Ignoring for a moment the crowd who always wanted Matthew Stafford traded or cut, and likewise those who think he’s going to quarterback the Lions for the next 37 seasons, it’s time to talk about the quarterback position in Detroit and what it could look like in 2020 and beyond. Whether you love or hate Stafford, the Lions are entering a pivotal crossroads with the best passer they’ve ever fielded.
Playing with a broken back in 2018, Stafford had what many consider to be a very poor season. He took too many needless sacks, forced too many passes, and wasn’t as accurate as he had been previously. Injury and horrible play calling aside, Stafford likely isn’t pleased with his own performance, and the Lions can’t be either.
Moving on from Stafford in 2019 is an impossibility (sorry haters), as it was in 2018, and with such a weak quarterback class, the team opted to hold onto him for at least another year. They were unusually aggressive scouting quarterbacks this season, however, despite the poor class. You could chalk that up to contingency planning due to Stafford’s injury, but I had heard rumblings that the Lions were considering life after Stafford and possibly even planning for it the moment Matt Patricia was hired.
So here we are staring at a possibly prolific quarterback class in 2020. The news of the Stafford injury was merely coincidental, I had always planned on starting the draft watch series with quarterbacks, but the quarterbacks I’m looking ahead to are of a completely different breed than I’m used to. There will be no ‘backups or developmental prospects only’ rule for me this season. We’re diving into succession planning.
Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Let’s cut to the meat right away, shall we? I think the fan perception of Tagovailoa as a prospect has clouded a bit the excellent prospect that he is. He has a strong arm and compact release, and his accuracy shows serious upside that likely translates to a smooth transition from college to pro. There’s a reason the “Tank for Tua” tag started the moment he stepped on the field as a freshman and, unlike many before him, didn’t die down as his college career progressed.
The fan view of Tagovailoa seems to be that he is an Andrew Luck level of prospect, and while he might get there this year, the expectations should be tempered at least a bit. He is a phenomenal prospect as it is, but don’t equate that with a perfect one. He has dealt with several injuries in his career that will cause at least some concern for long term durability. His arm strength can be erratic at times (similar to Deshaun Watson at Clemson). He showed some wrinkles to his game when facing top defenses, and while every QB has a tougher time against tougher defenses (duh), the difference for Tagovailoa in those games vs. the rest of his college career is like the difference between Mark Sanchez and prime Drew Brees. Tagovailoa enters 2020 as the favorite for first overall pick and is throwing to the best receiving corps in the nation, so I don’t expect this lefty’s star to wane much, if at all.
Justin Herbert, Oregon
While there was a bit of a stir when Tony Pauline recently reported that Justin Herbert was the highest graded Senior QB of the last decade, it probably shouldn’t have been too shocking. Prior to his return to Oregon, reportedly to play with his brother (a talented tight end you’ll probably be hearing more about in 2021), Herbert was almost unanimously the top quarterback in the 2019 draft class. Had he declared for the draft, there’s a very high chance it would have been him selected first overall instead of Kyler Murray, but you didn’t come here for hypotheticals involving 2019, you came here for hypotheticals for 2020.
Fans who have watched the Lions for the past decade can probably recognize the tools that Herbert would be coming into the NFL with. Oregon’s system isn’t very complex, relying on a variety of screens and short to intermediate passes, only occasionally opening up deep. Herbert has a live arm, but it’s very unrefined. He doesn’t have quite the arm that Matthew Stafford had coming out of Georgia, more in the very good arm range than elite in terms of velocity, but Herbert is similar in that he lacks a lot of touch that comes with experience and proper coaching and mostly just throws bullets. He also sidearms more than he should, but. like Stafford, he usually uses that particular tool to his advantage. His upside is such that he’s still likely to be a very early selection in 2020 and if the Lions are ready to plan for succession, he’s as much in play as the fan favorite Tua Tagovailoa.
Jake Fromm, Georgia
It’s funny sometimes how cyclical football can be. When the Lions drafted Matthew Stafford, they were getting a pro style QB with a strong NFL toolset who met physical thresholds but had questions about if he could reign in his accuracy as a pro, and here they could be in 2020 looking at another Georgia QB who checks many of the same boxes. Like Tagovailoa, Fromm had first-round buzz from the moment he stepped onto a football field in college, and also like his Alabama counterpart, Fromm is facing criticism that is largely superficial at this point and unlikely to impact his pro projection barring a collapse in 2019.
A similar prospect to Herbert in some ways, Fromm is a fastball passer who is significantly better the closer to the line of scrimmage he is throwing. He can throw downfield when he wants to, but his velocity suffers, leading to high arcing throws. His arm strength and athleticism are both closer to average than above, but I have little concerns for either area (he won’t get the “reminds me of Matt Ryan” comparison that dooms many prospects with weaker arms and average athleticism).
From a system standpoint, Fromm is more likely to fit in Darrell Bevell’s system than the two mentioned before, but the systemic differences between college and pro offenses have narrowed drastically every season so that may not mean a thing.
Jacob Eason, Washington
Curiously, Eason falls into a similar situation for the Lions in that they could be moving from one former Georgia passer to another one. Eason started for the Bulldogs before Jake Fromm stole the role, with Eason suffering a knee injury that knocked him out in 2017. Eason is considered a top prospect largely based on potential that we only got a brief look at and the expectation that he’s going to show an improved level of play despite a long absence from football. His transfer to Washington should have meant opportunity, but he sat behind Jake Browning and his prolific college career.
Eason is nothing like the previous players I’ve been talking about so far. He falls into the more traditional mold of a pocket passer in the NFL, a big dude with a huge arm whose mobility can leave him vulnerable at times. His accuracy can be questionable, which isn’t what you like to hear about a guy who isn’t really going to threaten you with his feet. I know the skeptics among you are going to come with the laundry list of ‘big armed tall guys who aren’t accurate’ but the reason we keep talking about these guys is that they occasionally win Super Bowls. The NFL may be shifting in a different direction, though, so Eason faces an uphill battle.
D’Eriq King, Houston
After Russel Wilson, there was a QB every season that was touted as the next big thing. All you had to be was small, the rest of it didn’t even really matter, as if Russell Wilson didn’t have some of the best college tape of the last decade. With Kyler Murray going first overall, we may be seeing a more genuine change in the NFL. Not only is the concept that a smaller QB can succeed being accepted, but it could even start to be embraced in scouting circles. We’ve seen Drew Brees do it, then there was a pretty big gap to Russell Wilson and Baker Mayfield before we got to Murray, but it’s a real thing NFL teams are considering now.
Enter D’Eriq King. King hasn’t gotten a lot of talk entering the 2019 season, but I think that may change if he continues or improves upon his level of play. Already productive in a once maligned system now being embraced in the NFL, King is a unique blend of athletic potential and passing talent. It isn’t often you have a quarterback prospect who can boast almost 500 pass attempts, 200 rushes, and 60 receptions on his resume, along with having scored touchdowns as a passer, rusher, receiver, and returner. He’s an exciting player to watch, and a guy who could see his name rise quickly as the 2019 season progresses.
Shea Patterson, Michigan
The former Mississippi prospect turned Michigan man got a bit of (somewhat odd) hype during the lead up to the 2019 draft, but he does have a legitimate shot of pushing his name into that day one or two consideration in 2020.
Nathan Stanley, Iowa
Statuesque and not very accurate, I’ve seen Stanley floated as a potential sleeper for 2020. Another big, thickly built, strong-armed passer, Stanley doesn’t have too many flaws to his game. His biggest flaw is missing passes high, one of the worst ways you can miss in the NFL since safeties eat that right up.
K.J. Costello, Stanford
Costello’s passing numbers don’t look too bad, and statistically you might think to yourself, “Hey, this could be a dude”. After watching him, I can’t recall having seen a quarterback panic so much, reminding me of post-broken-clock David Carr. I could imagine high-pitched screams as he made poor decisions on throws or ran with barely any pressure. If he can calm down, there’s plenty to like, but man, the guy is jumpy.
Brian Lewerke, Michigan State
There were moments in Lewerke’s career that made you look at him as a top-round prospect. Unfortunately, there are all those other moments in his career that make you wonder what you saw in those first moments. Expecting a shockingly high RAS, not that it matters much.
Sam Ehlinger, Texas
You know what? Ehlinger is a fun QB. With 700 passes over the last two seasons, he’s shown he can throw a ton, and he’s been fairly accurate over that span. He is athletic enough to make teams wary of his legs (16 touchdowns on the ground in 2018), and he has a thickly built, muscular frame that coaches will love. More than any of the ‘Other’ guys I mentioned, I think Ehlinger has the best shot to push his name into the first round talk.