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Matthew Stafford trade primer: Most likely destinations, trade value, cap implications

Salary cap expert Brad Spielberger breaks down the Stafford trade from every relevant angle.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, the Matthew Stafford trade speculation is off the rails. Sports writers for at least half of the teams in the NFL have already published their “Should the _____ trade for Matthew Stafford” articles, leading to exaggerated deals and pie-in-the-sky fantasies both for Lions fans and fans of teams hungry for a franchise quarterback.

To help bring us back down to reality, I wanted to get an outsider’s perspective of this trade situation from a cap and contracts expert. So I tagged our good friend Brad Spielberger, the cap expert over at PFF and a contributor to OverTheCap.com.

We asked him five questions to break down this potential trade from every single relevant angle: most likely destinations, Stafford’s trade value, the cap implications for the Lions, how the decreased salary cap could impact negotiations and, finally, how he believes the process will play out.

Here’s our conversation.

1. The big question regarding a Stafford trade is how much the Lions could get in return for a 33-year-old quarterback with two years left on his deal. Many people are pointing to the Sam Bradford trade (first and fourth) as a starting point. Is that fair?

Spielberger: “I think the better trades to look at for comparison’s sake are Alex Smith from Kansas City to Washington and/or Carson Palmer from the Bengals to the Raiders, because all of these players were/are better than Sam Bradford ever was. Bradford is also only three months older than Stafford, so back in 2016 when the Eagles sent him to the Vikings he was still in his late 20s. The respective compensation packages are very different, however: Smith was acquired for a third-round pick and CB Kendall Fuller, whereas Palmer was acquired for a first-round pick and future second-round pick.

I would imagine the Lions prefer acquiring draft picks more than players at this stage, as a complete rebuild makes sense in the post-Stafford era. With all of that said, I think Stafford’s price will be a first-round pick and then a second or third depending on how many suitors ultimately emerge. That was a lot of words to end up effectively agreeing that the Bradford package will be very close in value, but I think the Vikings’ desperation artificially drove the value up a bit there.”

2. What are the cap implications for the Lions if they trade Stafford? What about the roster bonus due on the fifth day of the league year?

Spielberger: “This is one very important component of Stafford approaching the team early on in the offseason and requesting a trade, as it’s likely that the two sides would agree to move back the due date of the roster bonus if that becomes necessary to facilitate a move. Stafford would of course want it to be fully guaranteed in return, but typically offseason quarterback trades get done early so the player can report to his new club ASAP anyway. Let’s assume the roster bonus travels to the new club, the Lions would then incur a dead cap charge of $19 million in 2021 while realizing a cap savings of $14 million.

That $19 million number obviously seems rather hefty, but that’s just the nature of quarterback compensation. For reference, the Rams incurred a total dead cap charge of $20.15 million for running back Todd Gurley by cutting him prior to the 2020 season, so it could be a lot worse. Looking at other quarterbacks whose names have been floated in trades as well, a Carson Wentz move would lead to $33.8 million in dead cap for the Eagles, and the very unlikely Aaron Rodgers trade would leave the Packers with $31.5 million in dead cap (he also has a roster bonus situation like Stafford).”

3. Based on cap space and draft resources, which QB-needy team is most likely to take a serious run at Stafford?

Spielberger: “In my opinion, three AFC teams emerge as the favorites. I do think the Washington Football Team will be very interested, and it’s probably not a total coincidence that they just named former Lions GM Martin Mayhew (who drafted Stafford to the Lions) as their new GM. However, I would imagine that if all else were equal, the Lions may prefer getting Stafford out of the NFC. To be clear though, they shouldn’t take lesser compensation just to make that happen. The San Francisco 49ers also make sense.

“Nevertheless, the three AFC teams are the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos. The Patriots and Colts are both top-five in projected 2021 cap space, and both are obviously in desperate need of a quarterback. Cam Newton likely won’t be retained in New England, and Philip Rivers of course just announced his retirement. I understand folks love to pile on the Patriots when they’re down - and conveniently ignore they had eight players opt-out this season when only one other team had more than three (the Browns had five, though none were true impact players) - but they’re fully capable of getting back in the mix in 2021. However, I would agree the Colts are probably closer to contending.

“The Patriots first-round pick at No. 15 and the Colts’ at No. 21 are more likely in play than the Broncos’ is at No. 9, which may complicate matters for Denver if that pick is truly untouchable, but they also make a lot of sense. New GM George Paton was the Assistant GM with the Minnesota Vikings dating back to 2012, so he is very familiar with Matthew Stafford. I believe it should be somewhat apparent that Drew Lock is not the answer in Denver, and I think this roster could also be a “quarterback away.” They’ve added Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant, Jerry Jeudy, and other quality weapons in recent drafts, have solidified their offensive line, and still had a good defense in 2020 without Von Miller. Throw a top-third of the league quarterback into that situation and things get interesting quickly, though being in the same division as the Chiefs these days is something of a nightmare.”

4. Will this trade be impacted by the decreased salary cap? Will teams be less inclined to spend on a veteran QB with limited cap space?

Spielberger: “Stafford’s cap hit of $20 million for an acquiring team in 2021 is very manageable, and even in a scenario where he signs an extension as a part of the trade (which is probably somewhat likely), I would assume that cap hit remains essentially unchanged. The decreased salary cap could have teams arguing with Detroit that lesser draft pick compensation makes sense because of the increased financial burden, but with multiple suitors in the mix, that argument would probably fall on deaf ears.

“At the end of the day, the rules just don’t apply to franchise quarterbacks. Any team interested in Stafford would find a way to make it work if necessary.”

5. Take your best guess: What happens?

Spielberger: “Indianapolis Colts or Washington Football Team get a deal done. First and third round picks, or perhaps a player like Daron Payne from Washington along with a second.”