Analysis: Why trade for Goff makes financial sense for Lions in long run

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
 
| The Detroit News

The Detroit Lions wanted at least a first-round pick in exchange for quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Los Angeles Rams wanted to upgrade from Jared Goff, but needed to get creative given his bloated contract and lack of a first-round pick in 2021.

On Saturday, both teams managed to achieve their goals.

Although the trade won’t be finalized until mid-March, the start of the NFL’s new league year, the Lions have agreed to ship Stafford to the Rams for Goff, two future first-round picks and a third-round selection this year

That’s a helluva way to kick-start a rebuild.

But if it feels like that’s more than you expected the Lions to get in return for a 33-year-old quarterback who is otherworldly talented, but has finished the last three seasons with significant injury issues, well, yeah, you’re right. 

That’s because the Rams weren’t just paying for Stafford, they were paying the Lions to take Goff off their hands. 

Last week, when trying to project the value Stafford could return, the best comparison seemed like Carson Palmer. In 2011, the Cincinnati Bengals shipped the disgruntled quarterback, a year younger at the time than Stafford, to Oakland in exchange for a first- and second-round pick. 

It turns out, we weren’t thinking far enough outside the box. The Stafford swap is almost like the merger of two previous quarterback trades, the aforementioned Palmer deal as well as the 2017 Brock Osweiler trade. 

You see, in that one, the Cleveland Browns essentially bought a second-round pick from the Houston Texans by agreeing to absorb Osweiler’s contract. 

You see where I’m getting with this.

A first and a third for Stafford would have been a respectable haul, but the only reason the Lions were able to score a second first-rounder was by agreeing to take back Goff. 

Maybe that creativity isn’t entirely coincidental. John Dorsey, the Browns GM at the time, just signed as a senior personnel executive to rookie general manager Brad Holmes’ staff. 

In Goff, the Lions get a former No. 1 pick in exchange for their former No. 1 pick. Beyond achieving more team success with the Rams, statistically speaking, Goff has produced similar or better stats his first five seasons than Stafford did from 2009-13.

The difference is the physical gifts, and maybe mental makeup. Only the Rams know all the reasons they wanted to move on. The 26-year-old Goff is now the Lions’ problem, or their solution, however temporary that may be. 

Because the one thing the Lions did not do with this move is clear cap space. In fact, they took more on in 2021. Sure, shipping Stafford out saved $14 million, but Goff brings back a $27.8 million hit this season. 

It’s not much better next season, $25.5 million. But, at that point, the Lions can start thinking about moving on if Goff doesn’t excel and stake a claim as the franchise’s true future. If the team were to cut or trade him next season, they’d only have to eat a $15.5-million cap hit. 

Stick with it another year and the dead money drops to nothing. 

Now, the Lions could end up restructuring Goff’s contract this year, to create some immediate cap space. In that scenario, any salary converted to bonus would be spread out evenly the remainder of Goff’s contract, which is four years. Convert $20 million, that’s a $5 million hit each of the next four seasons and a $15 million savings in 2021. 

Additionally, that kind of move would ensure a commitment to 2022 is more likely, but doesn’t impact 2023. 

The final, meaningful point this all makes is it leaves open the possibility for the Lions to draft a quarterback this year, even as early as the No. 7 pick. That’s not to say it’s the likely course of action, but if the team wanted to draft and develop a QB for a year — the way the Chiefs did with Patrick Mahomes or the Ravens did with Lamar Jackson — Goff would serve as a top-flight bridge to that future. 

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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