The Detroit Lions should pay Matthew Stafford

Quarterback Matthew Stafford was the primary reason the Detroit Lions made the playoffs in 2016.

A single-season NFL-record eight fourth-quarter comeback drives, 4,000-plus passing yards and a playoff appearance during the 2016 campaign.

Surely, Matthew Stafford is a bonafide franchise quarterback.

But do Lions fans and the Lions themselves believe Stafford deserves to be paid as an “elite” one?

That’s the $25 million-a-year question for the Lions’ front office.

Stafford has one year left on a three-year, $53 million contract that includes $41.5 million in guaranteed money and an average annual salary of nearly $17.7 million.

If the Lions do decide to ink “Staff” to a deal that pays him $25 million annually, he would surpass Andrew Luck as the highest-paid player not only in the game today but also in NFL history.

Luck got a six-year deal worth $140 million, equating to an average of about $23.3 million per season.

When deciding whether or not to grant Stafford such a lucrative contract that will restrict the team’s ability to address other areas of need, Bob Quinn & Co. must take into account their options.

The alternative would be a Jon Kitna or Jeff Garcia-type quarterback. In other words: a veteran stopgap.

Or Detroit could sign an over-the-hill quarterback, like Daunte Culpepper, or a college QB that the Lions reach for in the draft, like Joey Harrington, who was drafted with the third overall pick in the 2002 draft.

Harrington, who was one of many draft busts during the Matt Millen era, lasted only four seasons in Lions Honolulu blue and silver, winning a total of 18 times in games he played in, while throwing for 60 touchdowns and 62 interceptions. Ho hum.

Based on mistakes made by other teams, the Lions should also realize that finding a franchise QB in free agency is unlikely.

For starters, look at the Houston Texans’ acquisition of Brock Osweiler last offseason and how that backfired (already). Osweiler played so poorly that he was demoted to backup duties late in the season and only regained his spot atop the QB depth chart because of an injury to his replacement.

You can also look at the Seattle Seahawks’ failed Matt Flynn investment. Flynn was signed in the 2012 offseason by Seahawks head coach and executive vice president of football operations Pete Carroll to be their starting QB.

The only problem is that the Seahawks had also drafted Russell Wilson in the third round during that same offseason, and Wilson proceeded to beat out Flynn for the starting job during training camp and the exhibition season.

Since winning the starting job, Wilson has led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl title and to one other Super Bowl appearance, while Flynn has started a total of five games and is now out of the league. Flynn failed to start even one game in Seattle, which ended up being a one-year stint for the journeyman who threw for 480 yards and six touchdown passes as a Green Bay Packer — both franchise records shared with Aaron Rodgers – during Week 17 of the 2011 season against, you guessed it, the Lions.

Now, maybe you think the Lions can grab a quarterback in the later rounds of this year’s NFL Draft, just as the Cowboys did in drafting AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Dak Prescott in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

There is some parallel ground between the two franchises, too.

The Cowboys already had a proven franchise passer in Tony Romo, and were planning on stashing Prescott away until Romo’s time in “Big D” had run out.

Although Prescott heavily impressed in preseason action, Romo was a lock for the starting job until suffering a significant back injury on the third play of the Cowboys’ third exhibition contest.

If the Lions draft a quarterback this April, they will likely do so on day three of the draft, which is when the fourth through seventh-round draft picks are made.

And as a rookie, the signal caller that the Lions pick will be expected to learn from Staff.

Then, if trusted enough by the Lions’ coaching staff after learning the playbook, that quarterback could be given the keys to the Lions’ offense if Stafford decides to depart Motown via free agency.

But for that plan to hatch, there has to be a quarterback worth taking in the later rounds, and that’s not always the case.

In this draft alone, it appears to be a crapshoot, even at the top of the draft where there’s a fair amount of uncertainty regarding the likes of Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky.

Heck, even Deshaun Watson, who led Clemson on an amazing game-winning drive in its national title game victory over Alabama and threw for 41 touchdowns in 2016, has his detractors.

And as the draft progresses into the fourth round and on, the options become less and less safe, and more and more risky.

The only thing you can bank on in those rounds is that you won’t have to pay the quarterback you draft a ludicrous amount of money to sign their rookie deal.

So, taking the approach that the Lions will find their QB of the future in this year’s draft, just like Dallas did last April, isn’t smart, either.

And internally, the Lions also can’t rely upon either Dan Orlovsky or Jake Rudock to rise to the occasion and take over the starting job.

It’s why Stafford, despite the fact that he has yet to win a playoff game in his eight seasons in the league, deserves to receive as much money as he desires in his next contract.

And if it means paying him $25 million a year, then the Lions must pony up and do it.