April 23, 2009 at 6:37 am

Bob Wojnowski

Stafford is too scary of a proposition

If Martin Mayhew goes ahead and drafts Matthew Stafford at No. 1, he'd better like Stafford a lot, a whole lot. I mean, he'd better love Stafford's big-ol' arm and savvy charm, because the Lions general manager would be risking a ton -- money, reputation, sleepless nights.

It's a gamble I wouldn't take, and I think the Lions are courting a big mistake. I'd take Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, probably the surest bet in the draft. The Lions desperately need defensive players, and quarterback is such an important position -- and Stafford such an enigmatic prospect -- the rebuilding project takes a huge hit if he fails.

In some ways, the Lions followed their incredible incompetence of 0-16 with incredible misfortune. They finally landed the coveted top pick, and cripes, there's no clear star waiting for them.

Don't just take my word for it. The Lions and every NFL team are admitting as much. The Lions are admitting it by reportedly negotiating with three prospects -- Stafford, Curry and Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith -- and perhaps shopping for the best deal. Other teams admit it with their indifference, with little apparent interest in trading for the top pick.

And no, I'm not basing my opinion solely on the Lions' tortured history, even though every quarterback in my lifetime who arrived in Detroit bright and eager eventually left broken and beaten. I suspect there's a Society of Former Lions Quarterbacks that meets in secret around the country, exchanging stories and sobbing softly in each other's arms. Joey Harrington leads the sessions. Scott Mitchell cracks the jokes. Jon Kitna is about to learn the secret handshake.

Love, or fear of haunting?

Listen, I wouldn't shriek and declare the Lions forever doomed if they signed Stafford. He clearly has the arm and intelligence to at least be a decent NFL quarterback, in the right situation. I would just wonder if Mayhew and new coach Jim Schwartz want him for the right reasons.

Do they really believe Stafford can be a franchise quarterback, possessing the super-strong arm that fits their vertical passing game with Calvin Johnson?

Or, are they enamored mainly because they need a quarterback and feel they have no choice but to take this stab? Do they feel they must justify the money by paying a marquee guy instead of a lowly linebacker or tackle? Are they afraid Stafford would haunt them if he went elsewhere?

Those aren't good enough reasons. And this isn't just about what the Lions need. They need everything, especially on defense and the offensive line.

This also is about what Stafford can provide. He could be a fine face for a franchise, but that doesn't mean squat if his accuracy -- 57.1 completion percentage at Georgia -- is a concern, and I suspect it is.

Call me clueless, but I actually think a thinner, healthier Daunte Culpepper could work. The Lions might even agree, and they'd suggest that makes it easier to draft Stafford because there'd be less pressure to throw him in quickly.

There's no doubt in my mind, if Stafford had to play right away in Detroit, he'd fail. Some want to make a comparison with Matt Ryan, but when the Atlanta Falcons drafted him third overall last year and he became an instant star, they had already upgraded other areas of their team.

Lower-class fears

Stafford intrigues me, sure. He also scares me.

He's from Bobby Layne's high school in Texas, which fits the Lions' story line almost too well. They've never replaced Layne, with one Pro Bowl quarterback (Greg Landry in 1972) in half a century.

Stafford was not a senior, and underclass quarterbacks don't fare well in the NFL. He was not a big-game performer, although Georgia had other flaws. He might not even be better than USC's Mark Sanchez, rated higher by some.

NFL history is profound on this issue. In the past 10 years, 15 quarterbacks were drafted in the top 10, and I'd argue only five -- Ryan, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb -- panned out. Of the other 10, most were colossal busts, from Alex Smith to David Carr to Harrington to Tim Couch to Akili Smith.

And once a quarterback prospect busts, he usually stays busted. I couldn't find a single top-10 pick the past decade who recovered from a horrible pro start to become a star anywhere.

Experts consider Stafford the most NFL-ready quarterback in the draft. That's not the point. Is he Lions-ready, prepared to lift the worst team in league history? That's the scary point.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com