Could Matt Stafford End Up on the Patriots in 2021?

Today as I was listening to some sports talk shows, the topic of Matt Stafford’s likely departure from Detroit after the season came up. Naturally it didn’t take long for the show’s hosts to speculate about the potential of Matt Stafford to the Patriots. The Patriots are always rumored to be among the top destinations for any high-profile free agent or trade target, and given that the Patriots just lost Tom Brady after 20 years and the Cam Newton experiment has not been a great success leads people to wonder if perhaps the Patriots will try to upgrade at the QB position by going after Matt Stafford.

Now, while I don’t think Cam has ever been an elite arm talent, I don’t know if you can blame the Patriots’ passing woes this season all on him. I’ve been saying all year I think the Patriots have the worst skill players in the league across the board–from running back to wide receiver to tight end. I even wrote an in-depth post earlier in the season about how uniquely awful Bill Belichick has been at drafting offensive skill players. But until now I haven’t been able to back up my assertion about the Patriots having the worst skill players in the league this year with any tangible data.

So I wanted to see just how bad the Patriots’ wide receivers have been this season. But in order to do this, I had to rank all 31 other WR corps in the league, too.

I went through all 32 teams and looked at their top-4 non-running back pass catchers, totaling up their receptions, yards, TDs and receiving yards-per-game. I also averaged out their combined catch percentages, although this stat doesn’t necessarily tell us too much about the wide receivers themselves, as a low catch percentage could be the result of bad QB play.

Here’s what I found:

The Patriots’ top pass-catchers (Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd, N’Keal Harry and Ryan Izzo) currently rank dead-last in receiving yards per game at 134.1 combined. They rank dead-last in total receiving TDs with just 3, and they rank 31st in total receptions with 137. They rank 30th with just 1,694 combined receiving yards.

Again, this isn’t conclusive evidence that they’re the worst WR corps. in the league because we don’t know how much their awful numbers are a result of poor QB play. But I would point to a group like the Dallas Cowboys, who everybody knows are a good WR corps, and they’re ranked 9th in receiving yards per game, 4th in total receiving yards, and 2nd in total receptions despite the team being a mess at QB since week 5. I think the Cowboy WRs’ strong numbers in these categories indicate it’s more about them than their QB play.

At the very least, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to say the Patriots pass-catchers are collectively among the worst in the league.

Now, back to Matt Stafford: if he is indeed traded to the Patriots in the 2021 offseason, I can’t imagine he will be the answer to New England’s prayers on offense. And it’s because of how bad the Patriots’ wide receivers are. As crazy as it sounds, I doubt Stafford would even want to go to the Patriots. He’s 32 and probably has several more years of high-level QB play left in him, but he would be in a terrible situation in New England, even with Belichick and McDaniels.

I actually like Matt Stafford a lot as a QB. I think he’s been underrated his entire career. He doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves. He had a no-look TD pass this weekend against the Titans and the sports media didn’t even mention it at all. Pat McAfee was, I think, one of the only sports media pundit who actually noticed it. If Mahomes did that it would be the lead story in sports media for three straight days. Stafford just does not get anywhere close to the respect he deserves.

Look at this graphic that made some rounds before the season:

Most people don’t even realize Matt Stafford is one of just 12 QBs in NFL history to have a 5,000+ passing yard season. He did it in 2011. And in 2012, he almost did it again, throwing for 4,967 yards. He came within 33 yards of becoming only the second QB ever to have multiple 5,000+ passing yard seasons. Drew Brees has done it 5 times and is the only QB to ever do it more than once.

I think people are now starting to realize how important it is to have talent around your QB. For a long time we assumed that if you were a truly great QB, you’d be able to overcome literally any and every deficiency on your team including those on defense. But it’s just not true. No QB can do it all. They all need help, whether it be offensive line protection, a great running game, weapons at wide receiver and tight end, and great coaching. Preferably you’d have all of those things.

But other than Megatron, when has Matt Stafford had any of those things in his career?

For starters, he was drafted on to a team that had just gone 0-16 in the 2008 season. He’s been through 3 different head coaches during his 12 seasons in Detroit: Jim Schwartz, Jim Caldwell and Matt Patricia. None of those guys were particularly good coaches.

Stafford has not had a 1,000+ yard rusher on his team since Reggie Bush in 2013, who ran for 1,006 yards. In fact, that was the only time since 2004 that a Lions running back has gone for over 1,000 rushing yards. It’s not even that much to ask for a running back to get 1,000+ yards in a season. I know we view it as some major accomplishment when a guy breaks the 1,000 yard mark in a season, but it only breaks down to 62.5 rushing yards per game on average. There are currently 16 running backs in the NFL this year that are averaging greater than 62.5 rushing yards per game. None, of course, are on the Lions.

The leading running backs Stafford has relied on during his tenure in Detroit: Kevin Smith, Joique Bell, Kerryon Johnson, Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best.

During Stafford’s 5,000+ passing yard season, his top pass-catcher was obviously Megatron with 1,681 receiving yards. But behind Megatron? TE Brandon Pettigrew was the #2 leading reciever on that team, and then you had Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Tony Scheffler. Matt Stafford had a 5,000 yard passing season throwing to those guys. He’s never had an elite tight end, and although he did have Megatron, Megatron retired at the age of 30 because of how terrible the Detroit Lions organization is. He’s literally gone on record and said this. He said, “If we would have been a contender it would have been hard to let go.”

Other than Megatron, Stafford’s next best weapon during his time in Detroit has probably been Kenny Golladay, but Stafford and Golladay have really only had 1 full season together, 2018. Last season Stafford was hurt most of the year, this season Golladay has been hurt most of the year, and Golladay didn’t really get a ton of playing time during his rookie season in 2017.

The Lions also did have Golden Tate for a few years, and he’s a really solid wide receiver. So I do have to give the team credit for getting him.

In terms of offensive line protection, Stafford is currently #22 all-time on the most-sacked list, having been sacked 384 times in his 12 seasons. On a per-game average, over his 163 career games started, that comes out to 2.36 sacks per game, which is 10th all-time:

This list includes Stafford and all the QBs ahead of him on the most-sacked all-time list. As you can see, when we break it down to a per-game basis, Stafford has been sacked more than than most of his contemporaries like Big Ben, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. The only guys in the league today who get sacked more than him are Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. The thing is, a lot of those guys ahead of him on that list (although not all of them) are running-oriented QBs, so they just take more sacks in general.

Stafford also hasn’t had great defenses during his time in Detroit. In only one season since 2009 have the Lions had a top-10 defense–2014. That season they were ranked 3rd overall in points against and 2nd overall in yards allowed. And guess what? It was their best season of the Stafford-era. The Lions went 11-5 and made the playoffs that year. They probably should’ve won their wild card round game against the Cowboys, too. Remember, it was that game where the refs called defensive PI on the Cowboys in the 4th quarter but then picked up the flag? After that the Cowboys scored the go-ahead TD.

Anyway, all this is to say that Stafford has had to do it all in Detroit. The Lions have never really surrounded him with the talent necessary to compete for Super Bowls.

So why would he want to go to the Patriots? I get that it’s about more than just the offensive weapons. The Patriots also have Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, and their defense is better than the Lions’. They’re also just a way more competent and successful organization overall. But cupboard is so bare in New England that even Tom Brady left. You could say the primary reason Brady left was because he wanted to get away from Belichick, but nobody can deny that the lack of offensive talent in New England was a major reason Brady left, too.

What’s more likely: that Brady finally got sick of Belichick after 20 years? Or Brady realized he was never going to win a Super Bowl with that depleted roster and decided to bolt for the greener pastures of Florida to maximize his final few seasons in the league? I think it was more the latter.

Look at how much better Brady’s stats are in Tampa vs. 2019 in New England:

Virtually every stat this year is better than last year. I think it’s clear by now that the offensive weapons were holding Brady back in New England rather than the other way around.

Detroit will either trade Stafford or release him, it is believed. They’ve just fired both their head coach and their GM, so the assumption is that they’re about to enter a full rebuild. It doesn’t make sense to keep Stafford on-board for a full rebuild. He’ll be approaching 35 by the time they’re even remotely competitive again–and that’s assuming the rebuild actually goes as planned. I think Detroit owes it to Stafford to trade him to a contender, and they could probably get a good haul for him as he still has a lot left in the tank.

If I’m Stafford, I don’t want to go to the Patriots. I’d rather go to Indy or, best of all, San Fran. Kyle Shanahan turned Matt Ryan into an MVP, and I think he could work wonders with Stafford. If that defense gets healthy again, San Fran could be right back at the top of the NFC in 2021. And if they get Stafford, I could totally see San Fran getting back to the Super Bowl.

However, I think Detroit will make their decision on whether to keep or move on from Stafford based on where they land in the 2021 draft. They’re definitely not getting Trevor Lawrence, and they probably won’t get Justin Fields or Zach Wilson, either. They’re currently projected to have the 11th pick in the first round, although obviously that could change over the next two weeks. If they can’t land their QB of the future in the 2021 Draft, does it really make sense to move on from Stafford?

It’s possible the Lions don’t even care about getting a QB in the 2021 draft and instead decide to get rid of Stafford and commence Operation Tank for next season, caring only about maximizing their position in the 2022 Draft. But the issue there is that Stafford will still represent almost $25 million in “dead money” in 2021. Basically “dead money” is just what teams owe to players who are no longer on the team. If a player still has guaranteed money remaining on his contract and a team decides to cut him or trade him, the remainder of that owed guaranteed money will count against the cap next season as “dead money.” Next year, the NFL salary cap will go down from $198 million to $175 million due to the pandemic, so it’s less likely teams will be willing to take on dead money.

However, it’s not as simple as “dead money” = bad. Sometimes team can get rid of a player, take on some dead money, but actually free up more space in the salary cap. Because the dead money they owe would be less than what it would cost to keep the player and actually pay him the full salary. I don’t know the full math on Stafford’s potential “dead money” for 2021 so I can’t say if it makes financial sense for them to cut him and take on the dead money. I’m not a cap expert, I just care about the football side of the equation. But the business side of the equation is very important in determining whether or not Stafford actually gets dealt.

If the Lions do decide to move on, and they give Stafford some say in where he wants to go, I cannot see him wanting to go to New England.

The situation in New England is not as easily-fixable as people assume. It’s not a matter of simply finding a new franchise QB, plugging him in to Belichick’s System, and then they’re guaranteed to go back to the Super Bowl for the next 5 years. The talent just isn’t there on the roster. They just don’t have the dudes.

Matt Stafford would be an upgrade over Cam Newton, sure, but he would not be enough to resurrect The Dynasty.

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