The Indianapolis Colts have a critical offseason ahead of the franchise, and the biggest question will be what to do at starting quarterback for the 2021 season.
Therefore, one of their first moves of the offseason should be calling the Detroit Lions about the potential trade availability of franchise starting quarterback Matthew Stafford.
This past season’s Colts starter, veteran quarterback Philip Rivers just completed his 1-year, $25 million debut deal with the Colts and is set to become a free agent again.
While Colts head coach Frank Reich was adamant following the Colts’ wild card playoff loss that he wants Rivers to return for 2021, he also indicated that no clear decision has been made yet on the veteran’s future in Indianapolis—as he still has to discuss it with general manager Chris Ballard.
Let me preface this too that this year’s 11-5 Colts would be more than likely fine with another season of Rivers solidly starting behind center—which should be his ‘swan song’ regardless.
He’s a tremendous competitor and locker room leader, whose Colts teammates love him.
When the Colts can properly pass protect Rivers and he has an efficient ground game to complement him, he’s still a pretty good starting quarterback in the NFL—or at the very least, an NFL team could do a lot worse.
During all 16 starts for the Colts in 2020, Rivers completed 369 of 543 passes (68.0%) for 4,169 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and a passer rating of 97.0.
At age 39 years old, although Rivers comes with physical limitations, he makes up for it with his accuracy, anticipation, understanding of defenses, and commanding pocket presence.
This season, his 67.96% completion rate was the second highest in a single season in Colts franchise history—trailing only legendary quarterback Peyton Manning (68.83%) in 2009.
He’s by no means a problem with the Colts offense, but he also plays one of the league’s most important positions—and the unit could withstand to get more dynamic collectively.
The issue with Rivers is that while the floor is fairly high, just how far can the Colts realistically go with him starting behind center in the twilight of his playing career?
Among his physical limitations is that while Rivers was never much of a runner at all in his prime, the 39 year old veteran quarterback is pretty much immobile at this late stage of his career, meaning if the Colts’ pass protection breaks down, Rivers isn’t a quarterback who can extend or make a play when under duress. More often than not, he’s in trouble.
His lack of mobility is to the point where the Colts also utilized backup Jacoby Brissett as a specialist of sorts to either QB sneak or create the threat of a QB sneak in short yardage situations—as Rivers simply cannot do it.
There’s also the issue that Rivers understandably does not have ‘his best fastball’ anymore regarding overall passing velocity and making deep throws. While he proved he still has enough to be effective during 2020, the Colts also presumably lost out on deep shots and potential big plays that otherwise would’ve been there—if the team had a starting quarterback with a stronger arm. Reich also presumably tailors his play calls to Rivers’ arm.
Then there’s Stafford.
The 2009 former first overall pick of the Lions has gone from arguably overrated to underrated in more recent seasons, as he’s still played very good football despite being surrounded by a not-so-strong supporting cast perennially in Detroit.
Stafford has only made the playoffs during 3 of his 12 career seasons with the Lions, and he has never advanced past the wild card round of the NFC playoffs.
However, that speaks more to the Lions’ perpetual mediocrity as an NFL franchise (and being poorly run) than it does to Stafford’s individual play as a passer.
Blessed with Calvin ‘Megatron’ Johnson earlier in his career, Stafford just hasn’t had much help outside the future Hall of Fame wideout and more recently, Pro Bowler Kenny Golladay—as he hasn’t consistently had a strong offensive line, running game, or a defense to back him up.
Still, he continues to be plenty productive, seemingly making lemonade out of lemons. Specifically, Stafford completed 339 of 528 pass attempts (64.2%) for 4,084 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and a passer rating of 96.3 during all 16 starts in 2020.
He’s also played through some injuries—including torn rib cartilage, a broken thumb, a broken back, and a separated shoulder respectively.
At one point in time, Stafford had made 136 consecutive starts (2010-2019), which is the 7th longest streak for a quarterback in NFL history.
In his 12-year career, Stafford has completed 3,898 of 6,224 pass attempts (62.6%) for 45,109 passing yards, 282 passing touchdowns, and 144 interceptions during 165 career NFL starts.
In Lions’ all-time franchise history, he ranks first in passing yards (45,109), first in completions (3,898), and first in passing touchdowns (282)—as Detroit’s undisputed greatest passer.
While Stafford has consistently been a standout quarterback for Detroit, the Lions (5-11) have the 7th overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft and have the looks of a franchise that is much closer to being a bottom feeder than truly contending—facing another roster overhaul, having recently fired their head coach and general manager.
(And who knows, if Colts assistant general manager Ed Dodds, who is interviewing for the open position, ends up becoming the Lions next general manager, perhaps he could help Ballard orchestrate a Stafford trade given the prior positive working relationship between the two execs).
Due a $33 million cap hit for Detroit in 2021 and three years left on his current contract, the Lions could look to deal Stafford this offseason and jumpstart their rebuilding effort all together—with additional draft capital and cap space ($14M) to accelerate the process.
Set to turn 33 years old in early February, Stafford still has an absolute cannon for an arm and would be a significant upgrade in mobility to Rivers.
While he won’t be mistaken for Mike Vick anytime soon regarding dual-threat capability, Stafford can move a little bit in the pocket with the ability to make plays under duress and extend some plays outside the pocket—both of which are non-existent under Rivers.
He should also improve the Colts play-action sets with his added mobility.
Even though Stafford is probably a little less accurate than Rivers and wouldn’t have as great as familiarity with head coach Frank Reich’s offense, he’s a much more dynamic quarterback at this stage of their respective careers.
Stafford would improve the Colts offense’s big play potential and deep passing game, while remaining comparable to Rivers in other positive regards.
One could also expect his numbers to reasonably uptick a bit, playing in quarterback friendly head coach Frank Reich’s offensive system and behind the Colts strong pass protecting offensive line.
With Rivers, the Colts’ ceiling is probably winning a playoff game, but with Stafford, if all goes well, and with his upgraded physical tools, it might be closer to playing in an AFC Championship Game—maybe even competing in a Super Bowl.
He has the ability to make the ‘it’ throws, and the already well-rounded Colts could very well be a starting quarterback upgrade and a few pieces away from seriously contending for a championship in 2021.
The draft compensation wouldn’t be cheap (guessing at least a second round pick?), but Stafford is still young enough where he wouldn’t be just a stopgap for the Colts, but a highly productive starting NFL quarterback for at least a handful of seasons going forward.
He’s a very good starter that could really benefit from a much needed change of scenery and a fresh start—meaning one of the Colts’ first orders of business should be calling the Lions regarding his potential trade availability this offseason.