In the 2011 season, Matthew Stafford entered the group of fantasy elite QBs when he tallied 5,038 passing yards, 41 TDs and 16 INTs. It was only his 3rd year in the league and he joined the top tier of fantasy QBs that included Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Fantasy experts saw a young QB with a rocket of an arm, an offense who passes more than anybody, along with the best WR in the NFL, Calvin Johnson, and decided to anoint Stafford as the next big thing at the QB position and a player who would produce fantasy greatness for years to come.
The following year Stafford set the NFL record for passing attempts but his TDs fell dramatically from 41 to 20. We heard a lot of stories about how many times Lions players were tackled inside the 5 yard-line and even at the 1 yard-line and we heard that his 20 TD season was a fluke. He’d be projected as a top 6 QB once again. Well, two more years have passed since Matthew Stafford’s 41 TD outburst in 2011 and in that time frame eleven different QBs have thrown 30 TD passes….none of them are named Matthew Stafford. In 2013, he fell just short with 29 TDs but then followed that up this season with an abysmal 22 TD passes. I think it’s safe to say that the last three years are not all flukes, but that Stafford was just too hyped after 2011. Year after year fantasy owners have been spending a relatively high draft pick (ADP round 3-5) on Stafford and coming away disappointed while chasing what may be the real fluke, 2011’s stats.
In 2014, Stafford bottomed out setting his low mark in passing yards in 4 years and his 22 TDs ranked 14th at the position, one above rookie Derek Carr. Heading into the season, experts and fantasy players were once again expecting Stafford to produce, with a 4th round ADP (46th pick overall) so the question is….what happened?
Coming Into the Season
Joe Lombardi took over as offensive coordinator for the Lions this season replacing Scott Linehan who was released when Jim Schwartz was replaced by Jim Caldwell as the Lions head coach. Linehan had done a decent job developing Stafford since he joined the staff in 2009 including the career year in 2011, but the Lions opted to go another direction and clear house upon the firing of Schwartz. They brought in former Saints QBs coach Joe Lombardi, a Sean Payton disciple to run the offense. Lombardi’s recognition as an OC candidate came to fruition while Sean Payton was suspended following the bountygate scandal. The Saints didn't suffer on offense and many believed Lombardi was the reason. Stafford had all the tools for Lombardi to mold Stafford into the next Drew Brees, a comparison that started popping up upon Lombardi's hiring.
Golden Tate was added to bookend Calvin Johnson on the outside, and as it turned out to complement him in the slot. Having played in a conservative offense in Seattle, it was unknown how good Tate would be but one thing was for sure, he was better than the man he’d be replacing in Nate Burleson and/or Kris Durham. In addition, the Lions used their first round pick on Eric Ebron, a physical specimen with great hands at tight end. These changes once again had everyone aboard the Stafford hype train.
2014: Week 1- A Match Made in Heaven
Stafford’s first week in Joe Lombardi’s offense could not have been scripted any better. On the first drive of the game, Stafford found Calvin Johnson all alone for a 67-yard touchdown down the right sideline. He was all by himself, with nobody within 20 yards of him. On the second drive, he’d catch a 16-yard TD pass and was almost just as open. Stafford finished with 346 yards and 2 TDs passing, a rushing TD, and 0 turnovers in an easy 35-14 victory. The success of the high flying offense was a great start for the Stafford/Lombardi relationship and the Brees comparisons were all over the media. Little did they know, the Giants were just that bad of a defense.
2014: Weeks 2-11 – Calvin’s injury + Tate’s Emergence = Stafford Mediocrity
Over the next 10 games the Lions would go 6-4. They found themselves in a race for the division lead, but it was due to their top ranked defense, not their quarterback. Stafford had only 11 TDs and 10 INTs during this stretch, while only throwing for 300+ yards once. His top performances (2 passing TDs each game) came against the Jets, Saints and Falcons….and the way those defenses were playing, should those even count as good games?
Calvin Johnson sustained an ankle injury in week 3 against Green Bay. He played the next 2 weeks as a decoy combining for only 3 catches and 19 yards. The Lions decided to shut him down for the next 3 weeks. Basically five weeks were played without Calvin Johnson, a scene all too familiar to Lions fans. Stafford didn’t actually have his worst weeks without Calvin, but his improvement in the new offense had to be put on hold while they waited for Calvin to get healthy.
The one positive to come out of the injury was Stafford’s new found chemistry with breakout WR Golden Tate. Tate basically put up Calvin-like numbers during this stretch. In the five games that Calvin was either a decoy or out, Tate had four 100 yard games (three over 134 yds) and surpassed seven receptions in each game. He made two game winning TD catch and runs, one against the Saints and the second against the Falcons. This chemistry would carry through the rest of the season even when Calvin returned and Tate became a dynamic number two option,a mismatch against #2 CBs who could take it to the house on any play.
2014: Weeks 12-17 – Finally!
After a brutal 10 week stretch and back to back 0 TD weeks heading into week 12, Stafford was written off for good as a fantasy option. However, something clicked against the Bears that week that stuck for the remainder of the season. Sure, the Bears are one of the worst defenses in the league, but Stafford looked absolutely incredible on Thanksgiving Day throwing for 390 yards and 2 TDs on 34/45. In the final 5 weeks Stafford threw for 9 TDs and only 2 INTs while the Lions finished winning 4 of their last 5. He had his first two 3 TDs games and had two 300+ yards outings during this time. His most impressive game was actually a loss where he had 217 yards 3 TDs 0 INTs at GB in week 17 to end the season. Sure, Aaron Rodgers out dueled him but putting up those numbers in Green Bay in December is something that only a guy like Rodgers does.
Stafford may be undervalued next season and I believe he will improve significantly. I’m going to give him one more try as long as his ADP puts him in the middle rounds. He finished the season red hot and started realizing Joe Lombardi’s vision on offense. His chemistry with Golden Tate is tremendous for his prospects of breaking out next season. Calvin Johnson is still as good as he always was and if he could ever stay on the field we could see something really special.
However, I don't mean top 5 QB when I say really special. For one, the Lions defense is elite. If they can retain Ndomukong Suh next season, then it will remain elite. In addition, the running game is much improved. Joique Bell has settled into the Lions work-horse back and was able to close out games by picking up late first downs and eating clock. The team no longer needs to rely on Stafford’s arm to win games. This formula was successful and will not be changing if the defense remains intact. Keep an eye on Suh’s status because if the defense gets worse it will really help Stafford’s fantasy value.
Stafford will enter year two with confidence in Joe Lombardi’s system. Lombardi was quoted as saying “Looking back, I kind of tried to drop maybe some responsibilities on him that maybe a quarterback like Drew didn’t get until four years into the system in New Orleans. “We asked a lot of him and he responded...” Stafford will have another year under his belt throwing balls to Golden Tate and while Eric Ebron did very little (as almost all rookie TEs do), we can expect a significant improvement in his game. I do think Stafford will reach 4500 yds and 30 TDs next season. In a way too early mock draft on NFL.com he was the 14th QB off the board in the 12th round. Getting Stafford at that value is highway robbery. I anticipate his value improving the offseason and would target him as the 10th QB starting in round 8.