Trades can’t officially be accepted until the start of the NFL’s new league year in March, but the Detroit Lions have agreed to a deal sending quarterback Matt Stafford, who has made 165 starts in 12 seasons with the team, to the Los Angeles Rams, less than two weeks after Stafford made his request to be traded known to the Lions organization. I was expecting the Lions to maybe get a late first round pick, or a high second round pick and another pick, but instead they get back two first round picks and a third round pick in draft compensation. At first glance, that seems like a clear win, but this deal is much more complicated.
With the Rams already not having their own 2021 first round pick from the Jalen Ramsey trade they made in 2019, the Rams are sending 2022 and 2023 first round picks to the Lions in this deal, so the Lions will have to wait for their premium draft picks, although the Lions do get the third round pick this year. This deal also doesn’t just involve Stafford going to the Rams, but a swap of these two teams’ starting quarterbacks, as now-former Rams Jared Goff’s inclusion in this trade was necessary for salary reasons.
In evaluating this trade, it makes more sense to view it as a trade of starting quarterbacks with draft compensation included, rather than the other way around, even if the draft picks are the most important assets in this deal. I will get to a comparison of the two quarterbacks on the field in a little bit, but these two quarterbacks’ contracts also need to be taken into account. Signed to a 4-year, 134 million dollar extension in September 2019 by the Rams, Goff got a big chunk of his contract in a signing bonus (25 million), but is still effectively guaranteed about 53 million over the next 2 seasons. The Lions could cut him after this season and save some money, but they’d still be paying him 43 million for just 1 season, so that’s unlikely unless he really struggles.
Stafford, meanwhile, makes just 43 million over the next 2 seasons and none of it is guaranteed, though it’s obviously highly unlikely the Rams would cut Stafford at any point, given the overall compensation they’re giving up for him. The Rams could extend Stafford next off-season ahead of the final year of his deal and Stafford would likely command a pay increase on an extension, but that extension would kick in after the two years remaining on Stafford’s deal, so we can effectively compare these two quarterbacks on their pay over the next 2 seasons, with Goff being the higher priced quarterback by about 10 million.
The Browns got a 2nd round pick from the Texans to take on the remaining 16 million guaranteed that was owed to Brock Osweiler, so it’s reasonable to expect 10 million to get you about a third round pick. Let’s assume the 2021 third round pick in this deal is compensation for the salary difference between the two quarterbacks and that the two future first round picks are compensation for the talent difference between the two quarterbacks.
Pushing a year out a pick usually gets you the equivalent of an extra round in the draft the next year (2020 3rd round picks being traded for 2021 2nd round picks for example) and by that standard the Lions are only getting a second and a third round pick for Stafford, but it’s not quite that simple, as the Lions seem to be headed into a much needed multi-year rebuild and might not mind waiting a year or two for these picks as much as another team would, while the Rams are putting themselves into a situation where they will have traded away in pre-draft trades their first round pick in 6 in 7 seasons from 2017-2023, with the exception being a first round pick they traded down from on draft day in 2019 and their last actual first round selection being Goff, back in 2016.
Is Stafford enough of an upgrade from Goff to justify that? The answer comes down to how much do you believe Goff benefits from playing in Sean McVay’s system with consistently good talent around him. Goff’s quarterback rating over the past four seasons is less than 3 points lower than Stafford’s and he’s 6 years younger with less of a recent injury history, but he’s played in a much better situation, while Stafford has consistently been held back by subpar supporting casts and coaching.
Perhaps most telling is the fact that McVay, who is widely considered to have had a huge hand in Goff’s development from a raw rookie to a quarterback who can at least be effective with the right pieces around him, seems to think this team would be a lot better off with another quarterback. Despite that, this is still a very interesting return for the Lions. With a roster that was going nowhere, a quarterback who wanted out, and no financial flexibility ahead of free agency, the Lions rightfully seem to be taking the long-term view with this team. First they hired 44-year-old Dan Campbell on a 6-year contract to be their head coach and now they pull the trigger on this move.
This deal doesn’t give the Lions more financial flexibility, but it resolves the quarterback issue in the short-term without the use of their 7th overall pick and it gives them much needed draft capital in 2022 and 2023, either to move up for a long-term quarterback option or to build out the rest of this roster. It’s highly unlikely Goff is going to find some untapped potential in Detroit that he didn’t have in Los Angeles with McVay, but he’s still only going into his age 27 season and could be a serviceable starter for a rebuilding team that likely isn’t going to win a lot of games over the next couple seasons regardless.
For the Rams, this is a continued bet on their ability to draft and develop players outside of the first round. Despite their recent lack of first round picks, half of the 26 players who played at least 450 snaps on either side of the ball last season are home grown, from the 2015-2019 drafts, outside of the first round. That doesn’t include the 2020 draft, which saw 6th round pick Jordan Fuller make 12 starts as a rookie and 2nd round pick Cam Akers emerge as a feature back down the stretch.
History suggests the draft is more of a crap shoot than anything. The Pete Carroll/John Schneider Seahawks were known for finding late round gems in the early 2010s, but a look at their recent drafts clearly shows their hit rate has regressed to the mean and then some. Bill Belichick’s Patriots found arguably the greatest quarterback and tight end of all-time, both outside of the first round, along with a #1 receiver and Super Bowl MVP in the 7th round and several other draft steals, but even his record has some clear misses on it.
To the Rams’ credit, they seem to understand the value of trading back on draft day as much as any team, including New England, treating the draft as the likely unpredictable event that it is and going with a quantity over quality approach in terms of draft picks, maximizing their chances of finding a steal. The Rams might not have selected in the first round since 2016, but they have still selected 36 times overall over their past 4 drafts. Ultimately, this is a deal that makes sense for both teams, though there are obvious risks with both sides as both teams take to make the most of imperfect situations.