Stafford fared well in his first season without Calvin Johnson last year, largely thanks to offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter's short, quick-strike passing game that spreads the ball. Since Cooter became playcaller mid-2015, only 26.6 percent of Stafford's attempts have traveled more than 10 yards, down from 33.1 percent between 2011 and mid-2015. The result has been a more efficient Stafford, with his completion percentage under Cooter jumping to 66.6 (61.3 pre-Cooter) and his YPA to 7.3 (7.1), while his INT rate has dropped to 1.5 percent from 2.6. And with no Megatron, the Lions became the first team since the record-setting 2013 Broncos with five 50-catch players. Stafford led an NFL-record eight late-game comebacks last season, but tore ligaments in the middle finger of his throwing hand Week 14 and struggled the rest of the way. The finger is healed, but Stafford is without 95-target Anquan Boldin. A healthy backfield -- the top four RB missed a combined 26 games -- will take a chunk of those targets, as could third-round pick Kenny Golladay, who at 6-4 is the tallest wideout on the roster. The team also prioritzed upgrading its middling O-line in the offseason, but left tackle Taylor Decker suffered a torn labrum in June and likely will miss the beginning of the year.
It's the end of an era in Detroit, as for the first time in his career Stafford won't have Calvin Johnson to throw to. The 28-year-old quarterback has made his living putting the ball up for Megatron, posting five consecutive seasons with at least 4,250 passing yards and 20 TDs, and it can't be understated how different the Lions will look without Johnson commanding attention on the outside. One big clue to the team's future offensive philosophy came in the draft, however, when they used three of their first five picks on offensive linemen and none on wide receivers. Stafford is usually among the most-sacked QBs in the NFL (44 last season, tied for sixth most), and the new road-graders are more likely to help with the running game than pass protection. Detroit did bring in Marvin Jones from Cincinnati to help replace Johnson at wide receiver, and Golden Tate has proven himself capableas the No.1 option in the past when Johnson was injured, yet it still seems very possible the team will look to run more in 2016. That said, the passing game sprung to life in the second half last season after quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter replaced Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator, with Stafford posting a 19:2 TD:INT over the final eight games.
Despite having the best stable of offensive weapons in his career, Stafford largely disappointed last season. Stafford's never been especially efficient, as his best seasons were mostly products of tremendous volume. And last season his YPA (19th) and completion percentage (25th) could not make up for a four-year low in attempts (though he still ranked fifth in the league). Stafford has perhaps the league's strongest arm and utilizes multiple release points, but he might trust his arm too much at times, considering his suspect decision-making and accuracy. Calvin Johnson being limited or out five weeks with an ankle injury surely didn't help, nor did an offensive line that allowed 45 sacks (4th most). Stafford could also use more help in the red zone, where he converted only 19.7 percent of his 76 attempts into touchdowns, ranking 25th. Second-year tight end Eric Ebron, 6-4, 265, certainly has that potential and is expected to be the third option in the passing game this year. The second option, Golden Tate, proved his value as he became the first player other than Megatron to lead the team in receiving since 2007. Reggie Bush is gone, but Joique Bell, Theo Riddick and rookie Ameer Abdullah provide a trio of pass-catching running backs. Despite coach Jim Caldwell's proclamation that the Lions will throw less this season, it wouldn't surprise if Stafford had more attempts, considering the losses of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley weakened the defense.
Despite throwing to one of the league's thinnest receiver rotations and finishing the year with a miserable four-game stretch in which he threw for just two touchdowns and five interceptions, Stafford still managed to finish his fifth season with 4,650 yards and 29 touchdowns. It's safe to expect improvement in 2014, perhaps to a significant extent, especially considering the Lions secured two major pass-catching upgrades in the offseason by signing wide receiver Golden Tate away from Seattle and drafting tight end Eric Ebron with the 10th overall pick. Tate was extremely efficient for the the Seahawks, averaging 9.6 yards per target over the last two seasons. By contrast, second- and third-leading Lions' wideouts, Nate Burleson and Kris Durham, averaged only 8.5 and 5.8 yards per target last season, respectively. Ebron, meanwhile, provides wideout speed on a 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame, and he showed a knack for making spectacular catches at North Carolina. Ebron actually led the Tar Heels in receptions and receiving yardage last season, tallying 62 catches for 973 yards (15.7 YPC). He'll be a major upgrade over Brandon Pettigrew and gives Stafford a legitimate red-zone alternative to Calvin Johnson. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell will continue providing Stafford with solid production both in the running and receiving games.
Coming off of a season in which he attempted 727 passes – the most in NFL history – Stafford has plenty of room to become more efficient. Stafford's 59.8-percent completion rate matched his career mark, but that's not a good thing in the quarterback’s fourth season in the league. And his 6.8 YPA ranked him 21st among the 29 QBs with 300 passing attempts. While Stafford passed for nearly 5,000 yards, he threw for only 20 touchdowns – fewer than half of what he mustered in 2011 – and 17 picks.
If he can post increases in completion percentage and YPA – something that's likely with the weapons in Detroit, including free agent running back Reggie Bush – Stafford has top-quarterback potential. And his record-setting passing volume was no anomaly – he attempted the fifth-most attempts in league history in 2011.
Stafford is also the perfect example of why our perception of "injury proneness" is flawed. After playing in only 13 of the Lions’ 32 games in 2009 and 2010, Stafford hasn't missed a game over the past two seasons. It's more likely Stafford was never really any more susceptible to injuries than anyone else, but simply got unlucky.
Stafford might have the lowest floor of the QBs in this range due to durability concerns. Even in last year’s 16-game showing, he suffered a fractured finger on his right hand and played through injuries to his ankle and knee. It’s encouraging that he was still able to perform at a high level, but coming off a two-year span in which he missed 19 games, it would have been more reassuring had Stafford steered clear of trouble entirely. Still, even if he’s a relative risk, his upside is too high for him to be listed any lower. Stafford is a good bet to lead the league in passing attempts, while playing in an offense that might have the NFL’s best receiver, as well as four or five other productive targets. He averaged 7.6 yards per pass while throwing the ball 663 times in 2011, resulting in 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns against just 16 interceptions. As long as he (and Calvin Johnson) stay healthy, Stafford is a virtual lock to put up big numbers.
Stafford would probably be ranked higher if he weren’t such a health risk. He has dealt with injuries to his right knee and both shoulders in his two-year career, with two throwing-shoulder injuries limiting him to just three appearances last season. But in the games Stafford did play, he put up very nice fantasy numbers. He totaled 452 yards, six passing touchdowns, one interception and a rushing touchdown against Washington and the Jets. If he could just stay on the field, the strong-armed Stafford would be in a great position to build on those two games, as he has a good supporting cast at the skill positions—Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best at running back, Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler at tight end and Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson and Titus Young at wideout.
It was a predictably tough rookie year for Stafford after the Lions threw him to the wolves. He got banged up (knee, shoulder) but should be ready for training camp.
Take out one big game against the Browns and Stafford threw eight TDs with 18 picks.
There is Calvin Johnson, though. He’s a freakishly athletic wide receiver who could almost single-handedly carry Stafford to about 20 TDs.
Given the indoor environment and the Lions
poor defense, you have a QB situation worth
considering. In leagues that do not count picks, Stafford
can be a late-round bargain and someone who
can really help a savvy owner who plays
matchups and sticks to Lions home games.
Even though the Lions took Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick in April, Daunte Culpepper will be a caretaker behind center. And he should be one for the whole year because if Stafford goes out there with this team, he will likely get beat up and then could be shell-shocked for years. Throwing Culpepper to the wolves makes the most sense. New head coach Jim Schwartz, the former defensive coordinator of the Titans, is likely to rely on offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to call the plays. Linehan has been QB friendly in the past – especially for the Vikings (three years beginning in 2002). By now most people realize Calvin Johnson is the LeBron James of the NFL – same type of freakish manchild. But the Lions also have some decent complementary weapons – Ronald Curry and Bryant Johnson both have decent speed for their size, tight-end Brandon Pettigrew was the team’s first-round pick and tailback Kevin Smith is also a good receiver. Moreover, Linehan likes to call pass plays in the red zone and near the goal-line, so that alone should provide a few extra touchdowns for Lions signal-callers. Of course, if the Lions struggle – which they likely will – there’s no telling when Stafford will replace Culpepper, either during particular games, or for good. And if that happens, it’s unrealistic to expect Stafford to be Matt Ryan. The consensus is that Stafford is a supremely talented thrower (though there was too much wobble in his passes in the games we reviewed) not remotely prepared to step in and start early. Look at the rookie year of the player to whom he’s most compared for valuation guidance. Jay Cutler played five games as a rookie and played well, but was available on the waiver wire in non-keeper formats as Stafford will be in the unlikely event he starts even that meager number of contests after Thanksgiving.