The Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes era of Detroit Lions football will begin with a fresh face at quarterback. However, a few years down the road, who that quarterback is could very well depend on the outcome of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Few to no people view Jared Goff as an upgrade over Matthew Stafford, despite the postseason success of the Los Angeles Rams. He had some positive moments with the Rams, moments that seemed to justify his position as the first overall pick in 2016, but his performance tapered off in recent years. The Los Angeles Rams deemed themselves a quarterback away from competing, and rather than commit to building around their 26-year old quarterback, they opted to give up multiple first-round draft picks to acquire the older Stafford. Even if Holmes is a Goff supporter, betting on him turning it around on a far worse team seems ill-advised.
With an early draft pick in a talented quarterback draft class, the Detroit Lions are going to be in a prime position for one to fall into their lap.
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Why a quarterback?
I hope that Jared Goff succeeds in Detroit.
However, I don’t see him being anything better than average in Detroit. In today’s NFL, having a mediocre quarterback can doom your franchise. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Football Team, Indianapolis Colts, and Chicago Bears all fell early in the 2020-2021 playoffs, and quarterbacking was a position of weakness for each of those teams—apologies to Taylor Heinicke, but I don’t view him as a long-term option in Washington.
The Rams themselves suffered from subpar quarterbacking in the playoffs, with Goff throwing for under 200 yards in both affairs. Goff’s success with the Rams was heavily tied to Todd Gurley, who had some otherworldly performances as the focal point of their offense. Add in Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods posting some solid seasons, Sean McVay as a brilliant offensive-minded coach, and a talented offensive line, and it was a recipe for success. While the Rams made the Super Bowl, Goff’s inadequacies were front and center on the big stage, and it seems like he hasn’t recovered from that peak.
Are D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams an upgrade over the Rams 2020 run game of Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson? Maybe. But for Goff to succeed, he will need some elite talent and an elite scheme around him—and even that might not be enough. Even if the Lions draft a wide receiver at seventh overall, I don’t view Goff as a good enough quarterback to truly compete against the best defenses or outgun the top offenses.
Many critics of Stafford viewed him as a quarterback that couldn’t elevate the players around him, a stance I fully disagree with. Not only did Stafford have incredible arm talent, but he also had lackluster play-calling around him and a poor supporting run game. Put him in the Rams offense, and he could impress. Jared Goff doesn’t have the arm strength of Stafford, and the “Stafford windows” we became accustomed to are likely things of the past. I will give credit that Goff is efficient in the short passing game, but those safe types of plays often yield minimal rewards.
So who can replace him?
For the sake of this article, I am going to assume that Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson are locked for first and second overall, respectively. The next top option on the board is Ohio State’s Justin Fields, and I actually prefer him over Zach Wilson. It might seem odd to say that there is another quarterback more pro-ready than Lawrence, but Fields could push for that title.
Perhaps Fields’ best trait is his incredible accuracy, and that wasn’t limited to short passes either. While his arm strength is not on Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen levels, it is well above average—far better than Goff’s. While Stafford managed some incredibly tight windows because of his arm strength, Fields can manage similar throws due to his laser-like accuracy. The biggest knock against Fields is that his processing is slower than ideal, but I am not overly concerned about his ability to improve in that regard.
Fields is an amazing athlete, boasting a 4.46 40-yard dash, but he wasn’t a runner like Lamar Jackson in college. If anything, he was hesitant to run at times. I actually view this as a positive—imagine being a coach having to encourage your quarterback to run more. Many athletic college quarterbacks have run-first mentalities when the play breaks down, and teaching them to run less at the pro level has proven insurmountable to many of them. Fields is not that.
Since I know it will get brought up: I do not care that Fields played football at Ohio State. I do not view the failures of previous Ohio State quarterbacks in the NFL as an indictment against Fields. Ohio State hasn’t coasted against bad teams either. Fields has plenty of experience against top teams, and he has performed extremely well in those matchups:
13 games vs top 25 teams.— John Whiticar (@Whiticar) March 30, 2021
3205 yds, 33 TDs, 9 INTs. 64% completion rate, passer rating of 111.22
Scout the player, not the helmet.
If Justin Fields is one of the most polished quarterbacks in the draft, then Trey Lance is the biggest boom pick in the draft.
Players with sky-high potential often rise in the draft, and Lance is no different. With essentially one season of college football under his belt, which happened to occur at the FCS level, Lance has very little tape showcasing his skills against top-tier programs. However, much like former North Dakota State Bison Carson Wentz, he dominated at that level, and it could propel him to being an early first-round pick.
From a skillset perspective, Lance has outstanding arm strength and running abilities. He is very similar to Bills quarterback Josh Allen coming out of Wyoming: an incredible athlete that could jump into the upper echelon of the league with proper development. Josh Allen had some struggles early on, but he clicked in 2020 and is one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the NFL. Lance could see a similar trajectory as a pro. Ideally, he won’t start for a season or two, instead, learning an NFL offense while improving mechanics. I view Lance as a better prospect than Allen was because he is a better runner, but that’s no insult to Allen. Lance’s ceiling could be prime Cam Newton, and I think any team would be excited to have that.
Unless Lawrence or Wilson fall in the draft, I view Fields and Lance as the best options at quarterback. The remaining options are not ones I would want the Lions to take. Alabama’s Mac Jones is usually brought up as a top quarterback, but I fail to see him as an upgrade over Jared Goff. Accuracy is a plus, but he suffers from the same issues as Goff—middling arm strength and mobility with minimal big-play abilities. Picking him seventh overall would feel like a waste of a valuable asset. Elsewhere in the draft, I don’t think spending a mid-round pick on a developmental prospect is worthwhile. This includes Kyle Trask, Davis Mills, Kellen Mond, or Jamie Newman.
Why the Lions shouldn’t wait to draft a quarterback
The common argument against drafting a quarterback in 2021 is that they can wait. Many people prefer the ideology of building a talented team first, then acquiring a quarterback. I view this as a mistake. As mentioned with the Bears, Colts, Football Team, and Steelers, those were talented teams that struggled because of weaknesses at quarterback. The Bears and Football Team whiffed on high draft picks. The Colts and Steelers had aging quarterbacks far past their prime. The problem with building a talented team first is that if your quarterback struggles, you run the risk of wasting the best years of your roster. The Chicago Bears had an elite defense for years, but poor quarterback play led to it being rendered essentially pointless. Take your quarterback first.
Additionally, who is to say that the Lions will be in such a position again? Very rarely do you see four quarterbacks go in the first round. In this year’s draft class, you could justify four quarterbacks going in the first four picks. Jared Goff is not an awful quarterback—he is better than the likes of Mitchell Trubisky—but that could be a negative for the Lions. The Lions could be stuck in purgatory: not good enough to compete with the best teams, but not bad enough to bottom out and secure an early draft pick. Great receivers, linebackers, offensive tackles, and pass rushers can be found throughout the first round of most drafts. Finding a bonafide quarterback prospect like Fields or Lance outside of the top 10 is rare. The alternative would be trading up, and while the Lions have the future assets, who knows how much such a move could cost?
The Lions are likely committed to Goff for the 2021 season, but anything after that is up for grabs. I think this benefits Fields and Lance, the latter in particular. They do not have to be rushed into action, and they could take the helm in 2022 when the receiving corps has received upgrades and the running game is (hopefully) starting to blossom. 2021 is going to be full of growing pains with a revamped coaching staff and roster. I have no issue investing in a quarterback for the future. If Goff plays well, you could parlay that into a decent return too.
Other arguments include “the 2022 quarterback class is good” and “drafting a quarterback now would waste their rookie contract.” For the former, it is hard to predict what a class will look like, I agree. This time last year, Zach Wilson was not as high on draft boards as he is now. However, this means that waiting for a quarterback is a gamble. You could get a gem like Wilson to emerge, but you would likely need to secure a top pick to select them. Use the 2019 NFL Draft as an example. The Cardinals chose a riser in Kyler Murray, but the Giants and Washington had to settle for Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins, respectively. Alternatively, look at the 2013 or 2014 drafts, where EJ Manuel and Blake Bortles became the top quarterback options. Yikes. There is no consensus top quarterback for 2022, with Sam Howell, Spencer Rattler, Tyler Shough, Desmond Ridder, JT Daniels, and Kedon Slovis all receiving early spots across mock drafts. That sheer volume of options might seem enticing, but it is a byproduct of a poor quarterback class with no outstanding talents.
As for the rookie contract issue, I view this as a non-issue. Obviously, capitalizing on a smaller salary is preferred. However, if you are in a position where you have to pay your young quarterback a handsome contract, guess what: that means you have a good quarterback! A good general manager can build a roster despite paying a franchise quarterback; here’s hoping Brad Holmes is one of those general managers.
If Justin Fields or Trey Lance are available at seventh overall, I think the Detroit Lions should pick them. If both are available, I give the edge to Fields, but both are solid options for the future of the quarterback position in Detroit. I don’t foresee Jared Goff as anything more than a stopgap for the next season or two.
Working against the Lions is obviously the draft itself. Fields and Lance could very well be gone by the time the Lions are on the clock. However, I would not be heartbroken. There are plenty of other talented pieces in the draft, and it would likely change course to building around Goff. It would not be ideal, but I would still be rooting for Goff. Nonetheless, Fields or Lance is a possibility too tempting to pass on. I think Fields or Lance would be exciting pieces for this new era.