No. 6: Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Why he's here
Matthew Stafford occasionally operates like the starting quarterback of an early 1990s video game. Fifty-yard throws are delivered on a line. Arm strength doesn't diminish when he's on the run or when his feet aren't set. The limits of the quarterback position appear to be tested, expanded. Then halftime arrives, and a mortal comes out of the Detroit Lions' locker room.
Stafford's hot streaks can last a game or a quarter or even just a throw, but they embed in your brain. What if this guy could master all the nuances to the position? Could that half of brilliance stretch out into a season?
Two things about the first throw in the above video drive me crazy. The announcers talk about the catch instead, and we can't show you the All-22 view of this play. It is an absolutely outrageous toss into a tiny window. Stafford's wild arm strength is displayed in the other two bombs. He can flatten out a pass better than any quarterback.
Despite all the tools, Stafford took a significant step back in 2012. But it's not like he isn't accomplished for his age. He put the durability concerns behind him with back-to-back 16-game seasons. He's still just 25 years old, has averaged 5,000 passing yards the last two seasons and led the Detroit Lions to the playoffs in 2011 for the first time in more than a decade. So why was he so erratic last season?
Why he's not higher
I'm not an expert on quarterback mechanics. The Lions defend Stafford's tendency to throw from a wide variety of arm angles, but it can't be a good thing that Stafford often is drifting backward (or to the side) when he throws. Even at his best, Stafford's plays feel a little random. They are tough to repeat.
Stafford can rely on his natural abilities too much, like a lot of young quarterbacks. He doesn't force too many passes in the natural flow of a play, but he never gives up on a play either. There is a lot of freestyling. I saw him throw it 55 yards once without his feet set while getting absolutely hammered. (It actually was a good throw but fell incomplete.)
Stafford could use more help from his wide receivers not named Calvin Johnson. ProFootballFocus.com noted that Stafford has the second-most dropped passes of any quarterback in the league. He really missed Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles by the end of last season. Timing was very difficult without anyone except Johnson. But you can't blame it all on the receivers.
As a team, the Lions had a knack for not making the play necessary to close out games. When the Lions needed one more first down to close out a game, Stafford often missed a throw. His accuracy was scattershot throughout the season. Scott Linehan's offense, which struggled to create short, sustaining throws, didn't help.
The worst-case scenario for Stafford is that he stays right where he is. That's not so bad; he's already a better-than-average starter. To take the next step, Stafford needs to develop the mental side of his game. Stafford's season hit its nadir in a 38-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 15. It was a closer game than the score indicated.
Just two plays before the pick-six interception below, the Lions appeared to cut their deficit to seven with plenty of time left in the fourth quarter. But a touchdown was wiped off the board because Stafford didn't get the snap off in time. That's a mistake a top-shelf veteran quarterback just wouldn't make.
More than any young quarterback I studied, Stafford's interceptions often were the result of him being "fooled" by coverages. Stafford has the huge advantage of playing indoors for a pass-wacky coach alongside an all-time great receiver in the making. Stafford shows timing and precision on a lot of plays to Johnson because they have played so much together. To get on Johnson's level as an All-Pro performer, Stafford has to start winning more before the snap. He has to show timing and precision with all his receivers.
Stafford would be the quarterback to choose in a fastest throw competition. He's a great fantasy quarterback because he throws more passes than anyone in the NFL. (That's NFL history. He broke the record for attempts last year.) And yet I still would take the top of last year's rookie class over him long term.
Thanksgiving games are far more enjoyable with Stafford involved. He's a thrilling player to watch and should settle in as a top-10 quarterback for a while with every chance to rise up near the top of the heap. But a career arc closer to Drew Bledsoe or Randall Cunningham feels more likely.
After all, the NFL is not a video game.