A Super Bowl ring in hand is worth how many draft picks in the bush?
That’s the question for Monday after the big game as we reconsider the trade the Detroit Lions made a year ago, sending Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for Jared Goff and a trio of draft picks.
The swap worked out as envisioned for the Rams when they paid the hefty price tag to upgrade at quarterback. The addition of Stafford, along with a couple other All-Pro-caliber acquisitions proved to be the recipe that elevated the Rams from contender to champion.
The team’s strategy of liquidating its premium draft assets for an injection of known talent was unquestionably bold, bucking established trends, but no matter how it impacts the franchise in the future, they’ll have a Lombardi trophy as validation.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to quantify Stafford’s exact contributions to the Rams’ run to the top. Pro Football Reference assigns an Approximate Value, which attempts to encapsulate a player’s statistical output into a single number. Stafford scored a 15, which was tied for 14th in the NFL along with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow and defensive MVP T.J. Watt. Goff, meanwhile, checked in at 10 his first year in Detroit (tied for 77th). That said, Goff had an AV of 18 when he led the Rams to the Super Bowl three years earlier.
Pro Football Talk flippantly tweeted after the game, “Jared Goff could have done all of this.” While there’s no way to prove or disprove that statement, it’s difficult to see Goff making the deep throw to Cooper Kupp that set up the game-winning field goal against Tampa Bay or having the ability to overcome the complete lack of a running game and the first-half injury to Odell Beckham Jr., the way Stafford did in the Super Bowl, leading a game-winning drive in the closing minutes.
All we can say, definitively, is the Rams have zero buyer’s remorse. And, to be fair, the Lions shouldn’t, either.
Stafford didn’t have the stomach to be part of another regime change and retooling in Detroit after more than a decade, so he asked out. Acquiescing to the request, the Lions ended up getting a considerable haul for a 33-year-old QB with growing durability concerns.
“I mean, I think we’re in two different phases and that’s what I think he recognized,” general manager Brad Holmes said at the Senior Bowl earlier this month. “I respected his request, and we did the best thing we did for our organization and the best thing for him.
“He asked for the trade and I think it worked out for both sides,” Holmes continued. “You know, Stafford’s a good player, and the Rams are a good team. So, it worked out for them, and in exchange, we got compensation that can help us along the way.”
Holmes’ assessment of the deal is obviously premature, but Detroit’s GM is the key to whether it will ultimately work out for both sides. The Rams already have received their reward, while it will take years to fully understand what the Lions got in return.
The Goff component is relatively clear, but the draft picks are the true treasure. Coveted and hoarded by most teams, it’s how Holmes utilizes those selections that could set the Lions on course for contention.
Detroit already has used one pick, grabbing cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu last year with a third-round choice acquired from the Rams. Two first-rounders remain, with the Rams’ Super Bowl victory meaning the 2022 selection will be the last pick of the first day, No. 32 overall.
For perspective, had the Rams lost in the opening round of the postseason, the Lions would be drafting No. 23. Assuming Stafford stays healthy, and Aaron Donald doesn’t retire, that’s the approximate floor for the incoming 2023 first-round pick.
Now, there’s plenty of talent to be found in the back-half of the first round. The aforementioned Watt, quarterback Lamar Jackson, wide receiver Deebo Samuel were selected between 30-36 in the past five years. If Holmes manages to find one All-Pro on that level, the Lions easily should be viewed as the long-term winners of the trade. Similarly, if two of those three, including Melifonwu, end up above-average starters it’s probably a wash.
Although the situations have their differences, it’s easy to draw some parallels to one of the most famous trades in Detroit sports history, when the Tigers shipped pitching prospect John Smoltz to the Atlanta Braves for proven starter Doyle Alexander.
Like Stafford, Alexander delivered immediate results, going 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 starts for the 1987 Tigers, propelling the team to the East Division crown. Smoltz would debut the next season, posting a 2-7 record with a 5.48 ERA.
But over time, the script flipped on who won the deal. That short-term payoff for the Tigers became a distant memory as Smoltz went on to have a Hall of Fame career, with eight All-Star appearances and a Cy Young.
On top of all his individual accolades, Smoltz also won a championship with the Braves. As it turns out, it was the franchise’s first since 1957, the same year as the Lions’ last title.
The Rams got their man, Stafford got his moment, but there’s an opportunity, however small, for the Lions to be winners, too. Holmes has three shots to find his Smoltz.