In 2016, the Los Angeles Rams traded two first-round picks, two second-round picks and two third-round picks for the chance to draft quarterback Jared Goff. On Saturday night, they agreed to trade him to the Detroit Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford — and as incentive, the Rams had to throw in two first-round picks and a third-round pick.
In between, Goff made two Pro Bowls while leading the Rams to a 42-27 regular-season record, plus two division titles, three playoff wins and an NFC Championship. In every way, that’s more than Stafford has accomplished in 12 seasons in the league. Yet the Rams parted with an eye-popping amount of draft capital to swap a 26-year-old with a 94.1 passer rating over the past four years for a 32-year-old1 with a 96.8 rating over the same period.
Blockbuster trades are rare in the NFL, and the same is true of starting quarterbacks changing teams in their prime. So why did the contending Rams pay dearly for what on paper looks to be only a slight upgrade at quarterback? And why did the rebuilding Lions saddle an all-new front office and coaching staff with a player set to cost $106 million against the salary cap over the next four years?
In the end, the trade may have been exactly what both teams needed.
Though Goff has accomplished plenty as the Rams’ signal-caller since head coach Sean McVay took over in 2017, the contrast with his brutal rookie season under Jeff Fisher sure made it seem like that success was more about McVay than Goff. And comparing Stafford’s and Goff’s production in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average and Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement shows that Stafford has broadly been the better quarterback. Pro Football Focus has graded Stafford’s play better than Goff’s across four of Goff’s five seasons:
Regardless of whether Goff is capable of getting back to his statistical heights of 2017 and 2018, the marriage of his play and McVay’s schemes was unquestionably on the rocks. After the Rams finished first and second in scoring offense in those two years, they finished 11th and 22nd in 2019 and 2020. In the press conference after the Rams’ playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, McVay refused to commit to Goff as his starting quarterback for 2021. Apparently, the Rams were committed to upgrading.
But why did the Lions downgrade?
A downward-trending Goff with four rich years left on his contract is closer to an anchor than a life preserver for a Lions team that didn’t get its head above water once during the Matt Patricia years. But a closer look at the structure of the contract reveals that Goff has no money guaranteed beyond 2022. In fact, per Over the Cap, Detroit has only a handful of players with significant money on the books for 2023 — and only one of them, 2020 first-round pick Jeffrey Okudah, is guaranteed any of it. Because the Rams took the accelerated cap hit of Goff’s signing bonus in the trade,2 the Lions would be able to cut him loose easily after two seasons.
Oh, and then there are all those draft picks. Per Washington Post reporter Nicki Jhabvala, the Lions had at least one offer for Stafford that contained more pick value in this upcoming 2021 draft. Considering that outgoing Lions general manager Bob Quinn had dealt away the team’s sixth- and seventh-round picks, more help this year had to have been tempting.
But with L.A.’s third-round pick this year, plus their first-round picks from 2022 and 2023, Detroit still has the ammo to move up in this year’s draft to take their pick of quarterbacks not named Trevor Lawrence. Or, if they’re not sold on the likes of Zach Wilson, Trey Lance or Justin Fields, having two first-round picks in both 2022 and 2023 should put them in position to take whomever they want.
Goff told NFL.com’s Michael Silver that he’s “excited” to go somewhere that “appreciates me,” and that certainly seems to be the case in Detroit. New Lions general manager Brad Holmes spent the past seven years as the Rams’ director of college scouting, and he’s the one who pushed the organization hard to draft Goff in the first place. told ESPN’s Jeff Darlington tweeted that new Lions head coach Dan Campbell is “fired up” to have Goff. Who knows? Maybe incoming offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn can rediscover Goff’s old magic, and all those first-rounders just beef up the talent level around him.
More likely, Goff will be a credible veteran starter who can play until whichever college quarterback the Lions ultimately draft is ready. Even so, at least some of Detroit’s five upcoming first-round picks should be free to spend on players to support that player, too.
The same won’t be true of Stafford in L.A. The Rams didn’t exercise a single first-round draft pick after selecting Goff, and now that Holmes has taken Goff and the Rams’ next two first-rounders with him to Detroit, the Rams won’t be able to draft a top-drawer rookie until 2024, when Stafford will have just turned 36.
The reality is that the Rams’ situation is the opposite of the Lions’. Since McVay arrived in 2017 and instantly turned them into a contender, the Rams have been built around the same nucleus of difference-makers. All-Pro defenders Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey turn 30 and 27 this year, respectively. Wideouts Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp will turn 29 and 28. Right tackle Rob Havenstein will turn 29, and two-time All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth will turn an incredible 40. Pass-rusher Leonard Floyd will turn 29 in September — and, like young safety John Johnson, is heading into free agency on the heels of a great season. Even if the Rams pay to keep those two around, as ESPN’s Lindsey Thiry noted, McVay has already gotten rid of running back Todd Gurley and wideout Brandin Cooks.
If the Rams don’t retain their key free agents, and a few of the above players’ production falls off the way it usually does for football players in their late 20s and early 30s, the overall talent level could significantly dip (with no first-rounders coming to replenish any time soon). If that happens, McVay — who’s been so hot he already has a “coaching tree” at age 35 — might be on the hot seat.
But if Stafford really is the weapon McVay needed to boost his offense back into the stratosphere, and his friendlier contract enables some free-agency spending, there’s no reason the Rams can’t be just as dangerous in 2021 as when they made the Super Bowl in 2018. And whether it’s Goff or some youngster throwing passes for the new-look Lions in 2023, Detroit got everything it needs to rebuild its roster in Holmes’s and Campbell’s image.
In the end, that’s what makes this deal make perfect sense. As wild as it is, it enables both sides to build their rosters the way they want, exactly when they want it to be built.
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