For the Lions to compete in a division that houses the world champion Packers and the division champion Bears, who also met in the conference championship game, they need a healthy Matthew Stafford. They are a quarterback away from being a playoff team, and he's the missing piece.
He's intelligent, has the arm strength to make the deep throw and can run a vertical aerial attack with playmaking ability. He'll stay in the pocket and face pressure, but we've seen him hold on to the ball too long with devastating results. He's still learning and needs to do work on a physical and mental level to become an elite quarterback.
The last two years has seen Stafford miss 19 games because of knee and shoulder injuries. In 2009 it was a dislocated kneecap and then a separated shoulder. In 2010 a shoulder separation twice to the same shoulder ended his season. He's finally healthy and returning to a team with burgeoning stars waiting to break out. The talent is there, putting him immediately in a position to make a fantasy impact.
You can't forget the brains behind the offense, coordinator Scott Linehan, who's had the following quarterbacks make the Pro Bowl under his tutelage.
Linehan knows how to create a vertical aerial attack using speed when he has the players to carry it out. He did it in Minnesota with Culpepper and Randy Moss, and many on this Lions roster are entering their third season in this offense and should finally, fully understand the playbook and minimize the mistakes. It's not always about starters vs. scrubs and inflated preseason stats but executing the playbook, continual development of players and getting ready for the regular season. Preseason is not about wins, but development and cohesion. Years from now, we may say Stafford was the most talented quarterback Linehan ever coached.
Stafford insists his shoulder and knee are fine as he enjoys a great preseason. He's 24-of-31 for 256 yards and five touchdowns with a completion percentage of 77.4 and a quarterback rating of 154.0. Sure, it's only the preseason, but Stafford is showing the skills necessary to take the next step.
He has run the hurry-up offense effectively, worked in his receivers, is developing chemistry and is making smart decisions, such as not taking a sack or a hit when it's not necessary. After a preseason game, he smartly explained why he flipped a ball out of bounds as an incomplete pass, stating it was a simple decision to toss it out of bounds in order not to lose yardage. Those little details separate greatness from mediocrity.
If he continues his strong play into the regular season, Calvin Johnson may finally become a consistent All-Pro receiver, justifying his lofty fantasy draft status without question. Even RB Jahvid Best would have a better chance of making it through the season healthy if an aerial attack keeps opposing defenses honest. Stafford doesn't have to carry this team, just make everyone around him better.
Yes, that's easier said than done, but during player organized activities he had a goal to re-establish chemistry with the receivers (Johnson and TE Brandon Pettigrew), to work on his rhythm and continue to develop his strength and accuracy. He's showing leadership traits, focusing the rest of the preseason on game management, which includes knowing when to keep the ball and when to throw it away. That doesn't sound like someone who worries about his stats.
The Lions ended the 2010 season on a four-game winning streak and must carry that momentum into the regular season. Stafford is ready to do that, with the goal of staying healthy. One way the team plans on keeping Stafford healthy is to put him in the shotgun formation to give him a better view of the field and the ability to spot and avoid the pass rush. The team will also employ the no-huddle offense. This is a spread offense, which benefits an aerial attack.
With Linehan's time in Detroit as a barometer, as well as his tenures with the Vikings (2002-05) and Rams (2006-08), if Stafford plays injury-free, it will not be a stretch to see him approach 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns. That would put him inside the top 10 for fantasy quarterbacks, making him a value pick. His ADP (average draft position) has him going with the 103rd overall pick, Round Nine in a 12-team league, the 12th quarterback taken, but with the potential to finish inside the top 10 of fantasy quarterbacks.
That's the hype and positive outlook on Stafford, but should you take him as your No. 1 quarterback? Despite my admiration for him, I wouldn't want to. I usually take a low-end elite such as Tony Romo in past years or, this year, a Ben Roethlisberger or Matt Ryan. I then hold off until later in the draft, usually the early late rounds, and take a Kevin Kolb-type player. Someone with upside but who has dropped into the later rounds. I've reached a few times in the past for a great No. 2 fantasy quarterback to use as trade bait or in case my starter goes down, and if anyone is tempting for that role this year, it's Stafford.