Should the Detroit Lions Consider Moving on From Matthew Stafford?
The Lions are 0-4. It’s panic-time in Detroit.
Coming off an 11-win season, Las Vegas sportsbooks predicted the Lions to win 8.5 games in 2015. After yet another loss in Seattle, including a pathetic three-point offensive performance, Lions fans woke up Tuesday morning despondent and depressed.
No, the Lions were never expected to leave the Great Northwest with a victory on Monday Night Football. But their offense looked putrid and pathetic, again. Their schedule adjusted offensive Net Expected Points (NEP) through Week 4 ranks 27th out of 32 teams. This Lions offense looks as bad as the numbers suggest.
What is NEP, you ask? It's is our signature metric at numberFire. If you contribute to your team's chances of scoring above expectation, you receive a positive NEP, and a negative score when you do the opposite.
With losing comes finger pointing. Naturally, plenty of fingers are pointing at Lions veteran quarterback, Matthew Stafford. Is it justified? Is Stafford to blame for the four-game skid? It’s fair to ask these questions. After six-plus seasons, it’s also fair to wonder if Stafford will ever be the player his first-overall-pick pedigree suggests.
Let’s dig deep and see if we can find an answer to this question: Should the Lions replace Matt Stafford as their starting quarterback?
Career in Review
Since entering the league in 2009, Matt Stafford has an underwhelming regular season record of 35-46. His postseason record is 0-2. He has a reputation as a tough player with a strong arm and the ability to “play up” in the fourth quarter. But let’s take a look at his career numbers to date, and see if we can flush out a trend. (Stafford's Passing NEP ranks are among quarterbacks with at least 375 drop backs in a given season; this year, the cut-off is 100 drop backs.)
While we are able to learn a lot about Stafford by the table above. The key metric to consider is his Passing NEP and associated ranking.
The numbers show us that Stafford had a natural progression from 2009 to 2011. Since 2011, however, his NEP has dropped him from a top tier quarterback to an average quarterback. In 2015, he appears to have regressed even further into the bottom tier of NFL starters.
Now of course, a new head coach, offensive system or better talent around him may allow Stafford to buck this trend and regain his 2011 form. But for now, it’s safe to say that this is a quarterback who has declined.
Around the League
Now that we’ve determined Stafford has declined, let’s compare his 2015 performance to other starting quarterbacks. This comparison will provide context into Stafford’s performance through four weeks.
Going back to our signature metric, NEP, Stafford ranks 35th among all 42 quarterbacks who have taken a snap in 2015. This means that through four weeks of the season, Stafford has been ... awful.
But he’s not the worst. Let’s name names, shall we? Here are some of the starting quarterbacks that rank below Stafford in NEP in 2015: Ryan Mallett, Colin Kaepernick, Joe Flacco, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston.
It could be worse. Would you want Ryan Mallett or Colin Kaepernick starting on your team? Me neither.
There are some respectable names on that list. So what does this mean? It means that, like Stafford, other veteran starters have stumbled out of the gate. Among 32 opening day starters, Stafford ranks an uninspiring 28th. He’s off to a slow start, but there’s the potential for improvement.
Our algorithms peg Stafford to play as the 14th-best fantasy quarterback for the rest of the season, for what that's worth. He can put up stats, but is there a better solution?
What About the Draft?
The data above doesn’t seem to make me all warm and fuzzy about Stafford going forward.
With the Lions 0-4 and facing an angry Cardinals team in Week 5, it’s fair to wonder how high Detroit will pick in the first round of the 2016 draft. Our projections see them finishing with the fourth-worst record in the league.
The next obvious question is “What quarterbacks may be available?”
While it’s still early into the NCAA season, it’s already apparent that there are only a few names worth mentioning when it comes to first round quarterback potential: Connor Cook from Michigan State, Jared Goff from California, Christian Hackenberg from Penn State, and Cardale Jones from Ohio State.
Of these four quarterbacks, Connor Cook is the only senior. This means there may be just one quarterback selected in the first round of the 2016 draft.
That said, each of these quarterbacks has the potential to be taken in the first round. The real tell with this class is that there is no consensus top pick. There are too many variables at play. Too many uncertainties. Too much of this season remains. This is not the class you want to see if your NFL team is in the market for a quarterback (sorry, Texans fans).
There is certainly no Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning in this incoming quarterback class. While it remains possible that the Lions could draft a quarterback in the first round and trade Matt Stafford, that remains an unlikely outcome. The Lions would be best served to use that premium draft pick to fill other needs, or possibly to trade back and acquire additional draft picks.
Should Stafford Be Sent Packing?
Make no mistake; Matt Stafford has been bad this season. But should the Lions be in the market for a replacement? When analyzing the numbers, especially NEP, we learn that Stafford is an average starting quarterback for his career, who has the potential to be more. He’s played better in past seasons. He’s still relatively young; he’ll be 28 in February. His current contract (he’s under contract until 2017, with over $40 million guaranteed from his 2013 extension) suggests that he will remain with the Lions for the foreseeable future.
The bottom line is that Matt Stafford is statistically one of the 32 best quarterbacks on Earth. Quarterback is one of the most difficult commodities to procure in the NFL. While there may be many changes in Detroit this coming offseason, there is simply no analytical or statistical reason to believe that the Lions would turn their back on this very valuable asset.
In re-draft leagues, Stafford is not much more than a streamer to target in plus matchups at this point. If you drafted him this year in hopes of a bounce back season, then you should come to terms that he isn't an every-week starter in standard or shallow leagues.
In dynasty leagues, Stafford remains a safe hold as a solid QB2. Even in the unlikely event that Stafford departs Detroit via trade, he will undoubtedly remain a starter in the NFL. His past performance suggests that he has the potential to eventually move back into the QB1 tier. Will he be able to?
This is the question to which fantasy owners and Lions fans desperately want an answer.