| The Detroit News
In his introductory press conference, Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes didn’t directly address the future of Matthew Stafford. But if you were trying to read between the lines, there’s reason to believe the franchise quarterback will remain in Detroit for the 2021 season.
Directly asked about his thoughts on Stafford, Holmes offered the type of praise you’ve probably come to expect.
“So Matthew, great player,” Holmes said. “What you really appreciate is, I think the talent level is easy to see, but you really appreciate how his intangibles show on film — just how urgent he plays, how competitive he is, the toughness that he shows.”
Holmes did stop short of any sort of commitment, noting the roster evaluation process has yet to begin. That figures to start, in earnest, now that the Lions announced Wednesday the hiring of Dan Campbell as their next head coach.
“I just want to be fair to the process to make sure that we evaluate that thoroughly, but obviously, Matt, very good football (player),” Holmes said.
Still, when talking about the upcoming season, Holmes made two things clear. One, he doesn’t believe the roster needs to be overhauled, only retooled. And two, he wants to field the most competitive team he can in 2021.
It’s difficult to imagine trading Stafford satisfies either of those goals.
Regardless, that debate figures to linger the next couple of months. Stafford, who turns 33 next month, has battled injuries at the end of each of the past three seasons. And despite hitting statistical milestone after statistical milestone during his dozen years with the franchise, team success has eluded him.
Stafford has a $33 million cap hit in 2021, and for the first time in a few years, it’s palatable to even discuss parting ways. If the Lions were to deal Stafford, they would save $14 million in cap space. Plus, they hold the No. 7 pick in the draft, which presumably offers an opportunity to draft a replacement, even if there’s likely to be an initial drop-off in production.
The other part of the hypothetical equation is finding a trading partner, but there almost certainly figures to be a market for a quarterback of Stafford’s talents. The bigger question is whether anyone will offer a return package that justifies pulling the trigger.
The best, recent example of a statistically comparable quarterback hitting the trade market came in 2018, when Kansas City shipped Alex Smith to Washington in exchange for a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller. Smith was also 33 at the time.
Additionally, you’d have to find a partner that has the cap space to absorb Stafford’s $20 million in salary for the 2021 season. That could prove trickier this year, particularly, because the cap is expected to drop significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic impacting league revenue.
Well, on Wednesday, a primary contender opened up after Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers announced his retirement.
The Colts, coming off an 11-5 season, with one of the league’s best defenses, are a quarterback away from remaining a fringe Super Bowl contender. And, if they were interested in Stafford replacing Rivers, they have the assets, including more than $60 million in projected cap space.
Stafford would cost more than Smith did three years ago, but the Colts’ first-round pick, No. 21 overall, might be enough to entice Holmes and the Lions.
As Indianapolis proved last year, they aren’t afraid to trade a first-round pick to get an impact player. In 2020, they shipped the No. 13 selection to the 49ers in exchange for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, a move move fueled the ascent of their defense.
Other teams with cap space that could presumably be interested in Stafford include Washington, New England, Dallas and Denver, but all make less sense than the Colts.
Again, at this point, it’s all a hypothetical conversation. Holmes has said he’ll take his cues on building the roster from the next head coach, and the personnel evaluations will take weeks with Campbell now on board.
That said, we’ll know, one way or another, by the end of March. Stafford is owed a $10 million roster bonus on the fifth day of the new league year, March 22.