How the Patriots could trade for Lions QB Matthew Stafford

The first domino of the NFL offseason has fallen.
The Lions and Pro Bowl quarterback Matthew Stafford agreed to part ways over the weekend, according to multiple reports. Stafford requested a trade after another losing season in Detroit prompted wholesale changes to the coaching staff and front office. Throughout his 12-year NFL career, Stafford has been viewed as an above-average passer blessed with one of the NFL’s strongest arms whose curse is playing for one of its worst franchises.
The Patriots are among several potential trade partners in what’s expected to be a crowded market for his services. Arguably no team should be more motivated to land a starting-caliber quarterback than the Pats, who recently slogged through a 7-9 campaign defined by their impotent passing attack. While Stafford turns 33 in two weeks, he’s still in his prime, which could extend for another couple seasons.
So could the Patriots pull off a trade? Should they?
Here’s what you need to know.
How good is Stafford?
Certainly good enough.
Stafford ranked 12th among starting quarterbacks last season, per Pro Football Focus grades. That mark matched his career average stretched in each direction by a personal best No. 7 ranking in 2016 and an all-time worst 22nd-place finish in 2015. Stafford’s sharpest football came the past four seasons, indicating an underlying drive to continually improve and that an imminent drop-off is unlikely.
Stafford also ranked 14th last year in QBR (ESPN’s more sophisticated version of passer rating) and DVOA, an opponent-and-situation-adjusted metric from Football Outsiders. Only nine quarterbacks averaged more yards per attempt. From a traditional box score, Stafford completed 64.2% of his passes for 4,084 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Questions about his injury history are relevant, but largely overrated. The injury-prone narrative took hold early in his career, when Stafford missed 19 of a possible 32 games over his first two seasons with injuries. Since then, he’s started 16 regular-season games every year but one.
Bottom line: Stafford is as advertised. He’s a decent quarterback. Competent organizations, like the Patriots, can win with decent quarterbacks — provided they come at a reasonable price.
Can the Patriots afford Stafford?
Yes.
They’re projected to hold more than $57 million in cap space, per Over The Cap. Only three teams — the Jets, Colts and Jaguars — are expected to boast more. Stafford’s contract is also modest for a starting quarterback.
If the Pats trade for Stafford, he’ll carry a $20 million cap hit next season, the 15th-highest among quarterbacks, and a $23 million cap hit in 2022, which would rank him 12th, pending future extensions or restructures around the league. At best, the Patriots would acquire him at a discount. At worst, he’d provide expected value.
What is he worth in a trade?
This is the great unknown.
Stafford’s trade value will be determined by his highest bidder, and roughly a half-dozen can be expected. Cap problems should eliminate a few potential trade partners (the Bears and Saints, among others), especially given the league’s salary cap will drop in 2021. That said, Stafford is still likely to command a first-round pick at a minimum.
He plays the league’s most valuable position at an above-average level on a team-friendly, two-year contract. Plug Stafford into a league-average roster, and you have a playoff contender. That’s the calculation interested teams are making here.
What could the Patriots offer?
For starters, their first-round pick.
The 15th overall selection may not be enough to net Stafford alone, especially if the 49ers join the bidding with their first-rounder, the No. 12 pick.
The Patriots also own picks in the second, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. Following their avalanche of free-agent losses last year, they’re projected to add a compensatory selection in the third round, plus two fourth-rounders, which can be dealt.
The Patriots could also trade Stephon Gilmore, who’s set to make $7 million in the final year of his deal. The Pats reportedly took offers for Gilmore over the past 12 months and begrudgingly agreed to transfer $5 million of his 2021 base salary up a year as a kind of raise after fellow All-Pro Jalen Ramsey reset the cornerback market with his new deal last September. If the Patriots trade Gilmore, they’ll incur an $8.9 million dead-cap hit and free up $7.3 million in cap space, per Over The Cap.
Of note: Detroit ranked dead last in pass defense by DVOA last year, and recently welcomed new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, a former Pro Bowl corner himself. New general manager Brad Holmes also hails from the same front office that made Ramsey the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback.
Who are the Pats’ projected trade competitors?
The Colts, 49ers, Broncos and Washington Football Team.
Indianapolis is far and away the greatest threat to the Pats, should they choose to pursue Stafford. They own more cap space, roster more attractive trade pieces and offer a more quarterback-friendly environment, featuring far better weapons and an offensive head coach who played the position. San Francisco would first need to determine that Stafford offers an appreciable upgrade over Jimmy Garoppolo and then cut ties with the former Patriot, which could be done.
Denver is projected to carry at least $14 million in cap space next year, but should be as desperate as the Pats and Washington ($35 million in cap room) to find a new quarterback.
What other factors are at play?
If all offers are held equal, the Lions — who have already granted his trade request — could allow Stafford to have some say in his next destination, which could steer them away from a deal with New England.
The Pats fielded the NFL’s worst set of receivers last season and can’t bolster that group until free agency opens in two months. They might also take a few hits to their offensive line, with left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews set to be free agents. Plus, the Patriots recently returned Matt Patricia to their coaching staff after his disastrous tenure in Detroit, and while Patricia would no longer be coaching Stafford directly, local beat reporters believe Stafford wouldn’t be quite keen on a reunion.
Finally, through these trade talks, the Lions are openly hitting the reset button. Most rebuilding teams without a quarterback seek their next face of the franchise at the top of the draft, where Detroit is already positioned with the No. 7 pick. If Stafford is traded elsewhere, trouble will double for the Pats, whose next best option will be trading into the top 10 of the draft, where at least four other QB-needy teams can be found, one more than there had been before Stafford became the NFL’s most-wanted man.

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