ATHENS, Ga. -- An offensive assistant coach for a team with a top-10 pick in the NFL draft couldn't stop raving about Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. He'd recently had a lengthy, private chat with Stafford and was left blown away.
"Love him," he said. "Very impressive."
Another high-ranking talent evaluator with a team sitting a little deeper in the draft said he spent most of Wednesday breaking down film of Stafford. Like several of the 50-plus representatives from the 32 teams on hand at Georgia's pro day, he compared him to Jay Cutler -– skill-wise -– then invoked the name of the other young quarterback who Stafford will inevitably be compared to: Atlanta's Matt Ryan.
"He can make all the same throws (Ryan can) except he has a stronger arm," he said. "What sets (Ryan) apart from just about any other quarterback in the NFL is he is so cerebral. Still, (Stafford) has got 'it.' "
This was before Stafford validated his arm strength and athleticism in a 50-throw workout on his familiar college practice field in breezy conditions at his pro day Thursday. He nailed a well-designed passing script that called not only for short-, intermediate- and long-range throws, but a variety of straight dropbacks, play-action fakes and rollouts that simulated him going through checkdowns and progressions.
The people talking about their affinity for Stafford weren't from Detroit, which has the No. 1 overall pick following its historic 0-16 season. They have the luxury of watching the Lions -- known for repeated draft-day blunders, among other dubious trademarks –- decide if they will draft Stafford.
Detroit needs a quarterback and Stafford is considered the best among this year's lot (USC's Mark Sanchez and Kansas State's Josh Freeman are the other likely first-round selections). But is Stafford, who declared a year early and arguably was the second-best player on his team -- behind running back Knowshon Moreno -- worthy of the top pick?
If it were just about any other team, that might be the only question to be answered. But since the failures of Detroit and former general manager Matt Millen made the Lions' approach to the draft appear about as scientific as pin the tail on the donkey, Stafford also has to contend with the Lions' draft legacy.
Though Martin Mayhew, Tom Lewand and James "Shack" Harris are calling the shots in Detroit now, the Shadow of Joey Harrington still hovers. Detroit, with the No. 3 pick in 2002, whiffed badly on Harrington, a charming person and talented college quarterback with "can't-miss" more frequently attached to his name than Stafford.
Turned out, however, he didn't translate to the NFL. His teammates lost faith in him, his confidence never matched his ability, and fans turned on him before he was let go after the 2005 season. The mere mention of his name in Detroit draws swift and negative reaction, which could have the Lions gun-shy about selecting a quarterback –- not just Stafford -- with the top pick.
Striking out on a player at the game's most important position is devastating, especially considering the money quarterbacks and No. 1 overall pick's command.
Yet, there is a sobering offset.
"How do you think they'll feel if they don't draft him and he takes another team to the playoffs?" an NFL personnel evaluator said.
And there are other teams, clearly, who wouldn't pass on Stafford. Seattle at No. 4, Jacksonville at No. 8 and San Francisco at No. 10, all need quarterbacks. Maybe not right away, but one to groom.
That's the big difference from last year, when Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco started as rookies and played well enough to help take their teams to the playoffs. Stafford, Sanchez or Freeman –- all underclassmen –- might not be asked to play right away, so they can learn their craft and the league from the sideline, like most quarterbacks are allowed to do when they enter the NFL.
The Lions could use the first overall pick on an offensive tackle or defensive lineman or linebacker –- positions of need. Those are also safe picks, where a player's inexperience and shortcomings can be masked. No one could blame the Lions for not only going the safe route, but also for placing keystone talent to build upon in needed areas.
Miami drafted tackle Jake Long with the No. 1 pick last season and was relatively pleased with his steady development as a starter. Long's solid, yet unheralded, rookie season came a year after the Raiders used the top overall pick on quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who has yet to prove he's a bona fide starter.
Stafford has a greater body of work than Russell did when he left LSU early, but like Russell, the first thing mentioned about Stafford is his arm strength.
Should Detroit pass on Stafford, tackles Jason Smith (Baylor) or Eugene Monroe (Virginia) could be the Lions' choice. So could Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry. That would immediately alter some draft boards, but NFL types already have 4 trillion scenarios in place, so no one would –- or at least shouldn't -- be surprised if Stafford doesn't go No. 1.
Most teams probably have even factored in the scenario of Detroit possibly trying to trade the top pick to Denver for the disgruntled Cutler –- the player Stafford is most frequently likened to.
If Stafford isn't drafted No. 1, the depth of his fall isn't expected to be catastrophic. The Rams, who hold the No. 2 pick, could pull a stunner and take a quarterback –- they plan to acquire Marc Bulger's eventual replacement at some point in the draft –- but selecting an offensive tackle to protect Bulger and block for tailback Steven Jackson seems paramount.
The Chiefs (No. 3) just traded for New England's Matt Cassel, so they're likely to keep Stafford moving down the line. Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp (a longtime quarterbacks coach) were at Stafford's workout and were paying close attention. Though Matt Hasselbeck is the starter for the foreseeable future, preparing his eventual successor could be prudent.
There is no guarantee Stafford will end up in the top five, and trying to get a straight answer from people holding those picks is like trying to pry a molar from the back of the mouth of a great white. You'll get a lot of this if you ask:
"Great arm. Can make all the throws."
"Should have stayed for his senior year."
"The worst you'll get is an NFL starter. The best you'll get is someone who gets the team to the playoffs regularly."
The best gauge of Stafford's value stems from the feeling among some talent evaluators at his pro day: If Detroit wants to draft a quarterback, it better take one with the first overall pick. Though the Lions also hold the 20th selection, Stafford won't be there.