Matthew Stafford will be on the move this offseason, so long as the Detroit Lions can get a fair return in a trade. And given the number of potential suitors — playoff-caliber teams who need a quarterback and are of the win-now mindset — that should not be difficult to do.
Here is a look at top eight potential trade partners, what they can offer in a deal, and why it might or might not make sense for the Lions to pull the trigger.
1. Indianapolis Colts
QB depth chart: Philip Rivers (retiring), Jacoby Brissett (free agent), Jacob Eason.
2020 record: 11-5 (second place AFC South).
2021 draft capital: No. 21 overall; six picks in Rounds 2-7.
Trade talk: Rivers announced his retirement earlier this week, but even if he planned to play again in 2021, the Colts were going to be looking for his replacement. Indianapolis had one of the league’s best defenses this season, and has seemed a quarterback away since Andrew Luck’s abrupt retirement. The Colts have the cap space, an estimated $60 million or so, to pull off a deal and make Stafford more than a two-year rental. And general manager Chris Ballard has shown a willingness to trade for established players in the past, like when he gave up the No. 13 pick in last year’s draft for defensive lineman DeForest Buckner.
A good quarterback is worth more than a top-flight interior defender, so Stafford should command a bigger price tag than Buckner. The Colts’ first-round selection is attractive enough, though, that it could be the center piece of a deal. Throw in a second-rounder or some additional compensation, and this is a deal that could get done.
2. San Francisco 49ers
QB depth chart: Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens (restricted free agent), C.J. Beathard, Josh Rosen.
2020 record: 6-10 (last place, NFC West).
2021 draft capital: No. 12 overall; seven picks in Rounds 2-7.
Trade talk: The 49ers have the most attractive first-round pick of potential Stafford suitors, and that should not be discounted. The caliber of player the Lions could get at 12, especially if multiple quarterbacks get pushed into the top 10, will be significantly better than the type of player the Lions could get in the 20s. And with Stafford gone, and the distinct possibility they are not very good again in 2021, the Lions must take a long-term approach to any trade.
The 49ers seem ready to move on from Garoppolo, who helped them reach the Super Bowl in his only full season as a starter but missed 10 games this season and is merely average. He could be part of any trade, but with a $24.1 million base salary I’m not sure the Lions would view him an asset. Regardless, the 49ers have a championship-caliber roster outside of the quarterback position, a coach who has twice tasted Super Bowl defeat, and prominent people in the Bay Area — including legendary ex-49ers quarterback Steve Young — who have been beating the drum on acquiring Stafford for weeks. The 49ers are definitely a suitor to watch.
3. New Orleans Saints
QB depth chart: Drew Brees (likely retiring), Taysom Hill, Jameis Winston (free agent).
2020 record: 12-4 (first place, NFC South).
2021 draft capital: No. 28 overall; three picks in Rounds 2-7,
Trade talk: The Saints have been a very good team for a long time, but they are entering a new era in 2021 with Brees most likely headed to the broadcast booth. Hill is one potential in-house replacement, but if the Saints are serious about staying Super Bowl contenders, they need a more certain solution at the quarterback position.
Saints coach Sean Payton has long had an affinity for Stafford, and the Saints have been aggressive in trades before. In 2018, they traded their first-round pick (No. 27) plus a fifth-rounder and a future No. 1 to move up and draft defensive end Marcus Davenport. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison when it comes to a trade, but if the Saints are willing to give up a future one for a rookie pass rushers, it stands to reason they’d be willing to make a similar offer to the Lions, whose new head coach Dan Campbell spent the past five years in New Orleans.
And while that would seem to leave the Saints light on draft capital for this season, New Orleans should have high compensatory picks coming its way for the loss of Teddy Bridgewater in free agency and Terry Fontenot to be GM of the Atlanta Falcons.
QB depth chart: Alex Smith, Taylor Heinicke (free agent), Steven Montez.
2020 record: 7-9 (first place NFC East).
2021 draft capital: No. 19 overall; seven picks in Rounds 2-7.
Trade talk: Washington was in a state of complete rebuild last spring, but an excellent defense and terrible division made it a surprise playoff team. Now, Washington seems poised to go all in on landing a quarterback in hopes of making a run at a Super Bowl. Deshaun Watson should be Washington and every team looking for a quarterback’s top target, but if acquiring him is too pricey, a Stafford trade would make sense.
Beyond Washington’s obvious need at the position, given Smith’s age (36) and injury history, Washington hired former Lions general manager Martin Mayhew as GM this week. Mayhew drafted Stafford first overall in 2009 and once said, “If we had 22 Matthew Staffords, we’d win a Super Bowl every year.” With an extra third-round pick in April’s draft from last year’s Trent Williams trade, Washington could put an attractive package of picks together without mortgaging its future.
5. New England Patriots
QB depth chart: Cam Newton (free agent), Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer (free agent).
2020 record: 7-9 (third place, AFC East).
2021 draft capital: No. 15 overall; six picks in Rounds 2-7.
Trade talk: I put the Patriots fifth on this list only because Bill Belichick always has been more likely to buy low on distressed assets than to mortgage the future for a player on the back side of his career. The Lions will not give Stafford away for cheap, but if the Patriots are serious about contending in 2021 — and Belichick, a few months shy of his 69th birthday, does not seem like the type to go through a full rebuild — acquiring Stafford should be on their radar.
The Patriots do not have a third-round pick this year because of the most recent video tape scandal, but they have more ammo than what’s listed above because they are in line for high compensatory selections for losing Tom Brady, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy to free agency. Former Lions coach Matt Patricia is back in New England, and while I highly doubt Stafford would pull for that reunion to happen, he also won’t have a ton of say in where he goes.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
QB depth chart: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Josh Dobbs.
2020 record: 12-4 (first place, AFC North).
2021 draft capital: No. 24 overall; six picks in Rounds 2-7.
Trade talk: Roethlisberger has one season left on his contract that he reportedly intends to fulfill, but if the Steelers are being honest with themselves, their future Hall of Fame quarterback is done. What Pittsburgh needs more than anything is a young quarterback to build around, but they do not have that on their current roster and likely will not be able to find that with the No. 24 overall pick.
Even if Pittsburgh decides to go the Rivers route and cut its longtime starter like the Los Angeles Chargers did after the 2019 season, I’m not sure how realistic adding Stafford is. The Steelers have a messy salary cap situation — they currently sit about $28 million over next year’s projected cap — and their allotment of draft capital will make it hard to top other potential offers without dipping into the 2022 pool of picks.
Never say never. Pittsburgh did trade a No. 1 pick for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019. But for now, they are down the list of likely suitors.
7. Miami Dolphins
QB depth chart: Tua Tagovailoa, Ryan Fitzpatrick (free agent), Jake Rudock.
2020 record: 10-6 (second place, AFC East).
2021 draft capital: Nos. 3 and No. 18 overall; six picks in Rounds 2-7.
Trade talk: I have no idea how new Lions GM Brad Holmes feels about Tagovailoa, but if the Dolphins really are trying to trade him plus draft picks to the Houston Texans for Watson, Holmes should at least inquire about Miami’s interest in Stafford, a player they were rumored to have eyes for last spring.
Ultimately, it makes much more sense for the Dolphins to acquire Watson in his age 26 season than Stafford in his age 33 season, but Stafford would come cheaper, would help the Dolphins’ chances of winning big in 2021, and Miami does have extra choices in Rounds 1 and 2. This seems like a long shot, but Stafford is new to the trade market, nothing can be ruled out.
8. Los Angeles Rams
QB depth chart: Jared Goff, Blake Bortles (free agent), John Wolford.
2020 record: 10-6 (second place, NFC West).
2021 draft capital: No first-round pick; four picks in Rounds 2-7.
Trade talk: Old friends make strange bedfellows, but Holmes did spent the entirety of his NFL career with the Rams before coming to Detroit and was a part of the brain trust that made Goff the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft.
This is an extreme long shot, given Goff’s contract, both who would want to take it on and the cap hit the Rams would endure. But if the Lions changed area codes on Bob Quinn’s direct trade line to the Patriots front office, we have to at least account for the tiny possibility these two teams could swap quarterbacks with something else coming the Lions’ way in return.