The city of Detroit may be bankrupt, but their QB most definitely is not. Lions QB Matthew Stafford inked a 3-year, $53 million contract extension earlier this month that will allow him to stay with the Lions through 2017, or in other terms, Stafford will hit the free agent market at 29 years old. With this extension, the Lions' full obligation to Stafford (should he not be cut) is $76.5 million dollars over the next five seasons. Not a bad pay day for a guy in his 20s. But whatever his price tag may be and despite his many talents, it is clear that Stafford has not been a top of the line "elite QB" (trademark: ESPN) over the course of his 4 seasons in Motown. Sure, he is still young and likely to improve, and injuries (perhaps the only unlucky things to occur in his career) have played a factor but look at the facts.
Here's Stafford by the numbers (note, from here on out you'll se me mention DVOA, if you are not familiar with DVOA please find explanation here):
- Career record as a starter: 17-28, obviously this is highly dependent on many factors but felt its worth noting
- Career Completion%: 59.8%
- Rank in QB Rating the last few years (2009, 2011, 2012)*: 29th, 5th, 22nd
- Rank in Total QBR the last few years (2009, 2011, 2012)*: 28th, 7th, 13th
- Rank in DVOA the last few years (2009, 2011, 2012)*: 37th, 10th, 12th
- Rank in AVNY/A (explained here) the last few years (2009, 2011, 2012)* : 30th, 7th, 18th
*in annual ranking scenarios I did not include 2010 when Stafford only started 3 games
Even if you throw out the rookie season in 2009, Stafford has been more of a "good not great" type of talent at the QB position, with his best overall ranking (across all metrics) being the 5th place finish in QB Rating he posted in 2011. He has put up impressive numbers in terms of passing yardage, but I'll touch upon the reasons why I do not value that as a raw number as much as I do the efficiency statistics (surprise, surprise) in a moment. But even if these numbers do not convince the most ardent of Stafford supporters, which is fair because in football stats and "advanced metrics" certainly do not tell even close to the story they tell in a sport like baseball, I can handle that. But, ask yourself this: have you ever thought to yourself "the Lions are guaranteed to be a solid team because they have Matthew Stafford?" Think about it, isn't that essentially the subjective, a.k.a. difficult to quantify, way in which we measure QBs? If you take away much of the team's talent, can "QB X" be good enough to at least keep your team competitive? That was Peyton Manning in 2010 before we got to see how truly horrid the Colts were without Manning in 2011. That could be Tom Brady this year given the beating the receiving corps has taken. I'm not saying Stafford needs to be those two guys (who are obviously all-time greats), but he doesn't even come close to inspiring, especially coming off a 4-12 season, the amount of confidence those guys do.
Yet despite this subjective and objective evidence of being solid but not otherworldly, Matthew Stafford's ultimate destiny will likely not be "league average starter." No, in fact he has actually now positioned himself to potentially be the highest paid QB of all time.
Ever since he was a student at Highland Park High School in Texas, Matthew Stafford was supposed to become a football star. In fact, in 2006 (when Stafford was still a HS senior), NFL draft guru and hair style icon Mel Kiper, Jr. predicted that some day Stafford would be the 1st overall pick of the draft. In this particular instance, Kiper was Nastrodamus as Stafford was indeed selected 1st overall in the 2009 draft by the Lions. But Kiper's prediction is far from the most intriguing aspect about Stafford's career, not when you can examine the factors seemingly outside of Stafford's control that have helped his earning power so much. So what I have done, essentially, is breakdown several of the key reasons why (because of where and when he was drafted) Matthew Stafford is simply the luckiest bastard of all time
Important note, in the analysis I use projecting future earnings, even on existing contracts as I do understand that NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed, I am operating under the assumption that these "franchise QBs" will eventually earn at least what is due to them by the terms of the contract. It's an assumption. Just know that QBs (good ones) usually get paid, so its not that big of a reach.
(1) The Rookie Wage Scale: Heading into the most recent NFL labor dispute it was clear that something was going to have to be done about the exorbitant contracts being paid to rookie 1st round draft picks. Due to several picks and contracts in particular, namely Matt Ryan (2008, $72 million total contract value, $34.75 million guaranteed), Stafford (2009, $72 million total, $41.7 million guaranteed), and Sam Bradford (2010, $78 million total, $50 million guaranteed), the "rookie wage scale" was born.
So what is the rookie wage scale (besides the bane of Cam Newton and Andrew Luck's existence)? Basically after the lockout in 2011 draft picks were going to be paid based upon the spot in which they were drafted and not through a traditional contract negotiation process. Since these rates are fixed and there is no room for negotiation, accordingly the salaries are typically far below market value and beneficial to the team. This means that when Andrew Luck went #1 overall in 2012 he already knew that his contract would be 4-years and $22 million. That total contract value is not even half of just the guaranteed money ($50 million) that Sam Bradford got in 2010 as the last #1 pick before the wage scale was instituted.
Clearly the Sam Bradford's and Matthew Stafford's of the NFL world are very luck men, as the just got into the league before this rule change drastically altered the salaries being given to top draft picks.
(2) Calvin Johnson: It does not hurt having the best WR in the game, right? Calvin Johnson has ranked 1st in DVAR (a cumulative version of DVOA) the past 2 seasons. I understand that since the NFL is such a team game a WR ranking so highly should reflect positively on the QB, and I agree and this is part of what makes analytics in football so difficult. But in 2010 when Stafford was injured and the likes of Shaun Hill was throwing to Johnson he still ranked 7th in DVAR. Not too big a drop off, especially when you compare it to the also fantastic Larry Fitzgerald who fell from 11th to 71st in the first post-Kurt Warner season with the Cardinals (and that's with Larry playing all 16 games both years).
The point is that Johnson is the undisputed best WR in the league. You do not really need stats, advanced or otherwise to prove this. Johnson is a a 6'5" beast that runs a 4.3 40-yd dash and can jump over any and all DBs. Obviously, this helps his QB, and having Johnson to throw to is yet another notch in Stafford's luck belt.
(3) The Detroit Lions, in general: Stafford has led the league in passing yards the past 2 seasons. This is certainly impressive, but it may have inflated his value in terms of the contract he should receive. You see there is an obvious reason why Stafford has led the league in passing and that is simply that he has thrown the ball more than any other QB. More specifically, he has led the league in attempts the last 2 seasons, by 6 in 2011 and by a whopping 57 in 2012. In terms of generating raw statistics (i.e., yards), Stafford could not have found himself in a better, more pass happy situation. A big reason why he has had to throw the ball so much is that the Lions have gotten into a lot of shootouts over the years due consistent mediocrity on defense. They have ranked 27th, 23rd, 19th, and 32nd in PPG allowed in Stafford's 4 seasons as QB. And from a more analytical perspective, they have averaged a total defense DVOA rank of 21st and total passing defense DVOA of 19th over the last 4 seasons.
(4) Age: Unlike many other NFL QB prospects that enter the league after their senior season and/or take a redshirt year in college, Stafford entered the NFL at 21 years old after his true junior season at Georgia. Now, I give credit to Stafford for having the talent and production to enter the league at such a young age, but there is not doubt that this decision along with the aforementioned rookie wage scale not being implemented until 2011 has greatly increased Stafford's earning potential. See the chart below that quantifies this point.