Making Sense of Matthew Stafford's Massive New Contract

The Detroit quarterback inked the largest deal in NFL history. Did the Lions overpay, or was it a quality investment?

Another quarterback extension, another biggest contract in the history of the NFL.

This time it’s Detroit Lions signal caller Matthew Stafford, who received a five-year extension that includes $92 million in guarantees, a $50 million signing bonus, and pays him an average of $27 million per year. That eclipses quarterback Derek Carr's recent haul from the Oakland Raiders.

While this is a massive deal, it could be argued that Stafford was a bargain.

If Stafford had played out the 2017 season, he could have been franchise tagged for $26.4 million in 2018 (120 percent of his 2017 salary), and then those marks skyrocket to $31.7 million for 2019 (same calculation) and all the way up to $45.6 million (144 percent of previous year for a third tag) in 2020. That gives Stafford a hypothetical three-year value of $103.7 million, about $34.5 million per year.

Of course, those numbers likely weren’t realistic on the market, but they weren’t impossible if Stafford has taken the route of Kirk Cousins. Stafford instead gets $87 million guaranteed through the first three years, still a record.

But quarterback contracts are less about who deserves to get the most money and more about which proven quarterback's contract is about to expire.

Considering the leverage some stars have with a rising cap and big franchise tag numbers, the highest paid quarterback is likely to be the most recently extended. It's possible that within two seasons, Stafford could be bumped down to the 10th-highest-paid quarterback in the league following potential new deals for the likes of Cousins, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan, among others.

So the question really isn’t whether Stafford deserves to be the top paid quarterback, because that title won’t last long. (Stafford’s $22 million cap hit for 2017, going by his old contract, was already going to be the fifth-highest, per Over The Cap.) Instead, we should focus on what Stafford brings to the Lions, and where he -- and the team -- can go from here.

What He Is and What He Can Be

Stafford, for the most part, has been a solid if unspectacular passer during his career, according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP describes the positive or negative contribution a player makes to their team's chances of scoring. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

In his rookie season, Stafford ranked 22nd among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back among passers with at least 100 drop backs that season. In the years since, Stafford has been no higher than eighth but no lower than 18th. So far, as demonstrated below, there’s been both a defined floor and defined ceiling for his play.

Year PNEP/DB Rank League Average
2010 0.05 22 of 46 0.05
2011 0.16 8 of 46 0.05
2012 0.05 18 of 39 0.06
2013 0.09 13 of 45 0.05
2014 0.10 14 of 43 0.08
2015 0.10 18 of 46 0.11
2016 0.18 10 of 39 0.12

He bounced back into the top 10 in 2016 under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. But while Stafford was known as a big-armed prospect coming out of Georgia, his 2016 success came from keeping throws short.

Last season, the average Stafford pass traveled just 7.9 yards through the air, which ranked 33rd among 39 qualified quarterbacks, per That’s not automatically a bad thing -- Drew Brees threw for over 5,000 yards and was below Stafford at a 7.7 average depth of target, though Brees also was better at completing those passes (70 percent to Stafford’s 65.3 percent) and throwing touchdowns (5.5 percent touchdown rate to 4.0 percent).

It’s possible Stafford could take another step forward in his second full year under Cooter. There is recent precedent of a ninth-year player having his best season in the second year of an offense though no one should be expecting a Ryan-style breakout from Stafford. In his eight seasons before his monster campaign in 2016, Ryan had never been worse than 15th in Passing NEP per drop back, and he had five top-10 finishes in that span.

Looking Ahead

In theory, the Lions could have moved on from Stafford following this season and reallocated the funds heading to the quarterback to parts of the defense, which was the worst in the league last season, per our schedule-adjusted metrics. With a bevy of injuries already striking the defensive line, there’s no promise the defense will be much better in 2017.

However, moving on from Stafford would require some type of backup plan, and their current backups -- 2016 sixth-round pick Jake Rudock and 2017 sixth-round pick Brad Kaaya -- aren't that. If the Lions let Stafford hit free agency, they'd be playing a giant game of chicken that could turn out terribly.

Despite the increase in pay, Stafford’s cap hit drops in 2017 and should come below the franchise tag mark in 2018. That frees up some extra money to re-sign, say, Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit’s best defensive player.

The structure of Stafford's guarantees also allow some flexibility for future money maneuvering and won’t tie up cap room like Joe Flacco's contract has done for the Baltimore Ravens.

By doing this deal now, the Lions appear to be able to pay the quarterback while also freeing up some future money for defensive improvements the team desperately needs. The increasing cap will help, and Stafford will already be bumped down the highest-paid players list by this time next season.

If the Lions don't improve over the next few seasons, Stafford’s contract won’t be the reason.