Yet despite his reasonable contract — he has two years and $43 million left on his deal — some have suggested approaching him with caution. The skeptics would note that Stafford’s 74 wins as a starting quarterback are the fourth most in NFL history for a player without a postseason victory, behind Jim Hart, Steve Grogan and Roman Gabriel. But assigning quarterbacks wins and losses in a team sport is a fool’s errand. Instead, looking at his body of work, Stafford should be considered an above-average quarterback who could have a positive impact on his next team.
Stafford has finished among the 10 most valuable passers three times (eighth in 2016, seventh in 2017 and sixth in 2019), according to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. He was 15th in 2020, well ahead of potential free agent Mitchell Trubisky (21st) and only a few points behind Deshaun Watson (12th), a younger star rumored to be looking for a way out of Houston.
San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo could be available, too, but his QBR has been lower than Stafford’s each of the past three seasons, not to mention Garoppolo started all 16 games in a season just once over the past three years. Since 2018, Stafford has been worth five more points per game than expected based on the down, distance and field position of each of his throws, per TruMedia. Garoppolo has been worth four points per game more than expected. Trubisky was worth two points per game over expectations.
Pro Football Focus thought even more highly of Stafford in 2020, ranking him the 12th-best quarterback among 29 qualified passers. Pro Football Focus subjectively grades every play, rewarding intent and process more than results. In other words, Stafford is perhaps better on the field than he is on paper.
Stafford was especially strong last season when his arm was tested. He completed 28 of 67 deep throws (covering 20 or more air yards) for 936 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions, giving him a 123.8 passer rating on those passes. Only Arizona’s Kyler Murray had a higher passer rating on deep throws (128.9), and just he and Stafford managed to go the entire season without an interception on deep passes (minimum 45 attempts). This has been an area of improvement for Stafford. He had a passer rating of 85.7 on these throws over 24 games in 2018 and 2019.
Stafford maintains his poise under pressure, too. He completed 58 of 115 attempts while facing pressure last season for 876 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions, producing a 91.8 passer rating on those snaps. Only Justin Herbert (99.4) earned a higher passer rating on those plays. Stafford’s improvement over the prior two years is also evident here.
Stafford under pressure
Yards per pass
He’s also versatile, with an ability to produce no matter the offensive personnel or scheme. In 2020, he averaged 7.4 yards per pass using “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and 8.6 yards per pass using “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two wideouts). That put him above the league averages of 7.1 and 7.7 yards per play in those formations.
Since he earned Detroit’s full-time starting job in 2011, Stafford has played for four head coaches (Darrell Bevell, Matt Patricia, Jim Caldwell and Jim Schwartz) and four offensive coordinators (Bevell, Jim Bob Cooter, Scott Linehan and Joe Lombardi). Despite that instability, Stafford earned an above-average passer rating relative to the league in five of those 10 seasons and recorded a higher adjusted net yards per passing attempt (a modern update to passer rating) in six seasons.
In fact, if you look at the past decade as a whole, Stafford accumulated 5,135 adjusted net yards more than an average quarterback, placing him behind only this Who’s Who list of franchise players: Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger.
Players with performance similar to Stafford’s at this point in their careers include Tony Romo and John Elway, per Pro Football Reference’s similarity scores. If we look at how those two performed from 33 to 34, which would cover the last two years of Stafford’s five-year, $135 million contract, we can perhaps get a sense of what to expect from Stafford in the short term. Romo averaged 251.1 yards and more than two touchdowns per game in that time, and Elway managed 250.7 yards and 1.4 touchdowns.
That resulted in a 104.1 passer rating for Romo and an 89.4 passer rating for Elway, which were 22 and 16 percent higher than the league average. In today’s offensively oriented NFL, that would equate to a passer rating between 105 and 108, on par with how well Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Wilson performed in 2020. All three were considered MVP candidates at some point this season.
If there is a knock on Stafford’s performance, it’s that he doesn’t take full advantage of a clean pocket. This season, he completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,208 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions when he wasn’t facing pressure, producing a 97.6 passer rating, the seventh lowest of 29 qualified passers. However, some of that could be the byproduct of 23 dropped passes in those situations, the fourth most among that same group of passers.
Even if he’s not in the top tier of quarterbacks, Stafford remains an above-average starter who makes a positive impact on the offense. And in the right situation, he is talented enough to stretch the field and get the ball in the hands of his playmakers. In the ideal situation — a team with a strong offensive line, capable pass catchers and an inventive head coach — he could be one of the five best quarterbacks in the NFL in 2021.