to surround said quarterback with lots of talent.

“You always have to think a few years ahead,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.

The Lions went 3-12-1 last season and have the No. 3 pick in the NFL draft. Stafford, 32, has been their quarterback for 11 mostly fruitless seasons. He’s good. He’s isn’t necessarily the problem in Detroit. He’s more likely a solution. He’s expensive though.

Mahomes’ cap hit in Kansas City in 2020 is just $5.2 million, a fraction of Stafford’s in Detroit.

If a team has a top-five pick in the NFL draft, then it should spend the entire scouting process figuring out what quarterback it should select. It’s by far the most important position on the field. Any top-five selection not used on a quarterback should be defended with some kind of iron-clad reason (all the QBs stink; the team already has a franchise QB on a cheap deal).

Otherwise, trade the pick to a team that wants a quarterback.

Running backs and cornerbacks — maybe even edge rushers such as Chase Young out of Ohio State — aren’t generally worth it. At least not if a QB is available.

Which brings everything to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who has received positive medical feedback three months after a massive hip injury ended his college career. The hip placed a question mark on a guy with the talent to be the No. 1 pick overall.

It’s possible that a team trades up with Washington at No. 2 overall to get Tagovailoa (LSU QB Joe Burrow is the presumed No. 1 overall selection to Cincinnati). If not, and Tagovailoa falls to No. 3, then the Lions should go the Chiefs’ route.

Take Tua and sit him behind Stafford, who was on pace for about 5,000 yards and 38 touchdowns before injuries halved his season.

One year of full rehab can only help the hip. The chance to sit and learn worked not just for Mahomes, but other guys who weren’t immediate starters such as Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

If Detroit likes what it sees, then one year from now trade Stafford. If Stafford plays like he normally does, then he’s worth a haul in draft picks — at least a first- and second-rounder and probably more than that. His dead cap number lessens and within another season, Detroit will have all sorts of flexibility and draft picks to build around Tagovailoa.

Stafford, a good soldier in Detroit, might actually get the chance to win in his career. He has been fiercely loyal to the Lions, but a change of scenery isn’t the worst thing either.

No, it’s not a full-proof plan. Tagovailoa may not pan out. Or he may never be healthy. This is a team that has done almost nothing for over six decades though. It’s clearly embarked on far worse ideas.

Kansas City had a playoff team and it traded draft picks to go get Mahomes. That looked like a gamble. Detroit has the No. 3 pick and is just a listless, drifting ship. What isn’t a gamble at this point?

So sorry to Kelly Stafford. No California sun for you. At least not this winter. Check back a year from now though.

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