Baby, I’m Worth It: The Value of a Quarterback

Matthew Stafford is about to be rich.  Filthy rich.  I mean, he’s already rich, but he’s about to become the highest paid player in the history of professional football.  Whether the Lions pay him or not, he will break the bank with his new contract.  But is he worth it?  That’s the 27 million dollar-per-year question, isn’t it?

There’s no disputing the ridiculous value of starting quarterbacks in the NFL.  Take Sam Bradford, for example – the only quarterback to ever sign a richer rookie deal than Stafford.  By all accounts, Bradford has not been as successful in the NFL, bouncing from the Rams to the Eagles to the Vikings.  Speaking of the Vikings, they gave up their 1st round draft pick this year, plus a 4th round pick in next year’s draft in order to land the disappointing Bradford once Teddy Bridgewater went down.  What numbers did he put up to justify the price?  Bradford accumulated 3725 yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in Philly the season before the trade.  Relatively pedestrian numbers, yet worth a 1st and 4th round pick to a suddenly QB-needy team.

Not convinced?  How about a more recent example: Mitch Trubisky.  First the Bears signed Mike Glennon, an unproven young backup QB, for 45 million over three years with 18.5m guaranteed at signing (16m in 2017 and 2.5m in 2018).  The Bears left an opening to walk away after one year, but it would cost the 18.5 million plus 4.5 million in dead cap money.  After making that 23 million dollar investment, you would think the team would get behind their new starter, right?  Wrong.  Chicago traded a 3rd and 4th round pick this year and a 3rd round pick next year to move up one spot for Mitch Trubisky – who just signed a fully guaranteed four-year deal for 29 million, plus a 19 million dollar signing bonus.  For those doing the math, that’s 26 million guaranteed this year (and an affordable 7.5 per year thereafter).  Add that to Glennon’s number, and the Bears have 42 million wrapped up in two completely unproven quarterbacks in 2017.

There are plenty of other examples highlighting the supreme value of quarterback play in the NFL: the Chiefs and Texans both gave up significant draft capital to trade up in a mediocre quarterback class in the draft this year, and teams constantly throw huge money at prospects.  Matt Cassell got 5 years, 63 million in KC; Matt Flynn got 3 years, 26 million in Seattle; Kevin Kolb got 5 years, 63.5 million in Arizona; and Brock Osweiler got 4 years, 72 million in Houston (with 37 million guaranteed).  There is no denying that the NFL is a quarterback league, and teams without a competent starter at the position have absolutely no chance at a championship.

Crunching Numbers

Passing Yardage Chart

The question here isn’t whether quarterbacks in general are worth the money they’re being paid; the question is whether Matthew Stafford is worth it.  Over the last three years, Stafford has thrown for 12,846 yards and has not missed a single game.  In that time frame, he has averaged 26 touchdowns and 11.7 interceptions, and the Lions have made two playoff appearances.  Only four players have thrown for more total yards in that time frame: Drew Brees (15,030), Matt Ryan (14,229), Philip Rivers (13,464), and Eli Manning (12,869).  Interestingly, Stafford has led his team to the playoffs more often in the last three years than all four of those guys.  Yes, Roethlisberger, Rodgers and Brady would have more yards too if not for injuries and suspensions, but that’s part of the equation: with Stafford, you get consistent high-level production on a weekly basis.  Only Brady, Roethlisberger, Wilson and Rodgers have been to the playoffs more than Stafford over the past three years.  Stafford has a higher completion percentage than Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Andrew Luck, Derek Carr, Cam Newton, and Aaron Rodgers over the last three years.

So why isn’t Stafford included in conversations about the elite quarterbacks in the NFL?  If it were up to me he would be, but I suspect it has something to do with his low touchdown totals.  12 players had more passing TDs than Stafford last year, 6 players had more in 2015, and 9 had more in 2014.  Stafford has only thrown more than 30 TD passes in a season twice in his career (41 in 2011 and 32 in 2015) despite having the 7th highest number of pass attempts in the NFL since 2009.  Stafford’s efficiency, passing yards, completion percentage, and pass attempts all rank at elite levels in the last three years… only his touchdowns lag behind.

TD-INT Three Year Averages

The question of worth is based on more than fantasy football value, so the Lions will consider more than just passing yards and touchdowns.  For example, does Stafford increase the team’s chances of winning games compared to what’s available to replace him?  The question isn’t about whether Stafford is worth the highest contract in the history of football – he’s not.  There are plenty of players both past and present who have proven that they are better than Matthew Stafford.  But the Lions don’t have access to those players.  It’s not a question of whether the Lions should pay Matt Stafford or Ben Roethlisberger; it’s a question of whether the Lions would be able to replace what they have in Stafford for less money.  Recent contracts for players like Glennon, Bradford, Osweiler and Cassell, as well as the packages of draft picks required to move up for a rookie, suggest that replacing Stafford with someone even close to as talented would be an enormous risk, more likely to fail than to succeed.

It’s not as if the Lions have missed out on a bunch of all-star quarterbacks by sticking with Stafford over the years either.  Russell Wilson is the only quarterback drafted since Stafford to win a Super Bowl.  You read that right: every QB that has won a title in the last 8 years except Russell Wilson was drafted before 2009.  Every so often I read an opinion that the Lions should trade Stafford and start over, but the money the Bears invested in young QBs just this year is much more expensive than what it would cost to sign Stafford to a long-term extension.

There’s a myth out there that teams can just draft a quarterback late and develop him for cheap.  It worked for the Patriots with Tom Brady and the Seahawks with Russell Wilson, right?  The problem is, it’s incredibly rare.  17 of the top 25 quarterbacks by stats since Stafford was drafted in 2009 were first round picks; eight of them were picked first overall.  If you’re going to start over at quarterback, it’s going to cost you money, draft picks, and years – at a time when the Lions have finally started to dig out of a 20 year hole of sadness and despair.

Show Me the Money

The bottom line is this: Stafford has 22,463 passing yards in the last 5 years; only Brees (23,569) and Ryan (22,463) have more.  In that time frame, Stafford – who has not missed a single game – is 3rd in yardage, 10th in TD passes, and the 7th most-sacked QB in the league.  There have been 104 quarterbacks drafted in the last five years, and only 10 of them have shown the potential to be as good or better than Stafford (Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Derek Carr, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, and Cam Newton).  None of those ten are clearly better than Stafford, and only one of them has won a Super Bowl.  That means there’s just a 9.6% chance that the Lions could have landed one of these 10 guys who are comparable to what they already have in Stafford had they chosen to move on.  It’s easy to say that they could have found Dak, Carr, Wilson or Cousins in a later round for a cheap contract, but what are the chances the circumstances would have aligned for that to happen?  Besides, Derek Carr just signed an extension making him the highest paid player in the league, and Cousins is playing on a franchise tag paying him 24 million this year (only Carr, Luck and Brees are making more in 2017).  Even if the Lions had hit the jackpot and landed a Carr or Cousins, they would still be on the hook to pay them the kind of money Stafford will command.  Add the fact that Stafford is still only 29 years old – just one year older than Russell Wilson and two years older than Andrew Luck – and this decision is really a no-brainer.  Someone is going to pay Stafford a ton of money, and it better be the Lions.


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