Analysis

Matthew Stafford Trade Tilting In Lions’ Favor Even After Rams’ Super Bowl Win

Early in my years as an NFL executive, I learned to never judge a trade until at least two years have passed. Rarely has there been a better example than last year’s trade where the Lions sent Matthew Stafford to the Rams for Jared Goff, 2022 and 2023 first-round picks and a 2021 third-round pick.

What a difference a year makes in looking at this trade, which could see the Lions land a top-5 pick in the 2023 draft after the Rams’ current struggles.

The trade looked great for the Rams last year with Stafford playing well — 4,886 passing yards, 41 touchdown passes, No. 6 in the NFL in passer rating — staying healthy and leading the Rams to a Super Bowl victory. After quarterbacking the Rams to the Super Bowl in 2018, Goff was coming off two down seasons in L.A. before the trade, and the Lions struggled to an 0-10-1 start last season on their way to a 3-13-1 start with Goff at the helm.

His stats were mediocre (3,245 yards, 19 TD, 8 INT, 91.5 passer rating). The third-round pick they acquired in the 2021 draft — Ifeatu Melifonwu — is a backup safety so the trade looked like nothing great there so far.

Goff’s Renaissance

Now the trade has completely reversed course and looks lopsided in favor of the Lions. It doesn’t look like that will change in the future either. The all-in Rams have repeatedly traded away first-round picks for Brandin Cooks, Jalen Ramsey and Matthew Stafford in recent years. They are now the NFL’s most disappointing team this season with a 4-9 record through 14 weeks. Stafford has played in only nine games (3-6 record with 10 TD passes, eight interceptions and has been sacked 29 times) before going on injured reserve with a neck injury/spinal cord contusion.

Stafford turns 35 in February while Goff, at 28, is having a career renaissance. Goff is the hottest QB in the league, leading the Lions to a 5-1 record in their last six games with 10 touchdown passes and just one interception. The Lions are in the middle of an impressive run to rebound from a 1-6 start and put themselves back into the playoff race.

Goff just torched the 10-3 Vikings for 330 passing yards and three TD passes with no turnovers. He has 22 touchdown passes against seven picks with a 65% completion rate and ranks seventh in the league with a 97.9 passer rating. He looks much more like his 2018 self when he threw for 4,688 passing yards and 32 touchdowns.

“I feel like I am playing the best football of my career right now,” Goff said in a press conference last week.

Give credit to Goff but also to first-year offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and coach Dan Campbell. After the win over Minnesota, Campbell raved in his post-game press conference about Goff’s current high level of play.

“He’s playing outstanding,” Campbell said. “He’s a direct link to why we are playing better. He’s taking care of the football and making big throws. He’s cool, calm and collected.”

Lions general manager Brad Holmes was the Rams’ Director of College Scouting when the team selected Goff with the first overall pick in 2016. While obviously coveting the three high draft picks in the Stafford trade, Holmes said before the 2022 draft that “we have a lot of optimism about Jared Goff moving forward.”

Holmes made it clear he didn’t consider Goff to be a stop-gap. This made it an easier call for Holmes to pick defensive end Aidan Hutchinson with the second overall pick last April because there was not a can’t-miss quarterback or even an outstanding prospect such as Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen worthy of Detroit’s second overall pick. Kenny Pickett ended up as the first QB selected at No. 20 by the Steelers.

After his performance this season, Goff has further cemented his status as the Lions’ long-term starter. He should not be viewed, inside or outside the organization, as a bridge quarterback to a future high-draft pick.

Further good news for the Lions is Goff’s contract is affordable with two more years under contract at $26 million per year. The Lions can continue to build a quality offense and defense to support him. Goff is also a team leader, who is doing great things in the community (he’s Detroit’s nominee for NFL Man of the Year).

The Lions used the Rams’ 2022 first-round pick (No. 32 overall) as part of a package to trade up to the No. 12 spot and select speedy wide receiver Jameson Williams, who is now back from an ACL tear. Williams’s first-ever catch was a 41-yard touchdown pass from Goff to open last week’s scoring against the Vikings. He should be a long-term, elite receiver for the Lions’ offense.

With a high first-round pick from the Rams coming in April, the Lions have an opportunity to pick another impact player — likely on defense. They can add an impact player similar to their selection of Hutchinson, who registered his seventh sack along with two tackles for loss and two quarterback hits last Sunday. Hutchinson’s performance helped lead a young Lions defense that has improved after a poor start this season.

Where Do the Rams Go From Here?

Now, what about the Rams’ future prospects? They have a wounded Stafford, ace receiver Cooper Kupp is likely out for the year (high ankle sprain) and highly-paid superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald is having a less impactful season (five sacks). They are also missing picks in the first, fourth and fifth rounds next year. Things look dramatically different compared to when they hoisted the Lombardi Trophy just 10 months ago.

The Rams are tight against the projected 2023 salary cap, so it will be difficult to sign impactful free agents without major contract restructuring on high-salaried stars such as Donald, Ramsey and Kupp. Doing so will create more cap pain in the future.

The good news with Stafford, salary cap-wise, is he has an affordable $20 million cap hit next year. The bad news: when they extended him for $40 million per year last March, he now carries a $49.5 million dead money hit if he were to be traded or released in 2023. Perhaps they could spread it over two years if he retires or is traded/released after June 1. They’re almost certainly married to him for two more years but what if his neck/spinal injury becomes career-threatening?

Another thing I learned early in my NFL front office career is to never believe you’re one player away from a Super Bowl. My predecessor as Vikings GM — Mike Lynn — tried that approach with the infamous, awful Herschel Walker trade with Dallas for multiple high picks, and I had nothing to do with that decision. We were a playoff team but never got to a Super Bowl with Walker, who was not a good fit in our offense and was gone two years later.

It did work out for the Rams but only for one year unless their fortunes change in 2023. They no longer believed in Goff and thought Stafford was the guy to take them to the promised land. Which he did. But it appears they sold their souls for just one year of success.

Hindsight is 20-20, but I’d say they should have been more patient with Goff and kept those three high draft picks. After all, isn’t Sean McVay supposed to be an offensive genius? So why couldn’t he get Goff back to playing as he did in 2018 and as he’s doing now?

This idea of going all in and winning a title sounds reasonable at the outset, but when a team like the Rams unravels, it becomes a much less attractive proposition. That kind of decision-making can cost front office members and coaches their jobs, even for an alleged coaching guru such as McVay, who is hoping the pendulum turns back L.A.’s way in 2023. It’s possible in the turbulent NFL, but I tend to doubt it’s probable with all their issues.

Meanwhile, the Lions are smiling like a Cheshire cat as they ponder their future course. It could include a playoff berth this season (they have a big game at the Jets this Sunday to stay on track), a division co-favorite role with the Vikings next year, and I know it’s premature but — dare we say — becoming a contender for the Lions’ first Super Bowl ever in the years ahead?

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl

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