Detroit Lions  

 

2011 will give Stafford a platform to prove what he can do

Jerry Lai / US Presswire
Matthew Stafford has proven he can play when he's on the field, but staying healthy has been the issue.


The players, via NFL Network, have spoken. They ranked "The Top 100 Players of 2011" and, from the 2009 quarterback class, voted Josh Freeman (No. 86 overall) tops.

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Given production to this point, I fully understand their thinking. Freeman had an exceptional season for the Buccaneers, leading the young team well beyond any realistic expectations and nearly into the postseason. He has everything you could possibly want in a quarterback -- all the measureables, intangibles, skill -- and looks to be a franchise cornerstone for years to come.

But let's not forget about, write off or dismiss Matthew Stafford from this conversation just yet. The kid was drafted first overall for a reason. He, too, could be the complete package. At worst, he deserves an incomplete, with injuries robbing him of the bulk of his first two NFL seasons.

But I know what Stafford's coaches think of him. I know what his teammates think. I know what he's flashed in games and showed consistently in practices. I saw that big arm of his winding up and looking good again at Georgia's spring game a few weeks back.

If this kid can stay healthy, the Lions' franchise is in for a reversal of its own. I remember talking to veteran offensive lineman Jon Jansen about Stafford just weeks into the passer's first training camp, and there was already no doubt in Jansen's mind the kid would start right away. "He has everything you look for in a quarterback," Jansen said. "He is going to be a star." And after being through the perpetual revolving door at QB during his career in Washington, Jansen knows a thing or two about the dos and don'ts of the position.

The question is, can Stafford stay healthy? I believe he can. But there are flaws he must correct. Scouts in the NFC North figured out that Stafford does not move up into the pocket enough when pressured. Like a punter, he stays stationary at the point of attack too often, allowing players to come off the edge and hunt for his throwing shoulder.

"Some of this is on him," one veteran scout said of the repeated injuries. "He has to feel the pressure and step up into the pocket and force pass rushers to adjust and change their angles."

But trust me, the Lions must realize this as well. Stafford is a smart kid. He just hasn't had the chance to play regularly in games that matter.

The Lions are building a formidable cast around him. The offensive line needs another year of additions, but in the meantime Stafford won't allow himself to be a sitting target. He has no shortage of weapons, and the Lions' running game will improve.

And, best of all, the defense will actually help him out now. Stafford arrived at a time when the Lions couldn't stop anyone or pressure the passer or force momentum-changing plays. He joined a team that couldn't even win a game and went years between road wins.

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It was a somewhat hopeless proposition with teams piling on points, Stafford having to chase games and throw too much and opposing coordinators teeing off on the kid. Now he can actually inherit short fields and scoring opportunities from the defense, with that front four as fearsome as they come these days (my vote for a nickname, by the way, is Motor City Madmen).

Stafford won't be as predictable, shouldn't be trailing early and often as much. He should have a better-balanced offense.

I say this is the year it all comes together for Detroit, the Lions win 10 games and perhaps reach the playoffs, and Stafford begins to be talked about the way we hear Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Freeman talked about.

There is every reason to believe this will be the breakout year. It's time Stafford got a break, um, of something other than a bone that is.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.

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