Matthew Stafford is set to become the latest Detroit Lions star to leave the club in his early 30s.
The new regime agreed to make a clean break with the 32-year-old. Detroit is expected to trade Stafford this offseason.
More than 21 years ago, the Lions were stunned when running back Barry Sanders walked away from football, retiring at just 30 years old with the NFL's all-time rushing title in reach. The splits from Sanders and Stafford are much different circumstances but underscore a perennially struggling franchise watching its best players leave.
Sanders joined Good Morning Football on Tuesday and said he understands why the Lions and Stafford agreed to part ways this offseason.
"It sounds like both parties kind of were at that point," Sanders said. "It will be tough to replace a guy like Matt Stafford, who I feel like in a lot of ways carried the franchise for the last decade. A guy who showed up every day. You felt like you always had a chance with Matt. Maybe because of the new regime coming in and just seeing things different, sometimes things like this just happen."
Stafford owns all of the Lions' passing records. In eight out of 12 seasons, the QB has thrown for at least 4,000 yards and 20-plus TDs.
"I know Matt has a lot of good football left in him," Sanders said. "I know as a Lions fan, I wish him well. It certainly will be very difficult to replace a guy like that, who put up the kind of numbers he has over his career."
The most likely route for the Lions to replace Stafford is drafting a young signal-caller with the No. 7 overall pick -- or moving up earlier using the ammo from Stafford's eventual trade -- and buffering him with a bridge QB. Chase Daniel remains on the roster, and several other veterans will hit the open market looking for a chance to start. Names like Tyrod Taylor will be tossed about given his connection to new OC Anthony Lynn. Veterans like Jameis Winston or Jacoby Brissett could also be bridge options.
There is no question that Stafford is the greatest Lions passer in the Super Bowl-era. Only fellow Highland Park alum Bobby Lane could be argued as a better Detroit QB than Stafford based on NFL titles back in the black-and-white days of the 1950s. No other franchise signal-caller is even in the same stratosphere.
Stafford will join Sanders and Calvin Johnson as all-time great Lions who left the franchise too soon. The latter two retired rather than continue to trudge along with a franchise whose last playoff win came in 1991. Instead of playing under his fourth full-time head coach in Detroit, Stafford will move to greener pastures and avoid another rebuild.
He was the main reason the Lions were even watchable after Johnson retired in 2015. At 32 years old -- the same age as Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill -- Stafford remains in the prime of his career. There should be no shortage of suitors for the strong-armed QB who will leave behind him another gaping hole in a Lions organization that is full of voids.