In many other N.F.L. off-seasons, a swap of quarterbacks once drafted No. 1 over all, with a bundle of early-round future picks also involved, would signify the boldest, most intriguing move of the winter. But the trade consummated on Saturday by the Detroit Lions, who agreed to take on Jared Goff’s onerous contract from the Los Angeles Rams to sweeten their return for Matthew Stafford, might just be a prelude to a series of wild quarterback deals and signings over the next two months that upend the N.F.L. landscape.
About half of the league’s 32 teams ended the regular season with uncertainty at the quarterback position. That group includes the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints — Philip Rivers retired at the end of the regular season and Drew Brees is likely to follow — but it is headlined by the Houston Texans, who are locked in a stalemate with their marvelous but disgruntled star, Deshaun Watson, who has reportedly requested a trade.
The Rams had been hinting for weeks at their disenchantment with Goff, in whom they invested $110 million guaranteed via a contract extension signed 16 months ago. Rather than risk another team swooping in to acquire Stafford, long among the league’s more prolific passers, they enticed Detroit by sending a third-round pick in this year’s N.F.L. draft and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 for the ability to offload Goff’s contract.
A football executive with direct knowledge of the deal confirmed the trade, which cannot be made official until the new league year begins on March 17. The Rams, though, did wink at it Saturday night in a post to Twitter that asked whether Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw — who attended Highland Park High School in Texas with Stafford — had “heard from an old friend today?”
For Los Angeles, acquiring Stafford represents just another audacious move for a franchise that specializes in them. The Rams have not drafted in the first round since 2016, when they traded up to take Goff. Unless they acquire a pick, they won’t select in that round again until 2024. But it is the team’s eagerness to part with draft compensation for production at critical positions that has consistently positioned them as a contender in the N.F.C., even boosting them to the Super Bowl behind Goff in the 2018 season.
Over the last two years, though, Goff has regressed, committing 38 turnovers — 29 interceptions, tied for third most in the N.F.L. in that span — and was effectively benched in favor of the undrafted backup John Wolford at the end of the regular season even though he told Coach Sean McVay he had recovered enough from thumb surgery to start. In unburdening themselves of Goff, the Rams gain the potent downfield passing threat they have been lacking while also bolstering their capacity to compete in an N.F.C. West where Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson set a blistering pace.
Pending more moves, this iteration of the Rams — the team had the league’s stingiest defense in the 2020 season — just might have more talent than any team Stafford has played on across his 12 N.F.L. seasons, all of which were with Detroit. That stretch was defined by the Lions’ inability to complement him on the other side of the ball. Stafford, who turns 33 on Sunday, is by far the Lions’ franchise leader in passing yards, completions and touchdowns, and ranks fifth among active quarterbacks in career yards with 45,109. But he has played in only three playoff games, winning none, and was selected to just one Pro Bowl, in 2014.
He asked the Lions to trade him this off-season, and his departure marks another milepost in their grand organizational overhaul. After firing Coach Matt Patricia and General Manager Bob Quinn in November 2020, Detroit hired a new coach, Dan Campbell, and a new general manager, Brad Holmes, who as the director of college scouting had endorsed the Rams’ selection of Goff No. 1 over all in 2016.
Goff, who is still owed roughly $43 million guaranteed, affords Detroit a credible quarterback to start in 2021 but hardly prevents the team from pursuing another quarterback in the draft. Selecting in the top eight for the third consecutive year, the Lions are stockpiling picks to be used not only to augment a barren roster but that could go toward a package for Stafford’s long-term successor.
Considering the package that the Lions received for Stafford, it is presumed that the Texans, should they choose to honor Watson’s request, will try to extract an even greater total of first-round picks for a younger and better quarterback. By that logic, though, Houston would also have to take on a contract as onerous as Goff’s to receive appealing compensation.
That trade-off was worthwhile for the Lions, who have sorted out their quarterback situation, and the Rams, who seem delighted to have landed Stafford. Much of the league will be busy figuring out whether to stay put or to try to surpass them.